This is the fourth in a series of articles from Uganda by Xtra freelance reporter Kaj Hasselriis.


More than 100 gay and lesbian Ugandans packed a hotel conference room in Kampala on Valentine's Day to talk about anti-gay legislation that threatens all of them.

But the main message of the day, repeated over and over again, was a Christian one: Jesus loves you.

"Being gay or lesbian does not make you fall short of God's glory," the emcee of the conference, Abdallah Wambere, told the crowd. The main opposition to homosexuality in Christian-dominated Uganda comes from Christian conservatives, yet most gay and lesbian Ugandans are themselves Christian and fear that the homophobic preachings of anti-gay pastors are true.

"The Bible's message and the story of God's unconditional love can also be inspirational to the LGBT community," assured Sam Ganaafa, president of Spectrum Uganda, a local lesbian, gay, bi and trans organization. Spectrum Uganda co-sponsored the event along with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda.

Many of the speakers at the one-day event were pastors, including an Anglican bishop from Uganda and two Unitarian ministers from the United States. The biggest cheer of the afternoon came when Rev Marlin Lavanhar, a Unitarian preacher from Oklahoma, said, "You can be a good person and be a gay or lesbian person. Please know you will reach the promised land. God bless Uganda!"

Conferences like the one held yesterday — called "Standing on the side of love: Re-imagining Valentine's Day" — are rare in Uganda. Organizers feared that anti-gay outsiders might learn about the event and try to infiltrate or disrupt it, so the time and location were only announced at the last minute, by word of mouth.

Since gays in Uganda are often accused of trying to seduce minors, organizers also tried to keep out anyone under the age of 18. Most of the people in attendance were gay men in their 20s, though there were also about 20 young women. Everyone who came was offered a red T-shirt with a rainbow heart on the front, and rainbow flags were displayed prominently around the room. Attendance was free; the biggest financial sponsor was the Austria Foundation.

"Let's resist bad laws being propagated," Ganaafa told the crowd. He referred, of course, to a bill before Uganda's Parliament that calls for the execution of gays and lesbians, the imprisonment of heteros who fail to report homos and the abolition of organizations that support queer rights.

"If it passes," Ganaafa said, "our lives will never be the same again. I encourage you all to talk, raise issues and be courageous." A petition was passed around the room for people to sign.

But participants had other concerns on their minds, too. During a question and answer session, the crowd's queries included:
  • "Why weren't politicians and cabinet ministers invited to the conference?"
  • "Everyone in my neighbourhood knows I'm gay. Am I safe?"
  • "What are we doing to educate people in the villages?"
  • "Why aren't we gathering research and statistics about Uganda's gay population to counter the anti-gay side's homophobic claims?"
  • "Where can I get reliable condoms and lube?"
  • "How can we end the culture of dependence that causes us to depend on Western agencies for help in our struggle?"
  • "How can we get together as a community to help each other find jobs?"

After the six-hour event was over, participants were offered free lunch and beer. Most of the people in attendance seemed satisfied with the day.

"I learned about so many things," said a young woman named Kevin Simbwa, "like what the Bible says about my being lesbian. Before, I thought it was saying evil things about me. Now I don't think that anymore. Now I'm confident to go to church and face my pastor."

"There were many people I didn't know here," said another lesbian, Warry Ssenfuka, "many people I've never seen. It takes time to collect all these people together like this, and it encourages unity."

A young man who only wanted one of his names — Titus — used, expressed concern that there was too much talk and not enough plans for action. "Though there are plans to do many things, there are no strategies," he said.

"Before we help ourselves," he added, "we need to help others understand what the bill is all about."

Coming up tomorrow:

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(Editor's note: Those pictured consented to having their photo used for this report. Those named consented to having their name used for this report.)

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