Skip to main content

Living proudly in face of Uganda's anti-gay bill

By Pepe Julian Onziema, Special to CNN
updated 11:08 AM EST, Fri January 25, 2013
The author won a lawsuit against the Ugandan publication that published anti-gay edition in 2010.
The author won a lawsuit against the Ugandan publication that published anti-gay edition in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pepe Julian Onziema: New year fills LGBTI community in Uganda with resolve--and anxiety
  • He says threat of anti-homosexuality bill passage endangers LGBTI Ugandans
  • He says by his vocal presence, he aims to end discrimination
  • Onziema: LGBTI Ugandans have made advances; oppressors can't steer my destiny

Editor's note: Pepe Julian Onziema is the Program Director and Advocacy Officer of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a gay rights organization, and 2012 Recipient of the Clinton Global Citizen Award

(CNN) -- For Uganda's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, 2013 strengthens us with fresh resolve. But a new year also torments us with old anxieties.

Uganda is my home, but every day I must fight tooth and nail to remain. I inhabit a land and a paradox where my right to have a consensual relationship with an African woman is illegal -- "un-African"-- and where my daily work is a life and death matter.

Since 2009, my community has faced the potential passage of an anti-homosexuality bill that threatens Ugandans in same-sex relationships with life imprisonment (there are conflicting reports on whether the original death penalty provision remain). This year, many Anglican Church officials and other leaders have declared the legislation's speedy passage as their New Year's resolutions, with the bill scheduled for discussion when Uganda's parliament reconvenes in February. As a transgender man, I am not safe.

 Pepe Julian Onziema
Pepe Julian Onziema

But as a Ugandan, I am here and I remain optimistic. Existing out in the open is ordinary for most people, but visibility is magical for those of us who once roamed the land like ghosts. "There are no homosexuals in Uganda," our leaders said not too long ago. They cannot say that now. They say I am evil. They say my love is illegal. But in 2013, they can no longer say I am not here.

I am fighting to end discrimination as the Ugandan government cracks down on all human rights activity. To speak out about injustice is deemed rebellion against democracy, and to advocate for LGBTI rights is to be out of your mind. The AIDS and LGBTI empowerment workshops I facilitate get shut down by Minister of Ethics and Integrity Rev. Fr. Simon Lokodo even though HIV infections and inequality have not gone away.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The increased fervor to pass the anti-gay bill has re-opened the wounds of past tragedies and threatens to create new ones. The fear is still fresh on the second anniversary of the murder of David Kato, my colleague, whose gruesome death changed me and Uganda's LGBTI community forever.

Seated in the same office at the gay rights organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda, known as SMUG, David and I had committed to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We refused to stay invisible, to remain dehumanized as ghosts. As a result, we found ourselves on a Ugandan newspaper's list of 100 homosexuals. The story's banner: "Hang Them."

David was subsequently killed. But he was not silenced: I still hear his voice telling us not to hide, or else "they will keep saying we are not here."

I am here, still, in 2013, but I dread things as simple as shopping at a kiosk for groceries, because the owner has told me he doesn't sell to "such people." If I insist, he said, he will "teach me how to be normal." A full night's sleep is thwarted by the fear of a stranger who has followed me home or the neighbors who have formed a mob. My personal struggle is a small reflection of the entire LGBTI community's everyday apprehension.

With action on Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill looming, the lives of the nation's LGBTI are threatened. These are not nameless faces, but real people like my girlfriend, who trembles at the prospect of coming out. People like one trans woman who in September was brutally beaten in public by friends who discovered her identity, and another who was dragged to the police in full glare of the public. Even heterosexual Ugandans -- including family and friends who fail to disclose LGBTI loved ones to authorities -- would face criminal charges if this bill were to pass.

Uganda drops charges over 'gay' play
Proposed laws target gays in Uganda

But I can report some good news. Before David Kato's murder, he was alive to see us win a lawsuit against the newspaper that called for our hanging. Indeed, the Ugandan courts' impartiality in our cases helps me stay optimistic. And I hope to win a U.S. lawsuit against American evangelist Scott Lively for the anti-gay terror he exported to my country.

The past five years have also brought progress outside the courtroom. Just a decade ago, I couldn't have imagined discussing the rights of LGBTI people with motorbike taxi drivers and members of parliament alike. While I've lived through the homophobia-fueled murders and suicides of friends, I also photographed my country's first Pride march last August, where we proudly waved both the Ugandan and rainbow flags side by side. In drag and plain view, LGBTI Ugandans celebrated life in the face of legislation that calls for our death.

"As long as you refuse to be a victim, and you seek to empower yourself and others, whatever's going on will get better," President Bill Clinton has said. I believe him, and beyond that, I believe in myself. Those who wish me harm may control the laws, but they will never steer my destiny.

Despite the injustice that follows LGBTI Ugandans into a new year, our desire for freedom has taken deep root. The roots will one day prove deeper than their hatred, deeper than our closets. That's what keeps me optimistic. And that's why they cannot say I am not here. Uganda is my home and I intend to continue living here as I am.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepe Julian Onziema.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT