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Being Gay in Uganda: One Couple’s Story

4 minute read
Glenna Gordon

Pepe Julian Onziema looks great in a suit. Tall and lanky, she doesn’t slouch to hide her height and doesn’t apologize for her boyish figure. Or for anything else. She’s got at least 10 suits: pinstripes, white linen, black, gray, navy and others. She buys them from a guy who runs a shop on Entebbe Road, a major Kampala thoroughfare. He knows her build, and he knows what she likes.

These days, though, Onziema doesn’t wear suits nearly as often as she used to. As one of a dozen or so publicly out Ugandan homosexuals, Onziema knows that even a trip to a local shop is risky. Wearing a suit can be a death wish.

(See a gay-rights timeline.)

Last year, a member of Uganda’s Parliament, David Bahati, introduced a bill that, if it becomes law, will further criminalize homosexuality in Uganda. “Aggravated homosexuality,” according to the bill, will become a capital offense, and anyone who doesn’t report a known homosexual within 24 hours will be subject to punishment of up to seven years in jail.

No matter how many precautions homosexuals in Uganda take, they won’t necessarily be safe, says Onziema’s partner, who did not want her name used for fear she will be persecuted. “When you’re just walking, someone will turn and look, and have a second look, and a third, and a fourth.” That’s not surprising in a country where newspaper polls show 95% of people support the bill.

(Read “Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill: Inspired by the U.S.”)

Onziema and her partner met playing rugby at a local Kampala club a couple of years ago. Onziema knew “within five seconds” that she had met the one, she says. It took her partner a bit longer. Onziema has known her whole life that she’s gay, but her partner is not out publicly, and the process of coming to terms with who she is took a little longer.

After they’d been friends for a few months, Onziema made her move. “There was a kiss,” she grins. “She wasn’t expecting it.”

Since then, the couple have been through a lot together. One year in a kuchu relationship — the Luganda word for gay is one that people in the community use to describe themselves — is like 10 years in a heterosexual relationship, kuchus say. That would make Onziema and her partner’s three years more like 30.

(See the struggle for gay rights in the U.S.)

Onziema’s partner doesn’t mind that her girlfriend works trying to protect gay rights and change public opinion in Uganda. But she worries about the dangers Onziema might face, especially with the bill working its way through Parliament. In 2008, when Onziema and other kuchus handed out flyers at an HIV conference in Kampala, they were charged with trespassing. The trial dragged on for months and months. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, the experience in prison was traumatic for Onziema. Several officers taunted her — discussing whether she was to be put with the male inmates or the female ones. Her clothes were forcibly removed, and an officer touched her genitals “for confirmation.”

Both Onziema and her partner know the next time might be even worse.

With things as turbulent as they are now, Onziema mostly stays at home but inevitably has to leave the house from time to time. About a year ago, her partner’s father assaulted Onziema when he saw the couple walking down the street together. She ended up bruised and battered, with torn clothes and a mild concussion.

(See a video of gay pride in Jerusalem.)

In comparison with the open hostility Onziema faces from the outside world, life is beautifully mundane domesticity at her and her girlfriend’s airy apartment in Kampala. Her partner cooks; Onziema chimes in that she does too — in a way that makes it obvious that she doesn’t. They both clean; they have friends over for beers; they watch music videos. Onziema wants more. She bought her girlfriend a ring and hopes to get married. “But if we get married, her dad has to give her away,” Onziema says, discouraged by the torn jeans she’s kept from the night of the attack.

To be gay in Uganda is to be hopeful, always, that things will get better. Onziema hopes and believes that she and her partner will marry one day. They’ve already talked about buying a new suit at the shop on Entebbe Road for her, and a white dress for her partner.

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