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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT