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Xtra reports from Uganda: Young activist tells tale of beating, prison & defiance

"We were just trying to be ourselves," says 21-year-old Blessed Busingye

DEFIANT. Ugandan activist Blessed Busingye, 21, started a youth club to help students deal with sexuality issues like HIV/AIDS and abortion. If Uganda's anti-gay bill passes, the group would have to fold.

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


Blessed Busingye was kicked out of his local supermarket in Kampala, Uganda for being gay.

“Your presence makes us uncomfortable,” the store manager told him last fall.

But that’s nothing compared to some of the other anti-gay experiences Busingye has endured — and he’s only 21.

“Let me face reality,” Busingye says in a Kampala coffee shop, with defiance in his voice. “I can’t turn back now. I’m young and I’m fighting for my sexual rights.”

As always, Busingye is dressed for success, in a neat shirt tucked into tight, pressed pants. With his wide smile and thin, trimmed mustache, he looks like a young Eddie Murphy at the top of his game.

Busingye grew up in a small town in western Uganda called Mbarara. He started fooling around with other boys when he was 10. “We kissed and touched,” he said. “I was fond of it.”

He also didn’t think it was wrong. “It’s something I knew was in me,” he says. “I liked it so much. I didn’t think it was bad at all.”

In high school, Busingye had a boyfriend named John and six other gay friends. But one day, a straight boy who didn’t like the attention of one of the gay boys ratted them all out. One by one, Busingye and his friends were taken to the principal’s office and caned by everyone on the school staff.

“You’ve destroyed the school’s name,” the principal yelled as he beat them.

All the boys were expelled. Then they were thrown in jail.

“We were just trying to be ourselves,” says Busingye. “We didn’t know what we were doing was against the law.”

Busingye and his friends faced years in jail. But local media attention over their arrests caused Amnesty International to spring into action. The human rights organization put a lawyer on their case and freed them after just two days.

Busingye gets a mischievous grin when he remembers those 48 hours. “It was fun,” he says. The boys were all locked up together.

Busingye’s parents, however, were not amused. His father wants little to do with him. “My mother isn’t the same person I knew a long time ago,” he says, morosely.

But the negative reaction to Busingye’s homosexuality didn’t cause him to retreat into the closet — it politicized him. “I was empowered,” he says.

At his new high school, he started a youth club to help students deal with sexuality issues like HIV/AIDS and abortion, which is also illegal in Uganda. Then, Busingye started an NGO that acts as a network of youth clubs across the country. It’s called Youth Reproductive Health Clinic Foundation (YRHCF).

“We engage with young people who are having challenges,” he says, “and help them overcome them.”

A few months ago, Busingye helped support two young lesbians who accused a group of men of rape. In the process, he was outed to the whole country.

Busingye’s preacher, the notoriously homophobic Pastor Martin Ssempa, appeared at the trial and argued that the accused men were trying to turn the girls straight.

When Busingye’s side won, Ssempa retaliated by outing his parishioner in Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid similar to the National Enquirer — only way dirtier.

That prompted Busingye’s expulsion from his local supermarket — and his decision to join a new church.

“I love God,” says Busingye. But the devout Christian doesn’t tolerate homophobia. He believes the Lord is on his side. “I pray and he answers my prayers,” says Busingye.

If one of his prayers is for more gay sex, the Lord giveth a lot. Last year, Busingye was sponsored to go to Amsterdam — twice — to promote his NGO.

While he was there, he discovered two new concepts: park sex and saunas. Who’d he meet? “Lots of people,” Busingye says with a big smile.

This year, he hopes to get grants to go to New York and India. But if a bill to ban pro-gay organizations goes through Uganda’s Parliament, YRHCF would have to fold — and Busingye could go to jail for a lot longer than 48 hours.

He’s not afraid, though. “I’m still young,” he says. “I’m fighting for my rights on behalf of others.”

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