I was born in an era in Uganda when there was no such thing as sex education. Even talking about sex was taboo. Today my liberal views on sexuality and the fact that I am now an advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people will shock people that were once close to me.
I first encountered same-sex relationships my first year of high school. They were freely talked about among my peers. We looked at lesbians as outcast, rebellious, sexual people. We discussed how one should avoid being swayed into lesbianism when girls from higher classes sought out partners.
I was 13, Catholic, and naïve about sex, though I was not new to heterosexual relationships. Young as we were, boys and girls were coupling up in my last year of primary school. But now in an all-girls school, seeing this behavior just felt wrong to me. I hated and could not fathom the idea of same-sex relations.
That year, our school expelled or suspended girls involved in same-sex relationships. Students and teachers alike named and shamed girls at school assemblies, joining a worldwide bullying culture. I think it brought some of us joy and satisfaction putting these individuals down and helping them “reform”, as we thought we were doing.
Remembering who I was then terrifies me. I was Catholic, and later born-again Christian, and I was crucifying gay people. I would hide behind Bible verses to justify my actions. Was God really proud of me back then?
It is very easy to pass judgment on things we do not try to understand.
My views began to change when a friend told me about her struggle for self-acceptance and how being closeted was eating her up. Then, I watched the same thing happen to a family member. I chose understanding over judgment. I read about LGBTI people. Witnessing people close to me walk in shame and hunger for acceptance touched me and motivated me to try to understand.
Today, I advocate for equality for sexual minorities because I believe it is every person’s right to be with the person they choose, regardless of their sexual orientation. My acceptance of same-sex relationships after growing up in a community so closed off to sex education is a story of hope, empowerment, acceptance, and love.
Given my own evolution, I am constantly assured of the power education has in changing mindsets. When I remember how we treated lesbians in high school, I am more than embarrassed. I wish I knew then what I know now. I could have made life more bearable for girls in a very judgmental, soul-crushing environment.
I wonder how the culture in high school is today, but knowing the society I am in, I believe little has changed. I am sure young gay people are still judged and persecuted and made to miss school because of who they choose to love.
In my country, people believe that if you speak up for sexual minorities, you must have been paid money to compromise your morals and beliefs. And if you understand and are in support of gay people, you must be gay too. I have been called a homosexual to my face and been abused when I stand up to people who do not approve of my opinions on sexuality. Some words hurt like hell, but I try to put myself in the shoes of a person who is a sexual minority in Uganda, or anywhere else in the world.
In Uganda, same-sex relationships are illegal. In 2013, legislation was introduced that would punish homosexuality—already against the law—with severe sentences, including the death penalty. A modified version of this Anti-Homosexuality Act, which reduced the death penalty to life in prison, passed through Parliament, despite condemnation from around the world. Although the courts nullified the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, Human Rights Watch reports that “same-sex conduct remains punishable with life imprisonment under Uganda’s colonial-era law prohibiting ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature.’” Earlier this year a new NGO Bill was signed into law that hinders nongovernmental organizations advocating for and providing services to LGBTI people.
The reality is that the rights and safety of gay people in Uganda are still at risk. But it cannot be ignored that many Ugandans, myself included, have begun to accept LGBTI people.
Recently LGBTI people have been included in some health proposals and plans. There are also more spaces being created for LGBTI people, like the gay bar that opened up right in Kampala’s city center. Just four years ago, people did not want to associate with gay people at all or even shake their hands. I am now seeing some of these attitudes changing. Something is shifting, but not fast enough.
We are losing valuable minds to the diaspora because so many LGBTI people leave the country due to discrimination at their workplaces or in their daily lives. We are also losing our LGBTI family members because we cannot accept who they are.
I dream that Uganda will be more accepting towards LGBTI people. More than anything, I hope our people become hungry for knowledge. After all, we are all just people looking for love and to be accepted as we are, regardless of our sexual orientations.
Patricia Lindrio is a contributor from Uganda. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.