PARIS -- Waiting for the demonstration to start, I was relieved to speak English to two typically handsome gay Ugandans. An ease I no longer take for granted since I blindly followed my Parisian girlfriend across the Atlantic a few months ago. No, we're not "PACSed," a term here that refers to a civil union conferring some of the same rights as marriage. A bill for real gay marriage is poised to pass in France's Parliament in January, but institutionalized matrimony has never been my thing. In fact, I've always considered being barred from the military and marriage the cherry on top. But, admittedly, the West has come a long way for LGBT rights, even a destination of refuge for some.
The boys were cold, jumping up and down to stay warm, jamming their fingers into their stiff jean pockets. Oh yeah, thinking of my sprees in Uganda, I'm reminded that their equatorial homeland with green valleys and vast lakes never gets as chilly as the northern latitudes in November. I asked if they live here. Yes, one for two years, the other for seven months -- both seeking asylum out of fear of arrest, torture or death in their homeland, the pearl of Africa. But do you speak French? It's not so easy with all those other languages from home in my head, one responds. And why the Venetian masks -- for a feel of festivity or to hide your identity? So as not to be recognized at home in front of the cameras, my new friend tells me. To be seen as an out gay could cause harm to their families or jeopardize their own safety upon return.
The Anti-Homophobia Bill, aka "Kill the Gays Bill" introduced by religious extremists has come up once again before the country's Parliament, possibly to be voted on this week. Homosexual acts are currently illegal in Uganda but the tricked-out bill, first introduced in 2009, includes the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality." This could mean hanging or shooting for a gay parent, gay authority figure or someone gay living with HIV. "I call that genocide," bellowed Usaama, a lead activist, into his bullhorn. Also under the Bill, committing gay marriage or simply participating in a gay relationship could bring a life sentence in lockdown. Heads of organizations or media supportive of LGBTs could have their registration revoked and face up to seven years incarceration.
In addition to violating the human rights of LGBTs and their allies, as recognized by Uganda's own Human Rights Commission, it would be bad public health policy to implement the Bill. Criminalizing most-at-risk populations such as men who have sex with men, hinders HIV prevention by denying people education, methods and tools to practice safer sex, while obstructing access to HIV testing and treatment. This might potentially amplify the epidemic in the general population and further undermine the gains the country has made in controlling HIV over the last 25 years.
When a French activist with notable sideburns takes the bullhorn, my new friend says he doesn't understand what he's saying. Then the young naturally buff but timid Usaama takes the mic. Thanking us in English for the solidarity, he reminds us that this is the 50th year since the Kingdom of Buganda won independence from the British Empire. But not independence for LGBTs, he says: "The Bill threatens to violate individuals' rights to autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy." Then a masked woman, Judith, speaks. She tells us that she and her fellow nationals are here because to be there -- in the so-called heart of Africa -- would mean to be killed. Usaama, in a quintessentially soft-spoken Ugandan delivery tells us to now "die." About 20 of us splayed out on our backs, simulating death -- the Eiffel Tower a poetic backdrop. We're borrowing an ACT-UP tactic -- the die-in -- but the in-your-face urgency is muted. Where's the outrage? Where's the fear? Where's the media for that matter?
I've been visiting Uganda for more than a decade as a reporter and an AIDS advocate. I've visited gay bars and restaurants, gay homes and even a "gay farm" in rural up-country, which ended up being a ruse to soak well-meaning donors like Amnesty International and Northern European governments for financial support. My lesbian gynecologist friend shared her suspicions with me as we rode out into the fairy farmland on a flatbed truck with about ten guys and more than a few cases of Nile Special. Here are the counseling huts, the lead gay said, and here are the basketball courts. Wait, who plays basketball? I asked. The guys do, he replied. My friend was right: They're not gay, I quietly realized. Gay men do not play basketball -- it's simply a universal truth -- at least not whole groups of them on one gay homestead out in the bush. Plus, I was wondering why the women were all high femme, in traditional puffy-shouldered dresses and wouldn't make eye contact with me while they were busy cleaning up after lunch. On second thought, they were hired help, not the lesbians they were purported to be.
I discovered the gay farm scam circa 2003, before the American evangelical Christians exported their homophobia on the coattails of George Bush's AIDS funding to faith-based organizations. I understand that the desperation of poverty can trump trustworthiness and engender creativity. Kudos to their innovation even if the gay posers preyed on queer wallets. When asked what their cover was for the gay farm, what did they tell their neighbors? They said they were a church group, ironically.
In the meantime, the U.S. State Department pressures Uganda's leaders while Britain, Sweden, and the European Union threaten to withhold aid if the Bill passes. However, some fear that this donor-driven strategy might engender a backlash against LGBTs in Uganda, adding further to the community's scapegoating and source of distraction during this time of political turmoil when millions of aid money has embroiled the Parliament in scandal. Nonetheless, President Museveni backed away from the Bill before. We must pressure him to do it again.
After we all un-die ourselves, the French activists make a plea for us to keep in touch; they say the Ugandans living in France need our political, emotional and material support, and come the spring, maybe even a wedding gown or two.