Last year, we wrote a piece on The Huffington Post just as we were starting to tour film festivals with Call Me Kuchu, our documentary that tells the story of the last year in the life of Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato. Now, as we prepare for the film's theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, we've updated that post with more on our original inspiration for the film, and all that has happened since we finished shooting.
The decision to make Call Me Kuchu arose from two rather antithetical events. The first was a 2008 lawsuit brought in a Ugandan court by Victor Mukasa, a transgender LGBT activist whose home had been raided by police. Victor sued the Ugandan attorney general for police harassment and won his case. In a country where a sodomy conviction carries a hefty prison sentence, and where state-sanctioned homophobia is applied equally to gay, lesbian, and trans folks, Victor's legal victory was no small achievement. When we read about the case, two aspects of it struck us: first, that there was an organized LGBT community in Uganda ready to take action against persecution, and second, that Uganda's judicial system was independent enough to allow LGBT people, or "kuchus," to reclaim their constitutional rights and, in so doing, push for recognition as part of Ugandan society.
Then, in October 2009, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in Uganda's parliament. This draconian piece of legislation proposes a death sentence for HIV-positive gay men and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual. When American evangelicals were reported to have influenced the members of parliament behind the bill, an uproar ensued in the U.S. media. But how, we wanted to know, were LGBT activists on the ground working to fight this proposed law? And what must be at play in Uganda for such a bill to arise within months of Victor's legal victory? Within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves on a plane bound for Kampala.
David Kato was the first person we met with in Uganda. He reeled off the names and numbers of people with stories to tell and soon introduced us to the whole community. Initially, he was somewhat of a fixer for us. But over time, we became intrigued by his fierce intelligence, his outspokenness, his biting humor, and his deep-seated fear of sleeping alone at night. It soon became clear that David was the protagonist of Call Me Kuchu.
We also came to realize that the international media coverage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was only telling half the story: Most reports were dominated by a narrative of victimization that portrayed Kampala's kuchus as powerless. This was at odds with what we saw in Uganda. While the LGBT community was suffering under Uganda's harsh, state-sanctioned homophobia, many kuchus we encountered weren't simply victims but dedicated activists determined to improve their situation. One phrase that epitomized this attitude was a former rallying cry from Mozambique's war of independence that became a mantra for David and the community: "A Luta Continua," or "The Struggle Continues."
But one year into our filming and just three weeks after David achieved a landmark legal victory, the unthinkable happened: David was murdered.
The weeks following David's death remain among the most challenging of our lives. We witnessed in others and experienced in ourselves the raw and profound pain of losing a loved one, and of losing a community leader. David's brutal murder focused our motivations for working on the film: We had always sought to share the stories of Kampala's kuchus as widely as possible, but that sentiment was now far more urgent and personal.
It therefore seems quite fitting that this month Call Me Kuchu will be theatrically released in New York and Los Angeles. We will be joined in New York by Victor Mukasa, the Ugandan activist whose actions originally inspired the film, as well as Frank Mugisha and Robert Karemire, all close friends and colleagues of David.
The theatrical release offers an opportunity to honor both David and the work of Kampala's kuchus -- a group that continues to defy any presumptions of victimization. In the wake of David's death, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG, headed by Frank Mugisha) came together with international organizations to create the David Kato Vision & Voice Award, an annual international event that has since commemorated David's life and work by first honoring Jamaican human rights activist and lawyer Maurice Tomlinson, and, more recently, Turkish LGBT activist Ali Erol.
What's more, the legal actions that David routinely filed against the Ugandan government and anti-LGBT actors have not come to an end. Months after David died, members of the community filed a lawsuit against Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo after he raided an LGBT workshop. Sexual Minorities Uganda has also partnered with the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights to file a federal lawsuit in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Statute against American evangelical Scott Lively. The suit alleges that Lively was actively involved in the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and thus the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda.
And then there's Pride. Last year, Ugandan kuchus hosted the first-ever Uganda Pride, a momentous occasion, and we were honored that Call Me Kuchu was screened on opening night. Days later, a group of courageous folks marched in the first-ever Pride parade, though it was soon raided by police. Yet that hasn't discouraged the community from planning a second, bigger Pride for this August.
However, it is also necessary to emphasize that the fight is not over. As LGBT activists become stronger and more visible, so do their opponents. While the Anti-Homosexuality Bill failed to pass in 2011, in part because of David's work, it has since been reintroduced in Uganda's parliament and awaits debate. The situation for LGBT people in Uganda remains precarious, and with their lives under threat, at least three activists that feature in Call Me Kuchu have sought asylum in Europe or the U.S.
David and his fellow activists worked tirelessly to change their own fate through all viable means: the Ugandan courts, the general populace, the United Nations, and the international news media. One of the reasons people around the globe, including Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, are talking about LGBT rights in Uganda and elsewhere is because of their work. Call Me Kuchu, as a result, is as much a nuanced story of empowerment as one of persecution. We hope it will allow for a greater understanding of Kampala's kuchus, both as a community that has achieved a tremendous amount in the past four years, even in the face of devastating loss, and as individuals who have chosen to become agents of their own destiny.
As David would say, "A Luta Continua."
Watch the trailer:
Call Me Kuchu will be released by Cinedigm this week, opening at New York's Quad Cinema on Friday, June 14, and at Los Angeles' Laemmle Music Hall on Friday, June 21. For more information on the film, go to callmekuchu.com, or follow the film on Facebook and Twitter for updates on opening weekend events and Q-and-As.