Since its creation in 2006 the position of Pride Toronto’s international grand marshal has shone a light on issues facing queers around the world in the midst of our local celebrations. This year that title is held by 33-year-old Victor Juliet Mukasa, who brings our attention to Africa where he is an activist with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), focusing on the East, Central and Horn regions of Africa.
“I did not get it at first,” writes Mukasa of the honour. “I didn’t know what that meant exactly. I had to get on the internet and do my research. Once I got an idea of what that meant, I was overwhelmed.
“Pride marches or parades are a foreign language in Africa — minus South Africa. They don’t exist and are a dream for a majority of those who have heard about them. I have really never been at a Pride. Once I passed through one in Johannesburg in 2006. I missed it by an inch because I was travelling that day. So on my way to the airport I had a glance at a Pride march.
“Now [to be] not only invited to the Toronto Pride celebrations but also as international grand marshal, that was overwhelming news. The organizers mentioned that it was in recognition of my work in the struggle. This made me walk down memory lane. I rarely stop to celebrate successes in our struggle. I am constantly thinking about the next strategy, or issue to work on. I have never stopped, nor had a proper break. I always thought I have not achieved much. But this invitation made me realize how far we have come.”
It’s the dire situation for queer people in Africa that keeps Mukasa always looking ahead to the next campaign.
“African states, with the exception of South Africa, outlaw or criminalize queer-identity and/or expression…. The pressures of a young person identifying as queer in Africa are immediately alienating and create a greater sense of fear and invisibility,” writes Mukasa via email from Cape Town, South Africa.
Mukasa writes that queer Africans fighting for acceptance are coming up against the strong Christian influence exerted in African society — and on government.
“Religion is another instrument of queer oppression in Africa and is used as a baton by both state and clergy,” he writes. “For example in Uganda at the moment the queer community lives in fear after intervention of the Family Life Network and its North American associates — religious right, antigay propagandists. Government welcomed them, had breakfast with them and supports their propaganda. The messages they preach are believed by many queer Ugandans and this has left many confused and in immense fear. In the West governments generally separate themselves from such matters.
An influential activist Mukasa, who is transgendered, is a founding member and leader of many organizations, including Sexual Minorities Uganda, where he currently plays an advisory role; Freedom and Roam Uganda, a queer women’s organization; the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network; African Solidarity, a pan-African listserv for queer activists and allies; and Trans Africa, a network of African trans activists.
Because of his high profile Mukasa lives constantly with the threat of reprisal from a government that routinely persecutes queer individuals. In December 2008, after a two-year legal battle, Mukasa won a case in court against the Ugandan government for an illegal raid on his home in 2005, which resulted in the arrest of Kenyan associate and the confiscation of documents for Mukasa’s human rights work.
Mukasa cites several obstacles to queer activism in Africa. “The basic challenges are homophobia and transphobia which is given strength by our cultural and religious beliefs, the law and, of course, ignorance,” he writes. “However beyond these are other factors such as economic and political. Economically the struggle in Africa lacks adequate resources. The various activities and programs that we need to carry out to combat homophobia and to improve the wellbeing of LGBTIQ people are impossible due to lack of resources. The activists themselves sometimes go without food. Poverty in Africa is rampant but the situation is worse among queer people.”
He says queer people in Africa are often scapegoated by their governments. “Politically whenever our political leaders are confronted with inadequacy in policy delivery or corruption they deflate the public’s attention by going back to or suddenly forming a homophobic stance to generate popularity or sympathy. Homophobia is therefore not just fashionable but also favourable [to the government].”
Mukasa calls for unity in the face of these obstacles. “We fight as brothers, sisters, friends and partners. We know that we are one movement. Issues might be different sometimes but we have a common goal. The issues affecting us are similar — homophobia and transphobia. Our rights are violated because we are queer. There is no divide.”
In public statements Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has gone so far as to label queer issues a “European concern,” which Mukasa disputes vehemently.
“It is of course very annoying when the president makes such remarks. It also hurts because we all know that it is a clear lie. Because he is president, his word is heard by the masses. He only misleads Ugandans.
“It is through our testimonies that we can speak out. In my case, for example, I got attracted to a woman at no European’s order. At that time I had no personal relationship with anyone from Europe. My teachers, neighbours, friends and of course my parents were black Africans. The only Europeans I knew were the bishop of the diocese [and] my church priest, both of whom I could not approach because I was young. Even television at my home was censored…. I was not exposed to anything outside my community at that time. How then can one allege that I ‘learned’ homosexuality from Europe?”
Mukasa says that an African tradition of homosexuality can be found if you know where to look.
“There is a lot of data on that as well as proof from our languages. When the Christians came, they demonized it. In Uganda, Father Lourdel from France brainwashed our forefathers by teaching them that homosexuality is evil. They had no problem with it before that. The British came later and criminalized it. It was not an issue before that. By doing this both the European Christians and colonialists brought homophobia to a continent that was clean of it. Africa embraced it and everything that the ‘masters’ brought. To date we still suffer the effects. It makes me sick that our leaders know about this history and yet they will go ahead and make such misleading remarks. We need to remind them of that history.”
Mukasa says there are many factors that make a queer person’s journey of self-discovery different in Africa versus North America or Europe.
“The first difference one can cite is that of culture or traditions,” writes Mukasa. “Most often when we speak of a queer identity in Africa we are confronted with the claims that such expressions are not part of our culture and that tradition has no space for such expressions — whereas in the West one can go back in history easily and name or identify various queer icons in all fields.
“The other challenge lies in language. Before one can come out to even oneself, one is reliant on Western terminology to correctly identify. Such words as lesbian, gay or transgender are sourced in Western terminology and have positive connotations by way of struggle, identification and education. Whereas in Africa we are faced with first identifying the self with terms that are self-defeating as they are derogative by origin and usage.”
He says his own identity has never been a question for him. “To be sincere I have never been in the closet to myself, the communities I have lived in, at school, at work and even in my family. From the time I found out that I was attracted to women, I mentioned it.
“The first time I felt ‘strange’ feelings for another woman was at school about 23 years ago. I knew it was not okay because I had never heard about such feelings anywhere. I had learned, from my mum, teachers and books, that when I become of age, I would get attracted to boys. Then I was ‘mummy’s little girl.’ It was a shock therefore that I was attracted to my best friend.
“As soon as I saw my mum I told her about how I felt. This was also because my mum and I were very close. My mom did not act surprised but she told me that it was not okay but that I would get rid of those bad feelings. She advised me to pray to Mother Mary for healing. We were a very staunch Catholic family. Indeed I did ask Mother Mary to heal me from the ‘bad thoughts and feelings’. The feelings stayed.
“By this time I did not know that this meant that I was a lesbian. It was not until I joined secondary school that I learned that girls who have feelings for fellow girls are called lesbians. Since that time I always felt uncomfortable if someone got to know me but did not know that I was a lesbian. So I always told people I met for the first time about that aspect of me.”
Mukasa says it was difficult to reconcile his sexuality with his faith.
“Accepting myself as a lesbian and later as a trans person was a big challenge in my life. For years I struggled with a conflict between my faith and my sexual orientation and later my gender identity. I knew that God was angry at me and yet I had no solution to my problem…. I went from church to church looking for ‘deliverance.’ It was not until I got abused by a pastor and his congregation that I realized that there is no healing in church.
“I decided to seek answers from God privately and later in my life I got them. The issues were reconciled and I got my peace back. I learned that God was not angry at me but perhaps certain ways of how I would conduct myself as a lesbian. That way, I came out to myself.”
Mukasa’s later emergence as a transgendered person led to more activist work, including initiating the Nairobi Trans Declaration 2007, where at a queer social event Mukasa led a group of trans peoples from Eastern Africa on stage to proclaim their existence while demanding recognition and respect from lesbians, gays and bisexuals.
Mukasa shows remarkable courage in the face of the ongoing struggle.
“The enemy is all over the place but as activists we are all over too. Our work of defending human rights continues wherever we are. As an activist I am always hopeful for change, for freedom, for acceptance. My hope is always high. I know that as long as I am alive, every chance I get to address issues in Africa, some people listen and out of these, some see the truth. Now if it is my daily work then change comes every day. Someday those walls of rigidity will come down.”