Letter from Kampala — From the September 2010 issue

Straight Man’s Burden

The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions

A young man who called himself Blessed had agreed to meet me in front of the Speke Hotel, the oldest in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but he was late, very late, and I had no way to contact him. Emailing me from a café, he’d said he didn’t have a phone; calling from a pay phone, he’d said he didn’t have a watch. The friends who’d put me in touch with him said he didn’t have an address. I’d seen a picture of him: he had a long neck, a narrow face, and a broad smile that made him look both kind and a little sly. I wanted to talk to him precisely because he was hard to find, because he was gay, and because he was on the run.

On October 14, 2009, a Ugandan member of parliament named David Bahati introduced legislation called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Among its provisions: up to three years in prison for failure to report a homosexual; seven years for “promotion”; life imprisonment for a single homosexual act; and, for “aggravated homosexuality” (which includes gay sex while HIV-positive, gay sex with a disabled person, or, if you’re a recidivist, gay sex with anyone — marking the criminal as a “serial offender”), death. As of this writing, the bill has yet to pass, despite near-unanimous support in Parliament. But the violence has been building, a crackling fury not yet quite a fire: beatings, disappearances, “corrective” rapes of lesbians, blacklists in a national tabloid, vigilante squads and church crusades, preachers calling out “homos” in their own pews.

It was Blessed’s pastor, a celebrity with an American following, who had outed him. “Am being hunted by my family at the moment,” he’d written in an email apologizing for his inability to commit to dinner plans. “Am moving place to place now.” Then, in case I didn’t understand: “They want to kill me.”

The Speke is nothing grand, just a succession of stucco arches, but smartly located midway between the business district and the president’s office, just down the hill from the gated gardens of the luxury Sheraton. At night, mzungus (white men — aid workers, oilmen, missionaries) come to shop for twenty-dollar prostitutes at the outdoor bar. By day, the Ugandan elite meet at the sidewalk tables. They ignore the whores, regal women who sip colas while they wait for evening, and likely have no idea that the hotel also serves as one of the city’s few havens for gays and lesbians.

Certainly Miria Matembe didn’t know. I’d been looking for her too. Then one night, there she was, pointed out to me by my friend Robert, a Ugandan journalist I’d hired to show me around. “That is Honorable right there,” he said. Uganda’s first minister of ethics and integrity, the Honorable Matembe, now out of government, was working as a private lawyer. A small woman in a brown power suit, with short hair styled upward, she charged through the café tables with two cell phones simultaneously in action.

“Honorable!” I called, and ran after her. She trapped one phone between her shoulder and her ear, stared at me, and held up a finger: Stop. She crooked it: Follow. She pointed: Speak. I whispered beneath her two conversations, telling her that I’d heard she’d been at a planning meeting for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, that I was writing about the Fellowship, and that I wanted to understand the connection.

“Wait!” Matembe said into her phones. Then, to me: “You are funny!” She chortled, held up five fingers, and walked away.

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October 2019