12/07/2011 09:38 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Activist Val Kalende on the Fight for LGBT Rights in Uganda

In October of 2009, MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan Parliament. The bill which proposed the death penalty for homosexuality -- immediately became infamous around the world.

At that time, Val Kalende was a veteran activist in the struggle for LGBT rights in Uganda.
Kalende had come out in 2003 when, as a student at Makerere University in Kampala, she co-founded the country's first lesbian activist organization, Freedom and Roam Uganda. Two years later, in 2005, Kalende helped reestablish Sexual Minorities Uganda, which has since become a network of LGBT groups in Uganda.

In the weeks after the bill's introduction, Kalende agreed to be interviewed about her sexuality in a cover story for a national newsmagazine called The Daily Monitor. In a country in which homosexuality is widely viewed with suspicion, misunderstanding and outright enmity, the interview was an act of enormous courage.

Today, Kalende is a second-year master of theological studies student at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA. In the interview that follows, Kalende and I discuss how her understanding of God has evolved as she has come to terms with both her sexuality and her calling as an activist. We also discuss the various roles that religion has played in the homosexuality debate in Uganda.

[Please note: this interview has been excerpted. A full version is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]

MATT BIEBER: How did your church receive you after the story broke?

VAL KALENDE: I'd been out for some time, but this was a very small church. We're just about 50 people, sometimes even less, and the people don't read newspapers. They hardly watch television, so most of them didn't know about me.

So my pastor reads it and he calls me. I wasn't scared to meet him; I told him, "Yes, this is how I am and I don't feel like changing." I've always given my pastors a chance to pray for me when they offer it. So I told him, "You can pray. You never know. God might make a miracle, but this is how I feel." So it got bad for us. Every Sunday I went to the church, it was a different sermon.

MB: His sermons were about you?

VK: Yes. Even before the sermons, two people left the church. They told him, "We cannot worship with a homosexual." They had advised him to tell me to leave the church, and he said, "I can't do that." They saw him as conniving with me or being lenient with me.

And he called me again, and told me, "I can't afford to lose my people just because you've refused to change." He said, "I'm not going to tell you to leave the church, because as a pastor, that's not my job to send you away. But if you're not willing to change then I will talk to the elders." Something like that.

Then he said he didn't want my offerings, my tithes anymore, because he wasn't sure where I was getting the money. It got bad, really, to the point that every time he would preach on Sunday, he preached about homosexuality. And I felt like I didn't belong there anymore. It was an indirect way to send me away.

MB: Had you been there for long?

VK: No. I've been to different churches. Always Pentecostal.

MB: Let's go back a bit. When you realized that you were gay, did you try to square that reality with your church's teachings on homosexuality?

VK: It was a big struggle for me, because I didn't want to betray my own faith. And I've actually decided to remain Pentecostal, because I believe that the problem is not with my faith; the problem is with what people say about who I am.

So from that point of view, it was a process. I can't really say when I reconciled my faith with my sexual orientation. I doubted so many things. I doubted the Bible, I doubted God, I denied Him. I was suicidal at some points.

MB: Did you doubt yourself? Were there points when you thought, "Maybe I'm doing something wrong?"

VK: I thought about that so many times. Maybe something is wrong with me. I said, "Maybe if my parents were here, things would be different." Hearing all sorts of stuff from people who speak so badly about homosexuality, it gets into you to the point that you almost want to believe it. That's why people tend to commit suicide, because they tend to hate themselves for what they hear.

So I almost wanted to believe that there was something wrong with me. But then I think because of the community of activists we have, knowing that I'm not the only one, that there are people like me -- I was like, "All these people can't be wrong."

MB: You recognized something good in them.

VK: Exactly.

MB: Were any of them religious as well?

VK: Yeah. But, you know, most of them hate religion. They are very suspicious of the church. Sometimes, I would feel like telling them about my faith story, and most of them didn't want to listen, because they feel like the church is very hypocritical.

MB: Before you came to EDS, you spent some time on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of the U.S. Let's talk about that. Where did you go, and whom did you speak to? Were you were able to build allies to support pro-LGBT work in Uganda?

VK: The American Embassy in Kampala nominated me for the International Visitor Leadership program. I think the way they structured my program was to help us make alliances in the U.S., to tell Americans what really was on the ground, and to see how they can help us. So that was my mission. They tried to get me in touch with people who are already doing this work and people who had shown interest in doing something for us.

The meetings I had with [Congressmen] John Lewis and Barney Frank were actually about that, because Barney Frank had already passed a resolution regarding that. So they wanted to know what we were doing, and how they could continue supporting us.

I also met an interfaith group in Louisville, Kentucky. They had expressed interest in how their faith community in the U.S. can be supportive of LGBT rights - not just in Uganda, but in Africa more generally.

I also had a meeting with the Mayor's office in Salt Lake City. The story in Uganda is similar to stories in Utah -- it's religious homophobia, mostly. So they wanted me to compare the two places, to see how LGBT groups in Utah do their work and whether we can use a similar strategy in Uganda. It was about helping me gain advocacy skills, but also trying to help us form alliances.

MB: How have these insights proven useful back in Uganda?

VK: The first thing that I noticed was the influence and the power that women have in the United States. And in Uganda, even though women lead churches in several places in the country, they're very silent on these issues. They've never come out to say anything; they have their little churches and they seem to mind their business. I don't know why. And no one gave me a clear answer to that.

MB: And where does the work in Uganda stand today? Have you been able to recruit religious allies?

VK: Today, there are about 33 civil society groups in the coalition. Among them is St. Paul's Equality and Reconciliation Center in Kampala. It's an Anglican organization managed by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. St. Paul's is founded on religious values, but it's also a community organization that provides services to people -- not just LGBT people, but everyone -- including counseling, HIV and AIDS services, stuff like that.

All in all, though, we don't have many religious groups in the coalition. It's been very difficult for us to find religious allies in Uganda, even when they think they should stand with us. I think they know that they would be excommunicated from their churches if they did so.

MB: And the Anti-Homosexuality Bill -- it's still being considered, isn't that right?

VK: The bill is still alive. It's actually being brought up again.

At first, we thought it was going to pass right away. And it could have passed, had it not been for the international community making noise and saying, "This has to stop." So I think that's the best thing our coalition has done so far -- we've managed to alert the whole world to what's going on in Uganda. And in a way that has put pressure on our government, on Members of Parliament not to pass the bill, because they know it would be a very big mistake for them to do so.

MB: In terms of prestige and foreign aid?

VK: Yeah, foreign aid and all that.

MB: Do you think the coalition's activism is having an impact on the way religious communities in Uganda think about homosexuality and homophobia?

VK: I believe that the impact is going to be a slow and gradual process. What the coalition has done is to show Ugandan clergy that they can no longer get away with hate. What might ultimately dismantle religious homophobia in Uganda is when LGBT Ugandans begin to claim their religious freedom and to see the church as a potential ally.

MB: How do you see things playing out over the next couple of years? Do you feel at all hopeful?

VK: I do. The bill has really changed so many things in Uganda. About 10 years ago, when we began organizing our movement, there was nothing like public dialogue, there was no debate about these issues, and the bill has generated that kind of debate. I read opinion editorials from people who are writing about this, and they are saying the Parliament should not pass this bill for a variety reasons. Three newspapers -- including The Daily Monitor, where my interview appeared -- are slowly trying to change the discourse on homosexuality through fair, balanced, and unprejudiced reporting.

So in a way, I think that we've managed to change public opinion about LGBT issues. I see more leaders coming up; it's no longer just a few of us. Even within the LGBT community, there's this sense that we cannot fight this while struggling in the closet, so people are coming out every other day.

MB: Martin Luther King writes about how when a people's appetite for justice begins to emerge, it can't be put back in the bottle.

VK: Exactly. And I think the bill has done that. There are several allies who have come out now - individuals and organizations. Though there is still a fear that the government will revoke their registration certificates or something. Because homosexuality's illegal, and some NGOs have been threatened that the state will close them if they show any support for LGBT rights.

MB: You've been threatened yourself -- so much so that you went into hiding at one point.

VK: Yeah, I was threatened by my neighbors. One day I was coming from a friend Kasha's place -- she's also an activist. I came home late, around 11 pm. And in Uganda when it gets so late, you can't find taxis anywhere. You have to use motorcycles.

And when I went to find a motorcycle, they refused to take me. They said, "We can't take you." I said, "Why? I'm going to pay you." Then they said something in Ugandan vernacular about wanting to teach me how to be a woman.

I got so scared -- I freaked out. I knew that those guys -- they're usually rowdy people, but I didn't expect them to say that, and that really scared me. I don't know if it was related to the story or if it was something they had heard about somehow.

So I decided to walk away, and in trying to walk away, one guy rides after me. And I said, "I'm not going to run. I'm just going to walk on." The place was a bit dark, but as I continued walking to our house where there was light, he stopped and then went back.

From then on, I actually had to change the path that I used to go to find a taxi, because I wasn't sure what these guys would do.

So I called my friends. I told them, "This happened last night." They told me to go to police and report the case. I said, "I'm not going to police. I don't trust police." They said, "You need to get out of that place immediately." So I was evacuated and taken somewhere else. And even there, I couldn't give them my name. So I gave them a different name, and I thought, "If they ever recognize my face, then that would be a different story. But I am not giving them my name." I lived there for less than a year; it was safe enough for me.

By Val Kalende

In a country where separation of church and state is almost non-existent, certain human rights are sacrificed at the altar of religion and power. The oppression of LGBT persons in Uganda is nothing but a hybrid of conservative beliefs that the church wants to protect and the selfish interests of politicians whose power rides on incriminating minorities. In a country where the President presides over Church functions and still donates money and cars to clergy so as to remain in power, it is unlikely that congregations will fail to protect his interests. This is why, when the President distances his government from the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, he is shifting blame to clergy - because he understands that he has already bought them into pushing his political interests.

The president does not care what happens to LGBT citizens. I don't even think he is interested in criminalizing them. The only thing he cares about is power. As long as his power is threatened - either by way of donors cutting aid, or Hillary Clinton calling him and chiding him into halting passage of the bill - he will promise it won't become law. But he will also make someone else take the blame and intentionally keep the bill in limbo.

At the end of the day, no one is going to blame him for anything. And without discrediting our campaign and the support of our international partners, I have reason to believe that it's not entirely our campaign that killed the bill in the 8th Parliament. The politics around this bill killed it and led us praise ourselves as if we are the reason the bill failed. But with Members of Parliament rebelling against the President over the oil debate, I am not sure how much President Museveni can continue to arm-twist Parliament to serve his political interests.

It may be a long time before clergy come to understand that they are under the spell of state politics and that theirs should be an approach of love and acceptance. Not oppression.