"Are you freakin nuts?!?"
"I hope you're kidding."
"Please try not to get killed."
These are just a few of the posts that brightly adorned my Facebook wall a few weeks ago, when I announced I was leaving that day to go volunteer in Uganda. Never mind that this was my second time going to Uganda in the past few years. Never mind that I was volunteering with an American nonprofit organization that safely sponsors four of these trips a year. Never mind that I promised to leave my HRC T-shirt at home. I was leaving for Uganda. I am gay. Therefore I could die!
The de facto impression of Uganda right now boils down to a proposed piece of legislation that, if approved, would carry harsh punishments (imprisonment or death, depending on whom you ask) for those engaging in homosexual acts or promoting a pro-gay agenda.
Simply stated, the proposed anti-gay law does not, and should not, define a people. During my past few weeks in Uganda, I engaged as many citizens as possible in conversation about this legislation, albeit in a most careful way. As someone who is just as susceptible to fear as the next bloke, it took me two years and a second visit to Uganda to build up the courage to ask the questions I wanted to ask, and I was extraordinarily careful with whom I asked. For the most part, I spoke with individuals connected to a school in rural Uganda at which I volunteered: teachers, nurses, bus drivers, reverends and principals. Their responses helped contextualize a people that our media paints in only the broadest of strokes. Here's just some of what I learned:
- Not everyone in Uganda wants to kill us: First, let's be clear: Although Ugandan cultural views on homosexuality are pretty far from anything we would consider liberal, all my respondents, with only one exception, thought that death was far too severe a punishment. Some thought a short imprisonment would set a strong example, while others thought a good preaching would lead gays back to a more "righteous" path. Underscoring all these conversations were sentiments rooted in biblical text. I was referred back to Adam and Even on four separate occasions, including one startling poke to my rib to illustrate whence Eve came. These punishments may all seem draconian, but establishing that people don't actually want you dead creates a much different tone in pursuing dialogue.
- Gay issues are just not a top priority in Uganda: If U.S. press (and LGBT media in particular) is to be believed, this proposed anti-gay legislation is the most important thing going on in Uganda. It is not. Not even close. Ninety percent of the homes have no electricity. Sixty-five percent of families live on $2 a day. The median age in Uganda is 15 (compared with 37 in the United States). And despite sporting a population a tenth the size of the United States, Uganda currently boasts roughly the same number individuals living with HIV/AIDS. And that barely touches the surface of the severe economic, political and familial issues in Uganda. One respondent theorized that this legislation was being pushed by Europeans who don't understand their country's real issues and were offering money for people to be gay. I joked that these Europeans owed me money and quite a bit of interest. She was not amused.
- The proposed law is affecting how Ugandans interact physically: Without question, the most heartbreaking tales were from individuals reflecting on how Ugandans are changing their physical interactions with each other. This is a culture were women will walk down the path holding hands, where men of the same clan freely embrace and walk with their arms interlocked. Trust, love and respect can all manifest physically. With this proposed law in existence, many respondents had noticed a hesitance, however slight, in these public displays, forever changing how Ugandans exist among each other.
- Enforcement is a cultural mystery: Every single respondent commented on this proposed legislation being more symbolic than enforceable. This is not a culture where people kiss on the street. This is not a culture where there is spitting on the sidewalk or swearing in public. Personal lives, particularly in the more rural areas (which account for the vast majority of Uganda), are lived behind closed doors, and neither the government nor their agents cross those physical thresholds. Everyone with whom I spoke expressed some sort of confusion as to how this law would even play out.
I plan to return to Uganda. I've toyed with the idea of moving there. Although I would not do so without a healthy dose of apprehension and anxiety, I'm enormously appreciative of the opportunity I have had to experience life beyond the headlines. I urge you to challenge your assumptions about a people who simply cannot be characterized by this proposed legislation any more than everyone in America can be characterized by [insert ridiculous U.S. legislation here].