Interview with “Pride Voices” participant LGBT* activist from Uganda Wamala Dennis Mawejje

Journalist Eglė Digrytė converses with the participant of the Baltic Pride 2016 cultural event “Pride Voices” LGBT* activist from Uganda Wamala Dennis Mawejje.

– What does it mean to be a gay person in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal?

– Being a gay in Uganda means living with the constant reality that you may end up in jail anytime or be physically attacked just because of suspicion that you are a same sex loving person. Family and friends deny you and you end up very lonely and scared.

– What is the current legal situation of LGBT people in Uganda after the decision of the Constitutional Court? In 2014, it declared void the anti-homosexuality law (AHA), giving the activists and civil society groups respite from a long battle over the human rights and freedom to access anti-HIV treatment without fear of prosecution.

– Same sex relations are still criminalised under article 145 of the penal code and is punishable with jail sentence. After the annulment of the AHA, we saw increased rhetoric against LGBT people as anti-gay crusaders mobilised masses claiming they had been failed by the judicial system.

– How would you describe the situation of LGBT people in Uganda compared to other countries in Africa?

– The situation of LGBT people in Uganda is similar to that in other African countries, although the rhetoric of anti-gay crusaders in Uganda seems louder and better mobilised than elsewhere.

– Why did you choose to come out and become an activist? Weren’t you afraid of possible dangers? One article tells about you, “He both worries about using public transportation in case a bigot standing nearby recognises him and he gets nervous when someone stares at him too long.” Is it still true?

– I chose activism because I saw the needless suffering of innocent LGBT people and felt I could do something to change this suffering. I am constantly in fear of my life and have to take my safety and security seriously. I am also aware that stopping now will not change anything so we I keep on fighting and ensuring I do so in a safe way. Security is my number one concern when carrying out my work.

– What threats do you face personally in particular and all LGBT people and organisations like The Icebreakers in general?

– We have verbal threats, threats through media, personal physical attacks and attacks on our office premises.

– You told to some journalist, “We all need to come out aggressively.” What do you mean by this? How does this look like and why the calm or soft way is not possible?

– We believe in handling different situations depending on their viability. Sometimes being silent and underground or behind the doors works while sometimes you have to come all out and have your voices heard. We don’t mean violence when we talk about aggressiveness. It is about making our presence felt and heard all over the country.

– How and when did you come out? What were the reactions of your friends and relatives?

– I came out in 2003 and it was not intentional. I wanted to do something to change the situation and this meant me being outed in different forums.

I lost family and friends and until today, my support system is with my fellow activists. I have never regretted my decision though as I am sure I do the right thing.

– What has changed in your life after coming out?

– You feel alone and left out from time to time but you learn how to cope with these situations with time. I have also learnt to rely on myself for survival and not to be very trusting of people I have not known for long.

– I’ve found in your Facebook profile pictures about Pride events in Uganda (2013 Beach Pride UG, Pride Uganda). How is it possible to organise anything like this?

– Like I said, we have to make our voices heard and so whatever helps amplify our voice and presence, we do it. Events like the Beach Pride are ways of creating space for advocacy and sending a massage to LGBT people in hiding that they are not alone.

It is extremely difficult to put together such activities but we try our best as we know they are important for our work. We have so far had three events of this kind and this year in August, we will have another one. We are however still struggling financially to put this together and hope our friends all over the world will come together and support us to make this year’s event a reality.

We have cultural festivals, movies festivals, dinners, music, dance and drama, thematic days for gender diverse people and the main pride match which happens in a secure location.

– These events are illegal, aren’t they?

– They are not illegal as the law prohibits same sex relations not association. So if you are not having sex, you are not breaking any law. That is why we continue to fight for these laws not to be made worse to prevent such activities.

– What drives you and inspires you to be so active?

– What drives me is the fight for what I believe is right. And I see suffering everyday so I know we have to keep fighting or it will be worse. We also have a lot of support all over the world so this keeps us going. I hope I can feel that support in Vilnus too.

– Do you see any positive changes regarding LGBT people in Uganda?

– Yes, we have made a lot of positive strides in Uganda over the past decade.

We have made ourselves visible and there is no more claim that we don’t exist.

We have forced dialogue in the media about sexual orientation and though there is backlash, we also get some people who understand and support us.

We have engaged the government, judiciary, police and medical fraternity on LGBT issues. This was not possible in the past.

We have taken cases to court and won and these are huge milestones.

We are currently challenging in court the government’s refusal to register SMUG, our umbrella organisation. I am proud to be one of the three people suing the government in this historic case.