Why LGBT hatred suddenly spiked in Indonesia

A few nights ago Sudarsa received a text message from his ex-boyfriend Hendro. “I can’t sleep because I’m missing you,” it read.

The pair had been together for seven years. But two years ago Hendro, struggling to be open about his sexuality, succumbed to family pressure and married a woman.

“80% of gay men in Indonesia have the same problem. They get married for status, because of family and social pressure,” explains Sudarsa, 30, a hairdresser who works in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and who asked to use his first name only.

“That’s why they marry a girl from the village,” he adds, “A girl who doesn’t understand about gay life.”

In the predominately Muslim nation of Indonesia, being gay is something seldom admitted outside tight-knit social circles, and in country where marriage and procreation is paramount there is only so long that some can keep family pressure at bay.

In the past, vitriol against LGBT occasionally flared up and died down soon enough, a one-off flash in the pan – an Islamic group up in arms about a transgender paegant, or queer film festival, a gay couple arrested and abused by police. And then all of a sudden in 2016, an unprecedented tide of vitriol and violence was unleashed against sexual and gender minorities across the country. Following a series of discriminatory comments from government ministers and officials, reinforced by medical professionals and Islamic clerics, moral panic and paranoia around LGBT set in.

The sustained backlash started early in the year. In response to a brochure stating that LGBT should be barred from the University of Indonesia campus, the minster, Muhammad Nasir, noted: “There are standards of values and morals to uphold. A university is a moral safeguard.”

Things spiralled. At a seminar on maternal health one local mayor suggested mothers should avoid feeding their children instant noodles, a staple in Indonesia, because their time should instead be spent on nutritious cooking and teaching their children how not to be gay.

The country’s top Muslim clerical body, the Council of Indonesian Ulema (MUI) issued a fatwa condemning homosexuality, while the broadcasting commission urged television stations to refrain from showing effeminate men.

Then government minister Yuddy Chrisnandi, stated: “Of course it is inappropriate for civil servants to be [homosexual],” he said, “Having more than one wife for a man is still normal…but LGBT is another issue.”

Comment after comment kept the national hysteria rolling, like kerosene on a fire.

The National Psychiatric Association announced LGBT a “mental disorder” while the child protection commission observed that LGBT “propaganda” could “brainwash” children into developing “deviant” sexualities.

The minister of defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu, likened the LGBT movement to a proxy war, one more dangerous than the threat of nuclear warfare. “It’s dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are; out of the blue everyone is brainwashed. Now the [LGBT] community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat. In a proxy war, another state might occupy the minds of the nation without anyone realising it. In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang [another town in Java] will not be affected; but in a proxy war, everything we know could disappear in an instant – it’s dangerous.”

“We thought at the time they were just trying to distract from corruption, but we were wrong. It kept rolling and getting bigger,” explains activist Yulita Rustinawati, from the LGBT advocacy organisation, Arus Pelangi.

“The impact was of course, higher incidents of violence,” she continues, “Houses were raided, LGBT people were evicted, and it happened with legitimation from ministers, mayors and government officials who were making the comments.”

Each inflammatory comment made the news, and was subsequently picked up by hardline religious groups, who started profiling, intimidating and attacking LGBT individuals in their communities, sometimes with the tacit approval of local officials.

“It was crazy,” says Rustinawati, “Even activists were profiled. In Yogyakarta one LGBT activist I know slept in a different house every night because they were afraid.”

University lecturer Achmad (who prefers not to use his real name) watched it unfold with horror, as his colleagues were asked to obscure queer content taught on campus, as a gay couple he knew was forced out of their home by police, as fear rippled through his social group – and as his conservative family pushed him harder to get married.

“I’m already thirty and not married and then with all the LGBT issues all over the media, they watched it and the pressure was worse,” he says, “They were very chill before, but after those issues last year, they kept pushing me.”

Achmad has never once in his life bought a girlfriend home, nor ever had one. The way it works in his family, he says, is basically “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Even if they strongly suspect he is gay, it is never acknowledged or discussed.

In the public sphere, that is largely how it functions too. Few public figures are “out” and when the vitriol was unleashed last year it was the voices of religious conservatives, of moral panic, that were heard the loudest.

The momentum of the backlash has since subsided, although incidents of violence, intimidation, evictions, and in some cases collusion between police and hardline Islamists to target LGBT people, has not stopped. At Arus Pelangi, about 10 reports of such cases come in each month.

Reflecting on the events a year on, Kyle Knight, a researcher on the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch, said the crisis that unfolded in Indonesia last year “looked a bit like a natural disaster”.

“If you are going to make that allegory, the disaster risk-reduction measures that you would use for villages and roads, anti-flooding or whatever, in this case would be legal provisions and inclusions,” he noted.

The absence of say, an LGBT non-discrimination law, for example, meant President Joko Widodo had little to point to in defence. He did eventually speak out, saying that no one should face discrimination, but it was not until more than six months later when the hate had already died down.

While anti-LGBT sentiment is not new in Indonesia – Islamic hardliners have long targeted the community, sometimes wih impunity – the backlash took on new colours and allegiances last year.

“The fear was deeper this time around in part because it was driven by high-level government officials, coming down from people in official positions of power,” says Knight. “This bedrock of a government that remains somewhat neutral on this issues was gone, was completely ripped out from underneath them.”

Regionally, the lack of legal support for sexual and gender minorities in Indonesia runs counter to current trends.

At the same time that Indonesia’s psychiatric association was labeling LGBT a mental disorder, other mental health bodies in Asia, including the Philippines, Thailand and China, have been removing homosexuality as a diagnosis, and taking the extra step of issuing LGBT non-discrimination statements.

In 2013, Vietnam lifted its ban on gay marriage and Taiwan is on the verge of legalising it.

“It’s is not as though Indonesia was backsliding against some distant, foreign western thing,” says Knight of the LGBT backlash. “But it was actually against trends in the region to be more open and more inclusive of this population.”

In Jakarta some, including 32-year-old doctor Dewi (not her real name) says she doesn’t expect Indonesia will change its attitude toward LGBT anytime soon. One of Dewi’s lesbian friends is engaged in a marriage of convenience with a gay man, while another friend is seriously considering the same path. Yet another lesbian friend is about to marry a man to live up to family expectations.

A medical doctor who recently opened her own clinic, Dewi said she didn’t have the confidence to come out to her family until she felt she had enough professional achievements under her belt. Before that, she says, they would likely see her as “gay and useless”, even though she was already a doctor.

“Some in the Indonesian LGBT population are fighting for their rights,” she says, “It’s not ideal, but some of us actually say, the more we fight, the more resistance there will be, there more attacks there will be.”

On the run from persecution: how Kenya became a haven for LGBT refugees.

Two days will forever be etched in Amare’s mind. The first was when he finally accepted that he was gay. And the second was the day he realised that being gay could get him killed. That day his father, a gay pastor in Uganda, was shot dead for his sexual preference.

“So I ran. I ran as far and a fast as I could,” he says.

Amare is one of the thousands of gay refugees who have found solace in a foreign land. “Even if it means I have had to start from nothing, it is better than living continuously in fear,’ he says.

Laws criminalising LGBT identity are still in place in countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, according to research by the UN’s refugee agency in 2015. Social exclusion and other forms of violence were reported everywhere.

The severity of those laws can vary, but Ugandans face a particularly harsh variant. In late 2013, parliament passed the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, which broadened the criminalisation of same sex relations in Uganda, stating that any man who permits a male person to have “carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature”, is committing an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.

While the offence of aggravated homosexuality, defined in the law as a same-sex sexual act with a person under the age of 18, carries a death penalty. The legislation also includes provisions about persons outside of Uganda who are charged with violating the act, asserting that they may be extradited to Uganda for punishment.

Implementation of the act has not been smooth. On 1 August 2014, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the Act invalid as it was not passed with the required quorum. “But, although the constitutional court ruled the act invalid on account of procedural grounds, many saw it as an opportunity to target us. They had the law to back them up. It mattered little what the courts said,” Amare says.

And even before the passing of the law, the signs of a frightful future for Uganda’s gay community were all too visible. On 26 January 2011 Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, David Kato, was found with serious head injuries and later died of his injuries, in what authorities in Uganda characterised as a robbery. His death came barely weeks after winning a court victory over a tabloid that called for homosexuals to be killed.

“The movement into Kenya started in 2005, a year during which intolerance grew. And the politics of the day plus the intrusion into East Africa by American evangelists did not help much,” Dennis Nzioka, a sexual and gender minorities activist who focuses on LGBT matters in Africa, and a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. “But the final push came with the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill.”

After the bill was passed things got worse, according to Amare. “Police and vigilante groups would raid our meetings and beat and arrest us. Some of my friends were left badly beaten. This is when I decided I could not stay on any longer.” The threat of violence was not abstract for him. It was real and personal.

And then at the end of 2014 Amare’s father was caught in a hotel with another man.“He was shot and died on the spot. News of his death was spread on media, church, and to family members. Attention shifted to me.”

Amare had started living with his father. He was an adult. “Everyone assumed I was like him. It was only a matter of time before they came for me,” he says.

So he left for Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “I had nothing on me. Just a change of clothes,” he says. He got to Nairobi alone. He says he slept in the streets for two weeks before seeking shelter in a church.

Kenya is one of the few East African nations that has provided homes, permanently or temporarily to LGBT refugees. “At the height of the movements in 2014, we recorded 400 LGBT refugees. The number has since dropped and now keeps fluctuating because a lot of them are being resettled in countries outside Africa,” Nzioka says.

Of those who have found shelter in Nairobi, Nzioka says 90% of them come from Uganda. The rest are spread between Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

“Kenya is less intolerant to members of the gay community compared to some of her neighbours. Although there isn’t a clear government policy with regard to the LGBT community, organisations working primarily in this space have been left to thrive,” Nzioka says. “There is no harassment of staff, nor the shaming of those who have come out as gay.”

True, there have been a few problems. “Uganda and Kenya have different education systems so I could not proceed with university. This means that a good job was hard to come by,” says Amare.

Nzioka says this lack of continuation with education and an almost impossibility of professional progression has relegated many LGBT refugees into a difficult life.

“To sustain themselves they engage in sex work for survival. Others look for boyfriends to fund their livelihoods and hopefully start small businesses for them,” he says.

LGBT persons are frequently subjected to abuse and exploitation by both detention authorities and other refugees, according to the UNHCR study: “Asylum-seekers and refugees with a diverse sexual orientation or gender identity face distinct vulnerabilities. In addition to severe discrimination and violence in their countries of origin – including sexual abuse, lack of police protection, exclusion from access to basic services, arbitrary detention, and social and familial ostracism and exclusion – LGBT asylum-seekers and refugees are frequently subject to continued harm while in forced displacement.”

Amare wasn’t any different. “I didn’t have anything. Life in Nairobi is expensive. To make ends meet, I sold myself. That was the darkest period of my life,” he says. “After almost a year prowling the streets I chose a different path after I started seeing my friends get sick… plus the risk of abuse increased.”

There has been some tightening up of the situation in recent months. From some points of view, LGBT refugees were receiving preferential treatment, so individuals who were not of the community took advantage. This led to more stringent vetting of the LGBT refugees. In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the LGBT refugee processing centres that some NGOs had set up were shut down, and all incoming refugees, regardless of their sexual orientation were sent up north to Kakuma refugee camp. This change was not as a result of Nairobi’s stance on the LGBT community but because of a broader government stance on refugees by the Kenyan government.

For now though, Amare is among a hundred LGBT refugees awaiting resettlement in third countries. But that is not a priority.

“First I finish my education,” he says. He is finally enrolled in a Kenyan university pursuing a degree in theology. He wants to be a gay pastor like his slain father.

“It is only god who knows the heart of man,” Amare says. Eventually he came out to his remaining parent. “She understood. A mother can never disown you.”

Names and details have been changed.

Shaken but not stirred: Ugandan LGBTI activist Richard Lusimbo

Richard Lusimbo is eloquent, smart and a very sharp dresser.  He counters the conventional laid-back activist , with trademark suits. Activism is his business.   In February this year, Richard was ‘outed’ and name as Uganda’s ‘top homosexual’ by a tabloid newspaper in his home country, Uganda.  The day before, President Yoweri Museveni had signed into law the controversial Anti -Homosexuality bill, which made the work Richard does and that of the organisation that he works for, Sexual Minorties of Uganda (SMUG),  illegal.  Life for the LGBTI community in Uganda has not been easy, as members of the community have to not only worry about the law, but face threats from the public at large.  In spite of  this, Uganda’s movement is undeterred in  its efforts to fight this discriminatory law and is currently challenging it in court.

One a recent trip to Kenya, the East Africa editor of Hivos.org, Kevin Mwachiro spoke to Richard Lusimbo who shared how life has been for him ever since the law was enacted and his subsequent ‘outing’ .

 

Kevin Mwachiro: How did that feel for you?

Richard Lusimbo: I felt weak; I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t because  I had been outed, but I felt weak because I didn’t know what the reaction from my family, friends  and landlord would be.  I didn’t know what to do. I remember Friday February 28 very well. I literally had to sit and decide whether I needed to go out and buy the newspaper. I ended staying indoors the whole day.

KM: How did you know that you were in the newspapers?

RL: I got a call from a friend that morning who told me that I was featured in the Red Pepper newspaper.  I asked her to send me the pictures via Whatsapp and there I was!  The images they were using from the Advocate magazine. They had stolen that story and images and twisted it to have the title, “How we became homos” . That headline was really damaging. I could not believe that had happened.  I automatically knew I was in trouble.  When I went onto Facebook that morning, there were abusive messages there as well. I had to log off as it became too much to deal with.  I started receiving ‘funny’ calls with people asking me how I could have given Red Pepper an interview.  I received very many hateful text messages.  People seemed to have taken a position based on that story. I decided not to explain myself, as it seemed pointless at that time. There would be no audience willing to believe me.  So many things went wrong that day, it was such a horrible day.  Friends came home  and spent the day with me. I took no chances and stayed indoors that day as I knew if I went out  of the house, the results would have been detrimental for me.

KM: Why are people in Uganda so violent towards the homosexual community?

RL: We have a society that believes that the police are slow to react and therefore resort to mob violence.  They believe they have a responsibility to deal with us. At times, my fear is not from the  government, but from the public. The media have misrepresented us and this has not made the situation better for us.  They expose us to risks and therefore the community at large acts on what they are told.  They believe they are implementing what is right for them.  We live in a community that is incited by the media. The media are not educating the mass, but goes on to promote their ignorance.

KM: What was the reaction of your family to you being outed?

RL: My dad has not spoken to me since the story was carried in the paper. My step-mom called me the day after and told me that I should go back to the church and repent. I knew her reaction was an indication of what my dad was also thinking.  My siblings have not spoken to me either.

KM: You must feel extremely lonely?

RL: I have friends, though family is always important. Though it would be nice to have the support of my brothers and sisters and to know that you can count on their love and support. I’ve a few cousins who’ve  supported and  still love me. Some of my friends have withdrawn  their friendship and don’t want to be associated with me.  It has been lonely and difficult time to me. I keep on hoping my family would have been there for me.

KM: With all that has happened to you, why are you still in Uganda?

RL: I have a responsibility and role to play in Uganda. There are so many LGBTI people in Uganda who can’t speak out like I can. But, they need our representation. I feel I have a social responsibility as a Ugandan and I believe I have a responsibility to contribute to my country’s development. I will not allow discrimination nor let a stupid and foolish legislation push me away. The best way to win the battle is not when you are away, but when you are at the forefront. For my activism to be effective and to have an impact, I need to be in Uganda.

KM: How can the movement in Uganda be supported?

RL: We need regional support and we have good regional connections here in East Africa, that has been good for us. Though, we need more African voices reaching out to our Uganda Government.  This will help fight the common misconception that homosexuality is un-African.  If we have more African voices saying the prosecution of  fellow Africans is wrong this will create a big impact.  Having said that, we still need and continue to work with our partners in the West. We’ve seen that working together has been effective and has raised awareness on the plight of the LGBTI people of Uganda and this has not left us in isolation. It has helped us create a global family of support.

Out of the Closet, Into Exile: An Unlikely Transgender Romance

Hounded by Iranian secret police and stuck in diplomatic limbo, Mariam and Ali find that time is running out.

For centuries, the winter solstice has been celebrated in Iran as a holiday called Shab-e Yalda. Families snuggle into homes, gathering to say good-bye to the warmer seasons, and welcoming the winter by staying up late to read ancient Persian poetry and eating pomegranates, dried fruits, and nuts.

Ali and Mariam were apart from their families that night five years ago. Ali had picked Mariam up from work and driven her to Park-e Shahr for a date. The green plaza, in front of the Tehran municipal building, was quiet, a perfect place for young lovers. The couple walked along a dirt path through tall, centuries-old evergreen trees, and around the park’s small lake, where tourists rent pedal boats.

Mariam’s parents thought she was with one of her girlfriends that night. If her religiously conservative father ever found out that she was alone with a man, he would have taken away her cell phone, forbidden contact between them, and monitored her every move. Conservative men and women don’t so much as shake hands with strangers of the opposite sex in Iran, where mosques, classrooms, and trains are generally segregated according to gender. The couple had never even held hands, because Mariam’s family had taught her that as an unmarried woman it would be sacrilegious to touch a man outside her family. So she and Ali kept close, but not too close.

To stave off the cold, Ali bought some hot black tea, spiced with cardamom, from a street vendor. The couple sat next to each other on a bench, sipping the tea through sugar cubes.

“Ali looked at me, and that’s when he said he wanted to be with me forever,” Mariam told me in August. “He said, ‘We’ll be like two trees standing tall next to each other, growing alongside each other but not blocking one another’s growth.’”

That night, Ali proposed to Mariam. She wanted to say yes immediately—she says it’s all she wanted to do—but first she needed to ask for her father’s permission. So instead of responding, Mariam quietly slipped her hands into Ali’s hands.

That was the first time they had dared to touch outside of the martial arts class where they’d met.

Three years earlier, Mariam would never have imagined she and Ali, her kickboxing teacher, would fall in love and become engaged.

After all, Ali was a woman then.


In Iran, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. However, it’s legal—and in some cases financially supported by the state—for transgender people to get sexual reassignment surgery. The idea first surfaced as far back as 1963, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared there was no religious restriction against sex changes. A 1979 revolution ushered Khomeini into power, and in 1983, following a meeting with a transgender activist, he issued a fatwa allowing sex changes for “diagnosed transsexuals.”

Saghi Ghahraman, who heads the Iranian Queer Organization in Toronto, said the Iranian government may provide small subsidies for sexual reassignment surgery, but once a person gets a sex change, he or she is often not protected by the law.

“The government is not actually trying to help the transsexuals by providing for them; they just try to do the thing that should be done by sharia law,” explained Ghahraman. “They want the person not to sin as a homosexual, so they put him in another gender’s skin.”

Even after sexual reassignment, transgender people in Iran are kicked out of school, arrested, harassed, and often not protected from discrimination. Many flee the country.

“In Iran, if you’re transgender, anyone can get away with doing anything to you,” Ali told me. “Sure, they give you the right to get a sex change—I now have a new birth certificate and a new passport. But I don’t have any legal rights. We are considered to be people who messed with God’s plan, so we’re considered worthless.”

They first met five years ago, when Mariam was 19 and Ali was a 29-year-old woman. (Names and certain other identifying details have been changed.) It was summertime, and Mariam had a few months to spare before university studies began. One morning Mariam put on her chador—the long black cloth favored by conservative women to cloak every part of the body but the face—and went to sign up for classes at the local women’s gym.

Mariam immediately stood out as the most conservatively dressed woman in the gym. Most of the women and girls were wearing loose-fitting headscarves and long coats that met the dress codes mandated by law in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mariam didn’t care if she stood out; she was just happy that her father had allowed her to enroll in kick-boxing classes, as her family disapporoved of women engaging in sports. She was introduced that first day to Ali, who would be her teacher. She was instantly—and secretly—enamored.

“The first time I saw Ali, I really loved his personality,” Mariam said. “I loved his eyes, and the intense look on his face. But I would think to myself, ‘This is a woman; I can’t like her. This is wrong. I can’t like her like that. I can only like her as a student.’”

Mariam found the situation so uncomfortable that she only took three kickboxing classes with Ali. Her feelings for him frightened her, and the beginning of her university studies provided a convenient excuse to quit.

She stayed away from Ali’s gym for two years yet thought about him almost every day. She convinced herself it was only because she loved his teaching method—the way he made her feel confident. Anything else, she thought, would be wrong.

After finishing her university studies, Mariam decided she had to see Ali again. She looked for him first at the gym where they’d met, but he wasn’t there.

“I went looking for him at a few other women’s gyms but I didn’t find him there either, so I started looking for him on the Internet,” said Mariam. No luck. At a loss, she tried their old gym again, asking staff members about Ali’s whereabouts.

“I asked, ‘I’m looking for Ms. —.’ And they laughed said, ‘Now its Mr. —.’ I didn’t understand what they were saying. I asked what they meant and they said, ‘He got a sex change.’”

Mariam was shocked but pleased.

“I used to think that maybe there was a love between us. But I would tell myself it’s not allowed—I could only like him as a teacher. So I was so happy when I found out he changed. I thought, ‘Now I’m allowed to like him.’”

Mariam says she was even more determined to find Ali, but nobody would tell her anything. Finally the idea struck her to send a particularly attractive female friend to speak to the manager at Ali’s former workplace. Although it was a women’s gym, she recalls, laughing at the memory, “The head of the gym was a man. She pretended to befriend him. She said she owed Ali some money and really wanted to pay him back.”

Her friend also pretended that she wanted to take private exercise classes with the manager. He took the bait, giving her Ali’s phone number in exchange for a promise that she’d return for private lessons.

Mariam called Ali but hung up the instant he answered. She says she did that about half a dozen times before getting the nerve to speak.

When she eventually did, she says, “Ali didn’t remember who I was.” When she reminded him, “He asked if I knew about his situation, about his sex change, and I said yes, but that I didn’t care. I told him I wanted to take private lessons with him.” Mariam and Ali made a plan to meet in front of a busy theater in Tehran.

Mariam said she’d be wearing a blue head scarf and a long brown coat. She was nervous that she wouldn’t recognize Ali—the last time she’d seen him, of course, he’d been a woman.

Nevertheless, she says she recognized him immediately—because of his eyes. They talked awhile, and Mariam volunteered that she wanted to take more kickboxing classes. He began explaining his rates and other details, Mariam remembers, “but I wasn’t really listening to him. I was just looking at his eyes and thinking, ‘Wow, they’re so beautiful.’ Our eyes are kind of the same color.”


Mariam’s father gave his permission for her to take private lessons at her home with Ali, on the condition that her older brother also take classes with them so they wouldn’t be alone together. She didn’t tell her brother or her father that Ali was a transgender man.

After a month of lessons, Mariam broke Ali’s leg. “He didn’t admit it at first,” she says. “He got up and said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing! I’m fine.’” A doctor told him differently the next day: He would be confined to a cast for two months. That was the beginning of their love affair. “Ali always jokes with me, saying, ‘I’ve had students three times your size, and they weren’t able to do what you did to me!’” Mariam said. Mariam began calling Ali to check up on him, partly out of guilt but mostly because now she had an excuse to call. After his leg healed, they resumed their classes and the phone conversations continued. They’d talk about their favorite literature or poetry. They began sharing love poems they’d written to each other. Soon it was winter, and the day came that Ali asked Mariam to go to Park-e Shahr with him, and he asked if she’d be his wife.

“She said yes,” Ali told me, smiling as he took a drag of a cigarette. “But before we went to get permission from her parents, I took her to the doctor where I got my sex change. I couldn’t tell her a lot of the things; I was too shy. So I took her to the doctor and said, ‘Please explain everything to Mariam.’ I didn’t want to start a relationship with her that would be broken later because she didn’t understand who I was.” Mariam understood and accepted, but they agreed not to tell her family.

After a workplace spat, though, a coworker of Ali’s retaliated by contacting Mariam’s father and revealing that his daughter’s fiancé was transgender.

Mariam’s father, a retired banker, had given the couple his blessing, but when he found out, Mariam was forbidden to leave her room, her phone and Internet access taken away.

“And that’s how it started,” says Ali. From that day two years ago, their lives have been turned upside down. Mariam’s brother was a Basiji—a member of a volunteer organization, reporting to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that, among other duties, suppresses dissent and polices morals in accordance with the edicts of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei. The Basij amounts to a thuggish vice squad with free rein over Iranian citizens, and it is known to humiliate and punish women wearing nail polish, men who wear “too much” gel in their hair (deemed a Western and sacrilegious do), as well as citizens whose business interest might threaten the elite’s.

Mariam’s father and brother started searching for Ali. “They wanted to kill me,” he says.

Mariam’s father and Ali’s mother, who disowned him after his sex change, both signed a legal document, similar to a warrant, stating that Ali was a criminal and had to be arrested and taken to jail if located.

Ali hid out at a friend’s house until he was able to buy a one-way ticket to Turkey. He immediately went to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to apply for refugee status. The plan was for Mariam to follow him a few months later. It was two months before their planned wedding day.


UNHCR resettled Ali in a town in central Turkey. There, he found an apartment and passed the time waiting for Mariam by fixing up old furniture given to him by his landlord, an elderly woman. (He points out a small wooden side table.) While Mariam was stuck in Iran, he spent a lot of time thinking about her, and the paths he had taken to arrive in a small town in Turkey.

Before Mariam, Ali had loved only one other woman. They met in tae kwon do class when he was 19, and fell in love. But his girlfriend’s mother found out and went to the police to report them as homosexual. They were sent to jail for a day.

His girlfriend’s family married her off, and Ali’s mother had him committed to a mental institution, where he says he was diagnosed as insane. Electroshock therapy was considered. “I could deal with the drugs they were forcing on me, but not that,” he says. Eventually he convinced hospital officials that he’d been “cured” of his homosexuality; thus, he was no longer “insane,” so he was released.

Years later, he read in the newspaper about Iran’s policy on sexual reassignment. He visited a therapist, who performed a psychological evaluation, genetic testing, and hormone tests, and authorized him for a sex change.

“It was a ray of hope,” Ali says. Before, “I wanted to kill myself. I even tried slitting my wrists. I couldn’t understand myself, because my feelings about who I was were one way, but my body was another way. I didn’t see myself as a woman. I never did, ever since I was a child.” Ali says he’s happy with his decision, though he never thought it would result in his needing to flee Iran. Even if Mariam’s father hadn’t found him, his life in Iran still would have been over, because he was now considered a criminal.

Under Iranian law, Mariam’s father had authority over her. When she tried to buy a plane ticket to Turkey, she was told her passport had been revoked. Her father took away her cell phone and computer so she couldn’t contact Ali. Mariam says she would secretly contact him online, at Internet cafés.

After a year of surreptitious correspondence, Ali found an Afghan smuggler to help Mariam cross the border into Turkey on foot. Mariam’s mother helped her escape.

“I left Iran with just my backpack,” said Mariam. She took some cans of tuna, bread, and water. The bag was stolen one night while she slept in a hideout. When she got to Turkey, all she had with her was Ali’s phone number and her birth certificate.

Following a long bus ride from the border to the capital, she announced herself at UNHCR’s Ankara office as an asylum seeker. A couple of days later, she was given a bus ticket and was reunited with Ali, 1,000 miles from home.

“I was so happy,” Mariam says, crying. “After all this hardship I got to see him. But wherever I go I have to face hardships. When I was with my father, I was hurting because I couldn’t be with Ali. But now that I’m here, I don’t even know what is happening in Iran anymore. I don’t know if my mom’s OK, if my dad’s OK. But I can’t contact anybody because I’m scared of them.”

Refugees are often alone in a country, with no language skills, no community, and no money. Life as a transgender refugee can be even more difficult. Turkey can be almost as conservative as Iran, and many of the same prejudices exist. A 2012 report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York said Turkey lacks any specific hate crime legislation to protect the LGBT community. The Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM) in San Francisco reports that LGBT refugees in Turkey often fear leaving their residences in their adopted countries due to targeted violence from locals and refugees.

Veysel Essiz is with Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a refugee advocacy group in Istanbul that coauthored the ORAM report. He said that although Turkey is one of the original signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the backbone of the international asylum system, the country maintains a geographical limitation for who can be a permanent refugee. “The practical meaning of this is that Turkey states, ‘Yes, I will be providing you protection, but you will only be a refugee if you are coming from Europe,’” Essiz said. Iranian refugees—as well as those from elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia—can never be citizens or permanent legal residents in Turkey. Their best shot is to go to UNHCR and seek resettlement in the U.S., Canada, or Australia, which can take years. Essiz said refugees have trouble finding the means to get by while waiting in diplomatic limbo. He said people have to fend for themselves because they don’t get much financial help from neither the Turkish government nor the UNHCR. Since neither the Turkish government nor the UNHCR provides substantial assistance to refugees, people are on their own. The only way a refugee can work legally in Turkey is to jump through several bureaucratic hoops, including providing an employer’s affirmation that no Turkish citizen couldn be found to do the job. So most refugees find low-paid under-the-table jobs here and there to make ends meet. “You have to rely on yourself to arrange your accommodations or find a job,” Essiz said. “Getting a work permit is possible in theory, but impossible in practice.”

Annika Sandlund, a senior protection officer at UNHCR in Ankara, said there simply isn’t enough money to help all the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey. “We have a financial assistance program, but it’s extremely limited, unfortunately, because UNHCR works on voluntary donations,” said Sandlund. “Turkey is seen by many countries as a relatively affluent country compared to many countries in Africa, so amongst many states there’s a slight reluctance to fund UNHCR operations here.”

Sandlund said LGBT Iranian refugees report being discriminated against in the public sphere—especially by other refugees and asylum seekers. She said the Turkish government temporarily assigns refugees to live in satellite cities, like the one where Mariam and Ali live now, until they get resettled in their new home country. According to Essiz, UNHCR feels it needs to disperse refugees from urban centers to prevent instability from developing in the host country. Unlike metropolises like Istanbul or Ankara, these are small, often religiously conservative towns where many don’t take kindly to LGBT individuals or communities. Refugees find discrimination in their everyday dealings with everyday people, said Sandlund, “even when they try to buy bread.”

Mariam says she was harassed by the local police the first day she arrived in her new town to be reunited with Ali. She said the police took her to a separate room and began asking inappropriate questions about her relationship with Ali.

One of the police officers kept asking me, ‘So you’re married?’ He asked me that three times. And he asked, ‘Are you satisfied?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m satisfied with my marriage.’ He said, ‘No, are you satisfied with that.’ He asked if I could get pregnant.” He also asked to see a picture of Ali when he was a woman.

Ali says the local police are bad, but easy to deal with compared with other Iranian refugees. The town is a refugee hub; most Iranian refugees there are Baha’i or Christian, and don’t take kindly to their transgender Muslim neighbor. Ali says in the few times he has managed to find under-the-table jobs, before long he is outed to his employers as a transgender person. He says other refugees do it so they can get the transgender person’s job; it’s already happened to him twice.

So Ali found a job that allows him to work from home: rolling cigarettes. He and Mariam lead me to their kitchen to show me a large pile of loose tobacco laid out on a white cloth on the kitchen floor. A small plastic cigarette roller and rolling papers lie next to the tobacco heap. Ali says they get 4 liras, about $2, for every 200 cigarettes they roll. A Turkish person, he says, would get 5 or 6 liras for the same work.

“Two hundred cigarettes takes at least an hour and a half for us to roll,” Ali says. “But thank God, so far we’ve been able to survive. Because I can’t get other jobs; they wouldn’t even give me a job cleaning bathrooms.”

Two months after our meeting, Ali and Mariam email me to tell me their luck has run out. Ali lost his job rolling cigarettes when an Iranian refugee outed him to his boss so his friend could take the job. Ali writes that he feels bad that he can’t provide more for Mariam in Turkey. “I made simple curtains with my wife,” he says. They found some rugs in town, and washed them. “I want our home to look beautiful,” he says, but Mariam was used to a much more comfortable life in Iran. Ali says that now he doesn’t have enough money to buy the testosterone he needs for his hormone therapy.

Ali was accepted as a refugee in Canada a few months ago, and can get a one-way ticket there, where the national health care system pays for hormone treatments for many transgender residents, whenever he wants. But because they weren’t married, and Mariam can’t wed in Turkey without a passport, Mariam wasn’t accepted under Ali’s case. Her case still hasn’t been approved by UNHCR, and Ali says he’s not going anywhere without her.

If they hadn’t been chased out of Iran, they would have wed there, and “we would have stayed there,” Mariam says, crying. “If I was married in Iran my dad couldn’t have made it illegal for me to leave the country. Then Ali could have easily helped me leave. Our whole problem was that we hadn’t gotten married yet. And we only had two months to go before our wedding.”

Mariam has an appointment in January to plead her case with UNHCR. From there, it could take anywhere from a few months to a few years for her to be approved as a refugee in Canada.

Two months ago, Ali received a phone call from Mariam’s older brother. He had somehow got ahold of Ali’s number, and called to tell him they would be coming for her.

“Since then, I’ve been feeling terrible,” Mariam says. “I don’t want to leave the house. I’m scared. I can’t sleep. I just cry. Ali told me to go to a therapist; she told me she can send me to doctor to get antidepressants. Ali says it’s a problem with my spirit, not a chemical problem. But it makes me sick.”

Ali says they try not to leave their apartment unless necessary, but they’re worried they won’t have it for much longer. They haven’t paid rent for two months.

“But we’ve had God with us,” says Ali. “I have a small apartment for now, I have a good landlord.” A few friends recommended they convert to Christianity, telling him it would be easier to get resettled to the U.S. or Canada if they weren’t Muslim. Ali isn’t really religious, but Mariam considers herself a devout Muslim.

“Other refugees say if we become Christians then we could get help through church groups,” said Ali. “They say the groups won’t help you if you’re Muslim. But I told them even though I’m not religious, I won’t do it. My only belief is in God. But I won’t convert. I was born with this religion and I’ll die with it.” Mariam covers her hair with a veil and wears long sleeves and long pants when she leaves the house, even though she can dress however she likes in Turkey.

Almost as if on cue, the call to prayer interrupts our conversation.

In Turkey, as in Iran, loudspeakers echo the muezzin’s call throughout the streets five times a day. Ali stops talking and listens.

Then he whispers a prayer under his breath.

Young, Gay, and on the Run in East Africa

LGBT people in Uganda, Kenya, and other countries are often disowned by their families and face violence and discrimination. Here is the story of two brothers seeking asylum.

“We have a bad, bad story,” begins Gloria Ibara, a refugee from Burundi and the mother of four. Sitting on a mattress in a simple Nairobi apartment, she tells me of her problem: “They want to kill our family.”

Her story begins in Burundi, a small country in Central Africa. Gloria, whose bright smile accents her worn face, was born in rural Gitega province to a family of farmers.

As her children grew, Gloria came to realize her son Eric was gay. (The names of the family members have been changed out of concern for their safety.)

At first “I told him to stop, that it’s not good,” Gloria says. But over time she decided that “that’s the way he was, and he couldn’t change it.” So she went on loving and caring for him just the same.

In many parts of East and Central Africa where homophobia is rife, parents react harshly on learning that a child is gay. Parents feel enormous pressure to either “fix” their gay kids or disown them. I’ve met dozens of LGBT refugees who have fled their home countries and escaped to Kenya, and only one—a woman, also from Burundi—wasn’t disowned by her family.

Some say their family sent them to counseling, sent them to church, tried introducing them to peers of the opposite sex—anything to make the gay go away. Others simply chased them out and told them never to return. In at least two cases, parents reported their children to the police, who arrested and imprisoned them. I met one who said a family member arranged for her to be gang-raped.

So when Gloria learned that Eric was gay, it was extraordinary for her not to reject him. Gloria had spent her career working for international agencies, including as a counselor for UNAIDS, where she learned about homosexuality. “I worked with different NGOs that treat HIV, so I used to treat even gays,” she says.

Stunned as she was when she later found out that her older son, Claude, then well into his teens, also was gay, she supported him too. “What Mom always tells people,” says Eric, “is ‘I love my children the way they are. They are my children. God gave them to me.’ ”

In 2010, a land dispute the Ibara family was fighting in court turned violent. Gunmen Gloria believed a cousin had hired killed some relatives who were siding with her in the case. Fearing for their lives, she decided she and her children—she had a daughter and a disabled son in addition to the older boys, all school-ageneeded to escape Burundi.

“We couldn’t go to a neighboring country because it was too close,” Gloria tells me. She worried that gunmen might find her there. From her human rights work, she knew that Kenya was the destination of many fleeing violence in the region, and her cousin would have a hard time tracking Gloria’s family across two international borders. In Kenya she could apply at one of the refugee camps for asylum and resettlement to someplace where her family might have a better life.

So she picked up her kids from school and hid out at a friend’s house. Within a week they left on a bus for Kenya. Gloria was able to buy a few things for the family, but they couldn’t return home to collect any of their belongings. On May 19, 2010, they arrived at Kakuma refugee camp.

There are 596,045 registered refugees living in Kenya as of February, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom 41,288 are applying for asylum. In 2014, only 73,000 refugees in the entire world were granted asylum and resettled (the asylum designation itself doesn’t get refugees out of a camp—a country still has to accept them).

The Ibara brothers’ homosexuality isn’t what forced the family to leave Burundi, which is among the world’s two or three poorest countries (depending on who’s measuring). But at Kakuma, a camp of 187,000 refugees, many of whom escaped civil wars in Sudan, it would soon begin to haunt them.

“When we came to Kenya, my mom told me, ‘We don’t know how the community is, so keep a low profile,’ ” Eric says. Back in Burundi, the brothers were too young for their sexuality to be suspect. But in Kenya, as they progressed through their teenage years, other refugees in the camp began to notice that neither Eric nor Claude interacted much with girls—only with boys.

Several years ago, some Burundian and Ugandan LGBT refugees banded together to establish a compound of their own at Kakuma, according to an LGBT activist there who goes by Brian (he would not be named out of fear it would jeopardize his work). He has documented the deaths, including by suspected poisoning, of six LGBT refugees at Kakuma during the past two years.

LGBT asylum seekers suffer the dual hazard of fleeing persecution and violence and, by virtue of their identity, finding further troubles in the nations they run to. A July 2015 report found that the U.N. in Kenya “struggled to respond to 
the unexpected influx” of LGBT people escaping violence, “one that coincided with a government crackdown on refugees.”

“The U.N. is stretched,” says Gitahi Githuku, who has consulted on human rights for the American Jewish World Service in Kenya, which has funded programs aimed at assisting LGBT refugees there. “If you have two orphans from southern Sudan whose parents died in that fighting, they are minors there in the camp. And you have this gay man from Uganda, and you have one slot for resettlement. Who would you take? It’s a dilemma.”

After nearly five years lingering in the camp, Eric, 20 by then, couldn’t hide any longer. “At some point I said, ‘This is not who I am. I need to be free to live my life. At least I can have a boyfriend.’ ”

One day Eric brought his boyfriend to the shelter where the Ibara family was living. “My mom wasn’t around. We started kissing,” Eric says. Soon they took off their clothes. “We were about to have sex,” says Eric, when, to his horror, his mom returned—accompanied by none other than the pastor of the church she attended.

“The pastor wanted to beat us. ‘You are cursed! You will not get into heaven’s gate! You deserve to die,’ ” Eric recalls him screaming. “My mom couldn’t say anything. She started crying.” The couple threw on what clothes they could and escaped to another part of the camp.

But word spread, and the backlash fell swiftly on Gloria. “They stopped Mom from going to church. People said the family was cursed,” Eric says. “She couldn’t fetch water. People would spit on her.” Twice, Gloria says, the small restaurant she had opened at the camp was burned to the ground. The sister in the family, Aria, was harassed in school. “They would say, ‘What kind of family are you?’ ” Eric recalls Aria telling him. “So she had to leave school.”

To disassociate his family from his sexuality, Eric decided to journey a few hours by bus to live in Lodwar, the town closest to Kakuma. After Eric left, the ostracism of the Ibaras escalated into violence: “My small brother,” he says, “he was raped.

The boy was 12 years old and mentally impaired, with symptoms resembling Down syndrome. “He can tell you something, but he might get some of the words wrong,” Eric says. The boy communicates mostly by shaking or nodding his head in response to questions. From what the family could gather, Eric tells me as his mother and younger brother listen, a group of teenage boys who had previously taunted Eric and Claude stopped the younger boy as he was walking alone one day and assaulted him. The point, his brothers believe, was to teach the family a lesson—to “show him what his brothers are doing to other men,” says Eric.

At this point in the telling of the story, Gloria closes her eyes and covers her face with her hands. The young boy, who is sitting near her on the mattress, glances around absently.

“He was hurt,” Eric says. “He was really traumatized.” They feared nothing would come of it if they reported it to the police—at least, nothing good.

Many Kenyan police hold homophobic attitudes, and officers sometimes extort gays and lesbians by demanding bribes in exchange for not jailing them. Acts of homosexuality can earn those in Kenya 14 years in prison by law.

Brian has worked with the backing of an international NGO to sensitize police to the plight of gay refugees living at Kakuma. He says that once, when he went to meet with a group of officers, “they said the best thing you can do to help is to help them stop being gay.” But by informing the men of the hardships refugees faced in their home countries, Brian says, they began to understand. “It is not the role of the police to know whether you’re here for political reasons” such as persecution for homosexuality, Brian says he tells them. “You are not a judge, you are not a God—you are there to protect them.” But he says there’s high turnover among the police at Kakuma; educating officers to the plight of gay refugees is perpetual.

After four years living at Kakuma, with Brian’s help Gloria and her family left the camp and traveled by bus to Nairobi. She hoped the cosmopolitan city would offer anonymity and a safer haven while they applied for resettlement abroad. It didn’t.

One hot afternoon in October, I meet Claude outside a public school near the family’s home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Nairobi. A thin, muscular 22-year-old with dreadlocks, he leads me down winding dirt paths obstructed by potholes and puddles to the three-story concrete apartment building where he, his three siblings, and his mother share a single room.

The door to their apartment is a heavy, blue metal gate. We leave our shoes outside. Gloria is sitting barefoot on the large mattress on the floor. As Claude walks in, he takes his mother’s hand and kisses her on the cheek before squatting on the mattress next to her.

Gloria spends most of her days sitting right there. She speaks only a little Swahili (the primary language of Kenya) and no English, which makes it difficult to find work. There are other Burundians living in the neighborhood with whom she could communicate if she wanted to, but she’s afraid to approach them—one might recognize her from back home and alert her cousin to their whereabouts.

Although Eric and Claude dress no differently from young straight Kenyan men—jeans, sneakers, and loose T-shirts—just as in the camp, neighbors here took notice that they never seemed to flirt with women. Their homosexuality became an open secret, making them victims of pranks and abuse.

“Last month, a man came and put a diaper full of shit in our house,” Eric tells me in English. “They always say, ‘How come the mother can accept gay people in their family? They are not human. They are bringing trouble to humanity—that is the reason God causes bad things on the earth.’ ”

Eric says because not one but two of them are gay, that makes things exponentially worse. “It’s easy for them to discriminate because ‘the whole family is cursed.’ How can you have two brothers in the same family who are gay?”

His 18-year-old sister, Aria, tried for months to enroll herself and her younger brother in school but each school denied their applications. She wasn’t sure whether it was because they were refugees.

There is no free food or water for refugees in Nairobi, unlike at Kakuma. An NGO that partners with the U.N. offered the family a monthly stipend of about $240. But it was soon reduced by half—less than a dollar a day each for a family of five. In June the stipend ended altogether.

Eric has found only haphazard work, editing film for a media organization. Claude hasn’t had any luck getting a job. “What’s really stressful is that I’m the firstborn of the family, and I can’t do anything to help the situation,” says Claude. Kenya’s economy is such that jobs are hard to come by, and being a foreigner makes him stand out. “I look for jobs, but they just deny.”

“Sometimes we don’t eat for a day because we can’t afford it,” says Eric. He says he feels guilty, because it was he who exposed his homosexuality when the pastor caught him with his boyfriend at Kakuma.

“I’m the one who put my family in this position,” he says. With no other way to earn money, Eric turned to sex work. He describes it in the least euphemistic terms: “Fucking somebody who pays me. At some point you find yourself with no other choice.” He says his mom doesn’t know.

It’s been more than six years since the Ibara family came to Kenya. In that time, they’ve seen refugees who arrived after they did get resettled. For a while, the United Nations expedited the cases of gay refugees from neighboring Uganda, where Evangelical Americans had helped drum up a wave of homophobia that made international headlines when Ugandan lawmakers debated a bill that would penalize acts of homosexuality with death. Eric says it’s unfair that the LGBT Ugandans who came long after his family were able to move to safe countries, while they wait in fear. But he and Claude are, after all, just two among hundreds of LGBT refugees in East Africa who left their home countries only to be further victimized in Kenya—a refugee-harboring nation where to be gay is a crime.

Yet the brothers’ sexuality isn’t the basis for the Ibaras’ asylum claim. It was the family land dispute that chased them out of Burundi. But the brothers might have faced a similar fate in Burundi had they stayed. The year before they fled, Burundi passed a law that criminalized acts of homosexuality with up to two years in prison. State-sponsored harassment of LGBT Burundians has caused at least one Burundian woman to go to Kenya.

In March, the Ibara family receive a piece of good news: Their application for asylum has been accepted, and they are to be referred to the Swedish Embassy for a series of interviews and examinations to determine if they will be flown to safety in Sweden. Unless something goes awry, they will be among the small fraction of refugees in Kenya who get to be resettled. They’re trying to raise money to buy warm clothes for their new life—if and when they get the call.

The following month, I pay the Ibaras a visit to find out how they are coping while they wait. Eric is out trying to earn money. Claude managed to find work at a barbershop, but after three months his boss chased him away; he isn’t sure whether his sexuality had anything to do with it. “We don’t have many friends,” he tells me. “Most of the time we’re indoors.”

Aria, with her red-highlighted hair pleated in a single braid, tells me that she finally got her little brother enrolled in school. Aside from some bullying because of his mental condition, she says he’s doing well there. Still, “it has been so hard,” she says. They have had the water to their apartment shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill. Now they owe back payments. Their landlord is threatening to evict them because without the NGO’s monthly stipend, they have been unable to meet the rent. It would be the fourth time they’ve been forced out by landlords since arriving in Nairobi.

Aria plans to study to be a lawyer if they make it to Sweden. She hopes nothing more goes wrong while they wait for the phone call that will announce their departure, and she is inspired by the injustice the family faced during the fight over the land in Burundi. “I like rules,” she says. “They told us it’s a nice country, it’s a peaceful country.”

Recently, Claude tells me, some neighbors beat up Eric on his way home. “They had been waiting for him around that corner,” he says, gesturing down from the apartment to a dirt path outside the building. “They beat him, and he went to the hospital. It’s because he’s gay, of course.”

They hope the phone call from the Swedish Embassy comes soon enough that Claude and Eric, now well into their 20s, might at last live in a place that’s more tolerant, and where to be gay is not a crime.

One Year Later, Gerald Shares His Survival Story After He Nearly Lost His Life During The Pride 2016 Raid

Gerald Kaunda, was born on 26th January 1994 in Kampala- his father was an NRA soldier and his mother is a professional teacher. Gerald was raised in Fort Portal; due to financial constraints, the twenty three year old dropped out of Makerere University after only one semester.

On 5th August 2016, Uganda Police officers commanded by the DPC of Kabalagala police Station Mr. Mugerwa raided Club Venom, where the several people had convened to witness the Mr and Ms Pride 2016 beauty pageant. Activists were arrested, trans persons shamed and insulted and the entire community was left shaken by the incident. However, one individual, Gerald Kaunda came close to losing his life after jumping off the fourth floor of the building- the closeted young gay man feared what would happen if his family found out about his sexuality.

He has since been undergoing treatment after terribly injuring his spine and exclusively spoke  about dealing with the trauma from the incident and how it changes his life.

Gerald says, like any other person who has questioned his attraction to people of his sex, he started reading extensively about sexuality and finally got a few answers during his advanced level divinity class when they were taught about sexual deviations and quoted various verses from the Old Testament condemning same- sex acts. He says that at this point, these teachings made him realize that what he was going through dated way back to the olden times.

In 2015, Gerald was introduced to a bar that was a safe haven for LGBTs- he says he started to socialise here and made quite a number of friends. , “It was great meeting many LGBTI people in a single space like that, here I met different people. It was nice meeting people like myself and slowly, I became openly gay within the community. I also familiarized myself with organisations that work with the community and what they do,” Gerald recalls.

He also started connecting with several activists and people who were actively involved in the movement on social media. It was because of this that he was always updated about the events that were happening within the community- events he however rarely attended.

“I would see pictures on Facebook and sometimes newspapers of community members celebrating pride or attending other events but I was always cared to go because I was staying with my uncle who is an army officer and anything that would expose my sexuality was clearly going to cause me trouble,” he says.
A friend however convinced him to to attend the Mr and Miss Pride pageant. Excited about the much hyped event,m the two set off for what they anticipated would be a fun filled night.

Gerald was positive and told her that all would be fine. After a whole day of preparations for the event, at 8pm, Gerald and friends left for Kabalagala where the event was to be held. These arrived after the event had already begun and started enjoying the night like other guests, begun sharing drinks.

Little did he know that his life was about to become a roller coaster of emotions and happenings. A few minutes after 10pm, Gerald says he was shocked to see uniformed police men armed with guns interrupt the event.

At this point, he rushed to his friend and asked him what they were going to do to get out of this situation without being outed. They ran to the stairs but police had sealed it off; the entrance to the toilets had also been locked .

Gerald recalls thinking that his life was quickly coming to an end- he pictured his family finding out that he had been at a gay event and that did not seem like an option he could take.

He thought the police would arrest and parade all participants before the media and with frightening outcome imprinted in his mind, thoughts of suicide crept in. He confesses to having had a one track mind- finding a way to leave the scene. Seeing an escape opportunity at the open balcony, Gerald decided to jump and run.

“All that went through my mind was how my uncle would react if he even remotely connected me to being gay. He is a no nonsense person and I was not going to risk his wrath,” Gerald explains his thought train.

When Gerald fell off the building, he broke his spine and became unconscious. The tabloids broke the story and what he had feared came to pass- his uncle wanted to beat him and told his mother to make sure he never sees her son again.

“When my uncle gave my mother the newspaper that had published the story, she read it and asked me if this was true. I told her that he had just been invited to a party by a friend but didn’t know what it was all about,” Gerald reveals.

After the near fatal fall, he was taken to Mulago hospital. Dr Frank Mugisha and Pepe Onziema from Sexual Minorities Uganda intervened and transferred him to a facility where he received adequate medical care.

Gerald then underwent a spine operation since the fall had left him paralyzed; he was unable to move or stand and was confined to a wheel chair. His mother remained by his side, and although she had reservations, she chose to support and nurse her son.

“I remember when they told my mum what it would cost to have me operated, she cried saying that she is a poor single mother who couldn’t afford all this but Pepe and Frank comforted and stood with us during this really hard situation,” Gerald recalls.

Besides the spine injury, Gerald experienced other complications like forgetfulness, fatigue and use of a catheter for several months. “What I realized is that an injured spine an never heal, and sometimes the pain comes back. Up to this day, my lower body hasn’t fully regained its sensory functionality and one of my legs is still partially paralysed.

COMING OUT

Gerald says there has been an upside to all this- he gathered enough confidence to come put and is no longer ashamed of his sexuality.

“Th e incident gave me more confidence because I didn’t have anything to hide anymore, whatever I was hiding came out in the open and after-all, I can’t change my feelings,”Gerald boldly states.

Gerald advises young gay people struggling in the closet like him to love who they are. He also encourages them to come out and fight for their rights because no one will come out to fight for them.

“Take examples of old activists like Frank, Kasha or Pepe, they are also growing old, the freedom we are enjoying now, its them who fought for it, so we must continue what they started if the next generation is going to enjoy the fruits that we see today,”Gerald says with renewed resolve.

Opinions of a Man Living Confidently As An Effeminate Lad.

Confidence is one of the few qualities kids unconsciously pick up from the environment in which they live; those from harmonious homes are more loving towards others whereas those from unstable homes usually prey on others to feel better about themselves hence making them bullies of explosive proportions. I had the unfortunate stretch of encountering the latter more often which made primary school the hardest time of my entire academic life.

I was a brilliant pupil, very clean and had many friends especially of the opposite sex. I was a girl magnet; I played, ate, sat with girls. Had it been possible, we would have even used the same bathroom. All my interactions during school time involved my female counterparts mainly because they were mesmerised that a boy wanted to partake in all their activities. However, it was just a matter of time before the other little boys started to notice the differences between me and them and the little bullies spared no chance to get to me. They taunted me, called me ‘girl-boy’ and occasionally when I ignored them through all the name calling, they threw stones, food or drinks at me.

One Saturday morning when I asked my aunt for advice on how to deal with the kids who were bullying me at school. She  gave me some cool pointers and yet in a way I felt there was something lingering in her thoughts that just failed to roll off her tongue. It bothered me and I knew she wouldn’t tell me even when I asked so I waited for the evening when she was discussing with her confidant and sneaked up under the window-sill within earshot of their conversation.“It’s a man’s world,” I heard my aunt say, “But my little boy is so sensitive, effeminate, kind and loving that it’s going to be hard for him to be a man with that character.”

I was scared and for the first time in my life, I felt insecure. Like many, I wondered what would become of me in this ‘man’s world’.  How would I survive in this man-eat-man society with this feminine demeanour seeing as the qualities which I had once considered strength (kindness, loving, and sensitivity) had now gone down the drain as the very factors that would lead to my doom. To most of the people around me, I wasn’t cut out to be a man at all. I was considered a peculiar boy in a small class of deviant individuals all because I didn’t fit into the social constructs of what a boy should be. In fact, my mother had lamented on several occasions wishing that I should have been born a girl instead. It’s important to realise that manhood in the African setting is defined by violent strength, obscured emotions, sexual dominance and bulky body frames. Anyone who falls short in any of the above often gets their manhood questioned meaning if you are showing characteristics regarded as typical of a woman; you are not considered a man at all.

Most cultures consider effeminacy as a vice or weakness indicative of other negative character traits and often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies. I remember sometimes getting beatings from my cousins because I was acting ‘girly’ and sometimes getting rejected by the boys in the neighbourhood when playing football; no one wanted to team up with a boy-girl lest they create a weak link (I must add that I was a damn good goal keeper but that didn’t help).

During my adolescence, I developed a good relationship with soap and water unlike my peers and realised that I was underestimated because I was ‘ soft’. The ‘softness’ of an effeminate man is considered a potential gender failure that haunts all normative masculinity. This in some cases makes fathers distant to their feminine sons since they assume their existence as an ever-present threat to their own masculinity as well as that of every man in their clan.

Coming from a staunch catholic family didn’t help matters as the bible described effeminacy as lifestyle choices in defiance of a person’s God-given gender. The Old Testament translations use ‘effeminate’ as a description for “male prostitutes” (Deuteronomy 23:17, 1 Kings 22:46) and the New Testament translates it means “soft and delicate” all in derogatory contexts that do no justice to the individuals that we are.

I tried to change-to man-up; but was constantly losing myself and not feeling good enough. I grew very shy, quiet and was often alone because of all the ridicule that was thrown my way. I however realised that the more I caved in, the more animus people were towards me. That was when I decided to just be confidently feminine; to embrace my softness, cleanliness, kindness and sensitivity. These were my strengths and I decided not to let others use them against me.

It wasn’t a snap turn around, it was a process; I learned to love myself, not compromise my values, nurture my work ethic, concentrate on developing my talents and cherry-pick friends that appreciated me for all my strengths. I stopped trying to be someone else, concentrated to being the best version of myself and in turn my self-confidence was boosted. Theodore Roosevelt said that each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing. The fear sometimes comes from stepping out of our shadows to claim the life that we are supposed to live. We can only be victors in life if we overcome the negativity posed on us. Confidence can be learned, practiced, and mastered. And when you master it, your life will change – BE CONFIDENT.