Reviews — From the October 2013 issue

The Blazing Facts

Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

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Call Me Kuchu begins with an image of two speckle-winged insects locked together on a denim-clad knee. kampala, uganda, appears at the bottom of the screen. “Do you think these are both male?” asks a playful voice. The camera pans up to a small, bald, sharp-boned man. “These must be kuchus,” he says. We see a back yard filled with people chatting and laughing. These must be kuchus. A tall, powerfully built man presides over a cake: it’s a party. “These are our hosts tonight,” he says: two men, a couple celebrating their ninth anniversary. “The reason we are here,” the emcee continues, “is to jubilate with them.”

Jubilate. What a lovely, rarely heard piece of language. Were you to stumble on this film with no knowledge of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, you might take jubilation for its real concern. The success of the film, the success of the man at its heart, David Kato, is in its portrayal of a luta, a term for “struggle” that queer Ugandans adopted from Mozambique’s liberation movement, as just that: liberating. A few minutes in, while a gentle guitar plays, we follow Kato up a red dirt road to his little house in a village. He tells us his coming-out story. It is 1992. He is in South Africa, where he discovers the existence of male prostitution. “Here men buy other men.” He decides to try. The man he chooses tells him, “It’s like you’re really gay.” The prostitute isn’t — it’s just a job — but he brings Kato to a gay bar. “Meet David,” he says, “my friend from Uganda.” Kato goes home with a man. For free! He marvels at the man’s giant bed. “You know with our poverty in Uganda, I’ve never seen such a bed. So I sleep like a kid, this side.” Kato folds his shoulders into a curl, miming and smiling. “He says, ‘No, don’t worry, come close to me.’ ” Kato almost shivers and the camera zooms in on his delight. “And I went crazy,” he says. “It was my first time.” He was twenty-eight years old. “I thought, it’s nice.”

Call Me Kuchu starts with a party and proceeds to sex, which, it reminds us, is silly and fun and exciting. Do we need reminding? Yes; consider the example of God Loves Uganda, in which the only queer sex depicted is via a slide show presented by a Ugandan preacher named Martin Ssempa, who for the sake of his flock has selflessly harvested the fields of gay porn, offering up to the congregation giant images of a leather-clad man rimming another man. Nothing wrong with rimming, but anybody of any persuasion might be taken aback at such a photograph projected on a big screen at what they thought would be a religious service. It’s Ssempa, not the men in the picture, who has been inappropriate, but he nimbly redirects his followers’ anger toward the men, American homosexuals who seek to draw African children into licking their white asses. Is it any wonder that the churchgoers see not sex but a projection of empire?

The “good guys” in God Loves Uganda are not kuchus but two heterosexual clergymen, a Zambian Anglican priest named Kapya Kaoma (the film seems to imply he’s Ugandan) and an Anglican bishop of the Church of Uganda named Christopher Senyonjo, who was excommunicated for refusing to condemn homosexuality. Both men really are heroes. Most of the world would likely not have heard of Uganda’s homophobic crusade if Kaoma, who now lives in Boston, hadn’t secretly videotaped some of the early meetings from which the Anti-Homosexuality Bill emerged. Senyonjo, who still wears his collar and a purple clerical shirt, has lent solace to untold numbers of Christian kuchus who want to believe they’re still part of Christ’s kingdom. I’m glad for the attention God Loves Uganda brings to their work. But by making progressive churchmen its heroes and venomously conservative churchmen its villains, God Loves Uganda satisfies a liberal American sensibility at the expense of the kuchus themselves. It’s not only queer people who fade from the picture. The many meanings of homophobia, its hydra-headed threat, disappear as well. What’s left is deliberately familiar. Push one button: indignation. Push another: admiration. And here are the facts you’ll need to confirm the feelings you already knew you had.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (W. W. Norton).

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