Off The Record: On Religion, Politics & Equality
By Andy Kopsa with Clare Byarugaba* Co-Coordinator at Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Kampala, Uganda
A Day in Kampala: a trans-woman is viciously assaulted in a hate crime, the police won’t readily help, and there’s little hope for justice. This is just one story of just one day of paying the price of being LGBT in Uganda.
Clare’s Car: On our way to a hospital we can’t talk about to see a doctor we can’t mention to treat a person who – still – in Uganda doesn’t exist.
Clare drives honking and weaving through the choking Kampala traffic. Rainbow stickers and flags, as well as flags of both Uganda and the United States, are displayed prominently across the dash. Ruth, Clare’s partner is hanging on the passenger side. Beyonce, Mich (pronounced “Meesh”) and I crammed into the back. Mich’s eye is bulging and red and none of us are saying anything.
After some time we reach the hospital where The Diplomat told Beyonce to go to get Mich help. She – Beyonce – had spoken to the official earlier that day to make the necessary arrangements.
When we pulled into the driveway, there were three representatives of a foreign government waiting in an SUV. This is important to understand: we were all very guarded about being there. None of us comforted by the presence of some friendly government’s official.
This is Uganda.
I was in a car full of criminals according to Ugandan law which makes a person’s sexual identity prosecutable. I was a criminal at that moment too. I could have been arrested for promoting homosexuality through contrivance of Ugandan law. By being with these people, reporting on the crisis facing LGBT persons, trying to get Mich, a transwoman, medical help.
We got out and walked over to meet Beyonce’s contact. We all chatted a bit and then headed toward the hospital entrance. I introduced myself then as a journalist from the US. The official immediately stopped and turned to look at me. She was clearly displeased, beyond that really, she looked worried. Beyonce hadn’t mentioned they were dragging along some American writer.
Visibly upset, pacing, the official told me my being there could put Mich and Beyonce in danger. She was angry, I apologized but for what I wasn’t entirely sure. In fact, she continued, my being there as a member of the press could put the “entire network and relationship with the hospital in jeopardy.”
The relationship they had groomed with the facility was a long time in the making. This clandestine series of phone calls, pick ups, drop offs and assists carefully calculated by another government that cannot talk of their involvement in any of this openly. I consented – promised the diplomat repeatedly – to stay outside. I had to swear not mention the hospital, doctor or foreign agency involved.
This is how a transsexual who is brutally assaulted in a hate crime gets medical attention in Uganda if they are lucky enough.
Mich’s eye two days then four days after being attacked for being a trans-woman at a Kampala nightclub.
Mich had been beaten that Tuesday. She made arrangements to meet up with a old friend at a fresh, new-looking bar on the outskirts of Kampala. It was warm as usual and Mich looked forward to seeing the night out. Mich thought it was just going to be the two of them catching up and having some drinks. But, her friend invited someone else along, a man that Mich didn’t know.
After some chatting the unknown “friend” began taunting Mich saying, “you look like my girlfriend, you have a figure like a woman,” and, ”I don’t like the way you look!” It happened quickly, Mich thought maybe he was just joking around when he was taunting her, she did not expect that this man, whom she had never met before, whom she had not offended at all would get violent. But he did.
The assault started in the open courtyard of the club, he pushed her to the concrete, started thump his face mercilessly, while at the same time holding Mich by the throat with an intention of strangling her to death, as fate would have it friends joined in the beating, kicking her in the ribs and chest.
Mich believes what saved her was her constant screaming for help. Finally the askari (guard) responded by pulling Mich away from her attacker, allowing her to run away. Mich found a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) and escaped to a friend’s house.
Although the attack took place on a Tuesday, Mich didn’t report the beating until Thursday – and only after Beyonce found out the beating had occurred and pushed her to report. The criminalization of LGBT persons, overwhelming stigma and institutionalized discrimination in Uganda prevent victims from coming forward.
But Clare finds out about all of these beatings. It is part of her job. As the Co-Coordinator for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, she deals with the brutality, discrimination and inequality that the LGBT community in Uganda faces every day .
When she accompanied Mich to Old Kampala Police Station, the first question the officer asked was, “Is this a boy or a girl?” Clare tells me couldn’t contain herself. She yelled at the officer, “what kind of question is this! What kind of professionalism is this?” But in Uganda as an LGBT community leader she must be careful.
Beyonce wishes she could still have her braids, she told me. She talks as we wait for word on taking Mich to a hospital. She says she’s “a little nervous”.
I meet with Mich and Beyonce at an outdoor cafe near the center of Kampala. We are waiting for Clare and Ruth to pick us up for the drive to the hospital.
You have to be careful,” Beyonce said, “you have to find ‘friendly’ doctors at ‘friendly’ hospitals if you are a trans-woman.”
“It’s like through here,” Mich tells me gesturing around her throat “and right through here,” motioning with her fingers across her ribcage. Beyonce is beside herself, she cannot stop fidgeting, readjusting in her seat, rearranging her purse on the table then on her lap then back on the table.
“I haven’t been able to sleep because I will dream that people are after me, when she [Mich] had her trauma, I remembered my trauma and I can’t sleep and I can’t eat.”
Beyonce’s was beaten into a coma at a club for not ‘dressing like a man’. She was dragged from the toilet and thrown into the street. A friend of hers said a bouncer yelled at her telling her “go home and put on men’s shoes”.
As a result she was thrust into activism. She started Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU). Beyonce talks about the specific needs of the male to female transsexual compared to the LGB population.
“We are sex workers, a lot of us, and that is all people see it is like we are the awful face of LGBT so we are stigmatized by gay men too. It is lesbians and trans-women that are the worst of the worst in the community’s eyes.”
“They don’t even know about transphobia because we don’t exist unless we are on papers we aren’t humans,” said Beyonce, “to the government we don’t exist, if we don’t exist how do we educate people about us?”
The bar: this is the site where nothing happened
We are on our way to the bar now, driving again, Clare honking and the music loud. We have to find witnesses to the beating. The cops don’t do that kind of work here. They don’t investigate – certainly not an attack on an LGBTI person,and not for a crime like a transphobic or a homophobic attack. Which the entire police force may not be informed about because such crimes don’t exist in the crime book. Mich would have to become her own detective, find her own proof – present some sort of evidence beyond a bloodied and beaten face.
Mich’s friend who invited her out for drinks refuses to testify on her behalf. He is afraid – they tell me he is scared of helping Mich out. Clare tries to talk with him on the phone, telling the friend he doesn’t have to identify himself. He could just give his statement to the police anonymously. But he won’t so it is up to them – Ruth jokingly says that it feels a little like “mob justice”. And she’s right, it does. But the fact is there is no one else to do the work of the police because the police won’t do it in most LGBTI hate crime cases.
A song Beyonce loves comes on the radio as we were driving through town she squeals with her arms raised, “This reminds me of Cape Town everyone is so free!”
“I just love Calcutta, Calcutta they don’t hate little girls who are born little boys.” She had been to a conference there recently as a result of her advocacy.
But just because she loves other places where she can be herself more easily she doesn’t want to leave. None of them want to leave Uganda. Despite the reincarnation of the infamous Bahati Bill (aka: “kill the gays” bill) through proposed amendments to the penal code (Sec. 145) and Lokodo’s crusade against “pro gay” NGOs and breaking up LGBT workshops – they stay because they have to stay.
This is our fight as Ugandans, this is our country, we can’t run away because of what we go through, ass advocates, we have to help bring about change, a change that was set into motion because an activist one day said ‘enough is enough, we need to break the silence’
Clare somberly reflects.
Beyonce, Clare and Mich talk to a young waitress who insists she doesn’t know anything about anything that happened that night.
No one will speak about the beating when we arrive at the bar. The security guard tells us he only speaks Rwandese The group isn’t buying this line from him.
“He doesn’t speak Lugandan, he doesn’t speak English? He doesn’t even speak Swahili?,” says Beyonce, “he’s lying.” Chances are she is right.
Mich gets the same cold shoulder inside. The bar owner saying that the staff that was working that night – the night Mich was beaten in public – aren’t there anymore. “we have new staff,” she tells Mich and Clare as the stand at the counter. Clare looks at her incredulous, “you have new staff? This was just Tuesday.”
Mich pleads, “It was around 11:00 we were here and here,” she says, pointing to different locations in the bar. But the owner won’t budge. But she did say the person she thinks Mich is looking for, “left the country.” And then nothing more. The feeling of dejection and a sense of exhaustion dropped like a ton of bricks. Like the feeling you get when you are expecting that amazing phone call from that boy or when you hope for a special Christmas gift; then the call doesn’t come and the present isn’t under the tree – only the stakes are much higher than a broken heart or an unfulfilled wish. We all decide it is time to leave.
The group further reflects at the hopelessness of trying to find a witness who can come to police as a witness to what happened on that fateful night. Clare explains about the assault being a result of a transphobic person brutally expressing his hatred towards another human being simply because his physical appearances have fallen on uncaring ears.
The LGBT legal committee has tried to push the issue further but the lack of a willing witness has hindered this progress.
We tried to secure an arrest warrant to ensure that the assailant is arrested on sight, but who will sit at the bar everyday to wait for him when he may never show up again? These are the questions Mich rolls over in her mind – she is frustrated by the process and is considering just giving up the case and returning home to western Uganda.
Clare and Mich sit on the hood of Clare’s car at the bar where the beating took place. This is just as we were getting ready to leave. The reality that no one would come forward as a witness sinking in.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a hate crime as, “A criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”
The only way a ‘hate crime’ ends up in the news in Kampala is if there is a trashy photo of a beat up trans-woman or LGBT person that can be splashed across the front page of some tabloid. That kind of shock value is a good sell.
When I interviewed the Minister of Ethics Simon Lokodo he told me point-blank, “homosexuality is a sickness, they must be contained and away from society.” He also told me his opinion on the matter is in “lock step” with that of First Lady Janet Museveni.
Homophobia, Transphobia and inexplicable hatred of LGBT persons in Uganda is real. And just because it doesn’t make the front cover of western publications these days doesn’t change that fact.
As Clare told me toward the end of the ride, “This is what we deal with everyday, we go to bed with it, we wake up with it – this is what it is like to be an LGBT person in Uganda. You cannot underestimate someone pointing at you or taunting you in any situation, you have to read between the lines and realize it as a potential threat to your life, and you have to ensure your safety.”
The stigma the LGBT community in Uganda faces hasn’t gone away. Simply because the infamous Bahati bill met with a tremendous Western backlash doesn’t mean there are human rights for all in this country. There is not. Human rights for all doesn’t hold in Uganda and just because it isn’t part of the Western news cycle/beast doesn’t mean these beatings and human rights violations aren’t still happening every single day.
* Note: Clare was recently honored with other LGBTI human rights defenders in Uganda by Secretary of State Clinton. Here’s the link.
A link to the organization Beyonce founded Transgender Equality Uganda