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 11:05 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT