Despite the cancellation of Pride Uganda for its second consecutive year, LGBT advocates in the country remain committed to building community. They held a secret Pride celebration on Sunday at the end of what they described as a very long week.
On the day of the opening gala that was scheduled to take place on Aug. 16, advocates arrived to find the venue surrounded by police and made the difficult decision to suspend the events, despite hundreds of guests who were slated to arrive that evening.
“We are not cancelling Pride because of your homophobia and disrespect for our rights, this is a decision that has been taken to protect ourselves,” said the Pride Uganda organizers’ statement released to the Kuchu Times. “Otherwise how else will we fight your oppression if you kill us or imprison us for no crime?”
Advocates described the feeling of hope and empowerment the successful secret celebration brought to the community that had been exhausted by continued intimidation and threats from the police.
“[The party] was full of joy and defiance,” said All Out Executive Director Matt Beard.
Beard was on the ground in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, with All Out, one of Pride Uganda’s international partners.
Petter Wallenberg, the founder of Rainbow Riots, a Swedish Ugandan organization that works to empower LGBT people in some of the world’s most dangerous countries through music and creative projects, organized the event, staged performances and invited the Pride committee and guests to celebrate. It became this year’s only Pride event in Uganda.
“When we were held hostage by the police last year, Rainbow Riots became more than just a music project,” said Wallenberg. “It became an activist movement using creativity as a method to advocate for human rights for LGBT people.”
“If we hadn’t managed to somehow get a triumphant ending to an otherwise very sad week, it would have left me feeling a bit traumatized,” added Wallenberg, who spoke shortly after returning to his home in Sweden. “We couldn’t let this week finish without reaching some kind of crescendo, some kind of triumphant conclusion.”
“To pull this off, security had to be so tight,” said Beard. “Nobody was told the address. All guests were picked up by a driver and taken to the venue. At the door, phones had to be given up to avoid anyone posting the location on social media.”
“It is much easier to organize security for 30 or 40 people than for five hundred,” said Isaac Mugisha, chair of the Pride Uganda Organizing Committee. “There are a lot more viable security strategies for smaller groups.”
This is the second consecutive year Pride Uganda has been cancelled due to threats from the government. Last year, dozens of individuals were arrested in a violent police raid.
“Pride is a very significant time for all of us where we come together and celebrate who we are,” said Qwin Mbabazi Fiona, who works with Arc En Ciel Centre for Community Action. “The committee looked forward to having an even better Pride to jubilate people’s hopes as this is the one event that every community person always looks forward to.”
“It was painful to hear the cancellation,” said Rev. Jide Macaulay, founder and CEO of House Of Rainbow, an organization that works closely with people of faith in the LGBT community in Uganda and other countries in both Africa and Europe. “I came to Uganda, not for the glamour or popularity of this event but to sincerely be here in what I have described as ‘ministry of presence’ just be on the ground with peers, fellow activists.”
Macaulay was invited both in 2016 and 2017 to be Pride Uganda’s grand marshal but received notice of the event’s cancellation shortly after landing in Uganda this year.
“We had planned and expected it all to go well,” said Mugisha. “We had approached the authorities and expected at least the opening gala to go well. There are a lot of diplomats and allies in attendance, and it has never before not gone on. All the developments came at the last minute and we were not expecting it to happen.”
Calling it a “wicked stab in the back” in a statement, Sexual Minorities Uganda and other advocates had worked tirelessly to ensure the success of Pride Uganda 2017 for months, with precautions planned thoroughly in cooperation with the government.
“As a person of faith, we believe this is a spiritual warfare to destroy the LGBT people and make them feel insignificant,” said Macauley. “There is no doubt of the injury to self-esteem and the psychological damages this causes.”
Advocates agreed to the terms that Ugandan Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo laid out in which events could not be perceived to constitute “promotion, recruitment, and exhibition” of LGBT people.
“The minister’s sudden change of heart was a crass example of arbitrary, unaccountable power,” said Beard. “The community here was devastated when the events had to be cancelled.”
“Hon [sic] Simon Lokodo, has over the last couple of weeks threatened us with arrest, and even went as far as revealing his intentions to physically harm one of the leaders of the movement if he came in contact with her,” said the organizers’ statement.
“[Lokodo] has abused our very existence by stripping us of even the very basic of our rights, he refuses to acknowledge our humanity or right of association, speech, movement as well as freedom from degrading treatment,” it added.
Advocates in Uganda and around the world have raised their outrage at this reversal.
“I’m devastated that this precious moment of community interaction has been unjustly denied to us once again,” said Mugisha in a statement released by All Out. “But I am also strong and defiant in the face of this oppression.”
“The atmosphere on the ground right now is of fear, anger and despair,” added Macauley. “Many people are anxious that they are under surveillance and concerned of the welfare of partners, friends and relatives. Movements and public assembly have been constrained due to fear of arrest.”
Fiona said the “Ugandan LGBTQ community is determined to have its space and celebrate” Pride Uganda “now more than ever.”
“We, just like any other Ugandan citizens, are entitled to freedom of association and assembly,” said Fiona.
“We are not giving up,” added Mugisha. “We are showing that we are visible and we know what we need.There is no way people will accept that there are LGBT people in Uganda if we don’t stand out.”