Oral History — March 21, 2019, 11:21 am

Nowhere Left to Go

“I can’t take chances with my life.”

­From conversations with a twenty-eight-year-old Kenyan refugee named Lucas. Since 2017 he has been living in Kampala, Uganda, where he fled after escaping from Kenyan police, who had kidnapped him for being gay. After Uganda passed what became known as the “kill the gays” bill, which was signed into law in 2014, hundreds of LGBT Ugandans began fleeing across the border to Kenya, where they lived in hiding while applying for asylum—but a few Kenyans, like Lucas, fled in the other direction.

Homosexuality is illegal in both countries. When the British colonized East Africa, they introduced penal codes criminalizing acts that were “against the order of nature,” which included homosexuality. Those codes remained on the books in countries like Kenya and Uganda even after they received independence. On May 24, Kenya’s High Court is expected to rule on whether those penal codes violate the nation’s new, progressive constitution.

Like Kenya, Uganda is conservative when it comes to gay rights. “In these countries, religion is really impacting on a lot of things. We have the Islam and the Christianity, which outlaw these acts,” says Lucas. “Uganda, I knew that there’s a law there, too. But I didn’t know the extent to which it’s really deeply rooted, to the citizens there.”  

Born in Nyanza province in Western Kenya, close to the Ugandan border, Lucas corresponded from Kampala, where he was moving between different apartments and friends’ houses, about his life as an undocumented refugee and his attempts to apply for resettlement abroad.

I  was born in 1991. I never knew my father. My mother, she passed away in 1996. My auntie, the younger sister of my mother, she decided to take me to stay with her. I would put on dresses, even heels that belonged to my elder cousin. I used to dress like a boy but walk and do everything else like a girl. My auntie, she never really liked the way I was. In church, people demonize it. Everyone says it’s immoral, its demonic, it’s an abomination. My auntie used to tell me to behave like a man.

When I went to high school, it was a boys’ boarding school. I still had these feminine tendencies—they didn’t go away. There was one time we were in biology class, a lesson about reproduction. The teacher used me as an example, trying to explain how some boys grow up with girlish tendencies or girls grow up with boyish tendencies. “We have this varying tendency of the chromosomes … That’s why we can have people like [Lucas]—who are men but behave like girls.” The class burst out laughing. I was embarrassed. I just sat in silence. 

I was in boarding school when I hooked up with a guy [for the first time]. It felt nice, considering this was the first time someone was really sort of appreciating me. We would try to sneak to the latrines during prep time, before we went to bed, after having dinner. Or in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep. You get scared that you’re going to be caught, but this is something that you’ve really wanted to do, that you’ve really wanted to experience. It only continued for one year because I was in Form 2 and the guy was in Form 4. When the guy left, I didn’t try to hook up with anyone else.

In May 2014—it was a Sunday—I had an argument with my auntie. “Behave like a man! Are you gay?” I was tired of the same question all the time, so I said yes, I was. And that’s when she threw me out. She told me to leave because I would have a negative impact on her children.

I stayed with a friend until the next year, until I got a job as a waiter in a restaurant. I didn’t really have the skills or anything, but this one manager gave me a chance.

In June 2017 I met a guy online. We were chatting and he invited me to his house. As we started having sex, two other men came into the room. They started harassing us, saying they had been receiving tips about men who had been recruiting people into homosexuality. They even threatened to shout and alert people to come and see what we were doing. The guy I had gone to have sex with was working with them. They had lured me there.

 They kicked me around. They went out, and when they came back they were with two policemen. The police said that they were going to put me in jail. They said it’s a vice and I must help them catch other people that were championing this vice. The police kept me in the house for two days, without food. But I managed to escape by breaking the lock.

I went back to where I was staying and I picked up my clothes. But the police kept calling me. They went through my phone and were calling my friends to get my whereabouts. I was afraid for my life, because they said they were going to beat me up very badly. When I got to Mombasa, they kept on calling—somebody had tipped them off. The fact that they knew that I was in Mombasa really got me scared. I knew that wherever I went in Kenya, they would find me. I was afraid I’d be arrested and taken to court for promoting homosexuality.

That’s when I left for Uganda. The hope was, since I have not been caught in this act in Uganda, there was still some hope for me there.

When I arrived at the Ugandan border, it was about three in the morning. They asked me what I was coming for. I said, “I’m coming to visit friends.” But I came without knowing anybody.

I had heard about HIAS [an NGO]—that they help refugees, people who have left their homes. At the gate, I explained that I was from Kenya, but I feared for my life there because I was being threatened for being gay. She said that HIAS doesn’t register refugees, so I should go to the police.

I was very nervous. I couldn’t be so open—to tell them why. First, the guy refused to give me a registration form. He told me, “You Kenyans, you don’t fill in the forms. It’s four of you now.” He said we were becoming a nuisance. “People take forms, they don’t fill them.” 

I was confused. I told him I was so desperate, if you want me to fill it in here in your office I’m okay with it. He refused completely. So I sat outside. I went and spoke to another officer, who allowed me to register. He even sent me to a certain shop—they took my passport-size photo. I came back. They asked me the date I came into the country, the border that I used.

He said okay, you told me you are from Kenya. We all know that Kenya is very peaceful. What are you running from? And so I explained everything to him, that I’m gay.

He took my phone and he went to his superior. I was called into the office of the boss. The guy was barking at me. “Even in your country it’s illegal—and now you want to come here to start sodomizing our boys? You think because you aren’t allowed to do it in your country that now you are free to do it in other people’s countries?” He returned my documents and told me to leave the country immediately or he would arrest me.

There was nothing I could do.

On Wednesday I went to UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. I told the security [guard] at the gate that I needed to speak to the LGBTI focal contact person. After a few minutes I was called in. He told me unfortunately they don’t have an LGBTI focal contact person, but that I should go to the Office of the Prime Minister and ask for the protection officer.

I went to OPM. Door number 0.6, I think. A lady there told me the protection officer was not present, but that I should go upstairs to room 1.7. I met a gentleman there and I explained everything to him. He wrote a note, stapled both sides, and asked me to take it to Old Kampala—the police station where I’d just been.

I didn’t know to whom the letter was addressed. [The police officers] took the letter to the superior—it was the [same] guy who harassed me the other time! I was called in. He said, “You’re gay and you’re still in this country? I told you to leave! If you don’t leave this office in the next five seconds I will take you to Luzira[1].” He gave me five seconds to run out of his office, which I did.

I  live alone in a single room. On a typical day, I will wake up, do a few things in the house. Mostly I stay indoors. I don’t want to go out and risk maybe being arrested because I don’t have documentation. I’ve tried to apply for a few restaurants in town. I was told that it wouldn’t be possible to apply if I didn’t have an ID card.

I found a phone number for Spectrum Initiatives, an organization that helps LGBT people. I called and explained my plight to a gentleman named Peter who works with Spectrum. He introduced me to other [local] LGBT organizations. [But I] don’t stay with the other people from Kenya, because it draws attention. They are trying to keep a low profile. I have not seen them for quite some time.

Some of us have been evicted from our houses after neighbors threatened to alert the police. It happened in my case, in April of last year. I was staying with a friend of mine, but the neighbors started asking questions. “Why are you living two in a house? Why are you dressing like a girl?” They even told the landlord that we were gays and we were living in the same house. The landlord asked us to leave. There was really nothing to say.

At times we go out in the clubs and try to engage in sex work, to get money. I’ve had fun moments at a club. Once I was drunk and they had to carry me home. As a gay person it’s really easy to hook up. When you’re back home in Kenya, you’re trying to look over your shoulder each and every time. But in Uganda it’s easy. There are places—they aren’t gay clubs, but gay people tend to dominate them. But Kampala, it’s not really a twenty-four-hour economy like Nairobi. Kampala goes to sleep.

Now we are six. Three from Kenya, and three Rwandese. We fled our countries and came into exile after our lives were threatened back home. The Kenyan lady, she was arrested because she was caught with another girl and they were having sex, somewhere in Mombasa. When she got out on bail, that’s when she fled.

Our fellow refugees from Rwanda were attacked by homophobic neighbors. One Rwandan is a trans woman. The family is really after her because they were saying she brought shame to them. “Why is he dressing like a woman, applying makeup and all that?” They brought people to beat her up—in fact, the whole family beat her up.

Most of this violence, it’s not state-sponsored violence. It’s our families that are propagating this violence.

My case is rare. Not so many people flee from Kenya to this side. You think about your life in Kenya. In African countries, it is something that is universal. Wherever you are, homophobia is real. In Kenya, in Uganda, it’s the same. There is no place that is safe. The treatment we get in Uganda is worse than what we’re fleeing from. It’s like moving from the frying pan into the fire.

Nothing really has moved. The UN keeps promising they’re going to assist. They’ve written several communications to the government, that we should be formally denied, or that they should formally accept our asylum claims. The government has refused to give us any type of documentation.

At the police we’ve been taunted, humiliated, threatened with arrest and even deportation. In the past few days, Ugandan members of Parliament have been agitating to reintroduce the anti-homosexuality law.

I don’t think I can go back to Kenya. There I had friends, I had a job I had to walk away from, I had a house. That is where I grew up, those are the people I knew. I miss them, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t take chances with my life.

I don’t want to stay in Uganda because the police officer, he took a photocopy of my ID. I don’t know what will happen if one day he comes to find out that I’m still here. I just want a country where it’s safe. Where you can’t be attacked due to your sexual orientation.

[1] Uganda’s maximum-security prison, which also houses death row inmates.

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

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In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

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