Dr. Frank Mugisha directs Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an organization in Kampala that focuses on providing services and security to LGBTI Ugandans. Earlier this year, Dr Mugisha spearheaded a research project examining the impacts of COVID-19 on LGBTI Ugandans. In this interview, he shares more about how living through a pandemic has heightened existing challenges for LGBTI Ugandans.
By Ari Weinstein
Can you tell me about some of this research that you did earlier this year about the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTI communities in Uganda?
Uganda is predominantly a homophobic country, both by legislation and practice. Because of this, the LGBTQI+ community is isolated. The COVID-19 pandemic simply heightened both violence and isolation. We’ve been separated from our families and our friends. Sometimes we also suffer from internalized homophobia. We live in fear of being outed or being arrested. The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have been used to harass queer-presenting Ugandans, both by the police and the community we live in.
At first, we responded to COVID-19 by providing basic needs like food and shelter in the form of accommodation, because people are not working anymore. We provided basic safety information to our members, then we proceeded to social media to try to reach other members of our community outside our network. Understanding the mental health toll of the pandemic coupled with the day-to-day homophobia, I phoned a couple of community members to check in and share the guidelines on how to stay safe. While I was busy making phone calls, more than twenty LGBTQI persons were arrested and jailed.
When the WHO upgraded COVID-19 to a pandemic, the media rhetoric was that the virus didn’t discriminate between the rich or poor; Black or White. However, we quickly realized the layered effects of the pandemic. Minority groups faced further discrimination. The pandemic created an opportunity for political actors to clamp down the community’s right to existence in the name of enforcing lockdown restrictions.
After the unique experiences, we decided to carry out a survey to learn from our community and document their lived experiences. This research has been helpful for us to know how to respond to the community. The majority of LGBTQI+ persons were forced to go back to homophobic families, and stay in abusive relationships. We carried out this survey so we could understand how best to respond.
What parts of the report stand out as the most pressing issues and most surprising discoveries?
A common thread all throughout the report was the fear that the Police could arrest our community members, the trauma of living with homophobic families, and the mental health toll. For example, the lockdown restrictions meant that food could only be accessed in a specific time. Our members feared going to the grocery stores and being harassed constantly with questions such as “are you a man or a woman?”
What is the relationship like in general between the LGBTI population and accessing medical services?
It is complex. We have done a lot of advocacy to improve this; currently, there are some facilities where you can go and face no discrimination. These are LGBTQ friendly health facilities.
However, the norm is that any openly LGBTIQ+ who discloses their sexual orientation at a health facility will likely face discrimination in the form of denied services or even arrested.
In some cases, there is violence: we saw a doctor who beat up a lesbian who had come to a facility to buy eyeglasses. Even with our milestone advocacy, we cannot reach every LGBTQI+ person and point them to the direction of safer facilities. When visiting health facilitates, many of our members will alter their appearance to pass as a straight person. For example, if they are transgender, they may dress differently so that they can get the treatment without prejudice.
How have LGBTI Ugandans been getting the medical help they need during COVID-19?
It’s been difficult. We had created some “safe havens” for the LGBTI community through avenues of access. For example, we created a channel for those who needed HIV/AIDS medication to access their medicine. However, with COVID-19 movement restrictions, many in the community changed locations to either stay with family or stay in the places where they were when the lockdown was announced. People could not access medical facilities that were non-discriminative. It became tough.
In turn, we had to create avenues for getting peer educators, doctors, and medical practitioners to deliver the medication or provide in-house services to them. In some cases, we devised ways of getting the LGBTQI+ persons from their homes to medical facilities.
It was challenging to change the hearts and minds of medical practitioners in new places
Over 10% of Uganda’s population is probably LGBTQI+. That is approximately 4.2 million people, and this is a generic statistic. We can not reach all the LGBTQ persons in Uganda, especially those in the closet. Many need support and attention, but we can’t reach them, and they can’t reach us, or they’re scared and don’t want to reach out because of the stigma. So some of them would rather deal with the issue on their own, and I guess that many LGBTI people have resorted to self-medication when they need medical services.
What do you think will be the most pressing issues for SMUG in the next couple of months?
The most pressing issue for SMUG right now is the issue of safety and protection.
Every LGBTI person in Uganda who is openly LGBTI or perceived to be so is potentially at risk.
This is heightened as we move into our national presidential and parliamentary elections. Additionally, politicians continuously scapegoat our lives for cheap political power which often translates to violence for our community.
Our most urgent issues include arrests, corrective rape, and social exclusion as well as evictions. We have witnessed hundreds of people get evicted by their landlords on suspicion of being gay.
If you are a male person and you don’t have any female guests, the landlord suspects that you could be homosexual, and then they evict you. Most of the time, we coordinate to see if there’s action to take against those violations and provide support. Often that support is providing new housing to people, providing treatment for people who have been beaten, or providing legal support for people who have been arrested. There are cases on daily and weekly bases. We anticipate that the elections campaigns will increase these various violations by a significant margin.
And I don’t forget that that includes myself. Because I am openly gay, and everyone knows that, I never know where the threat will come from. I could be here talking to you today, but tomorrow I’m in the news about being arrested or beaten. Anything could happen to my colleagues and me because we’re openly gay. We’re very, very high-risk.
What is it like daily to be an activist who is openly LGBTI?
Communicating with anyone outside of my friends comes with paranoia. Some people reach out to me, saying they need help, but going out to meet them frequently requires putting my life at stake. I never know who is on the other end. As an activist, this is a constant conflict: to choose safety over the possibility of helping another new member of the community.
I get messages on my phone from people who say, “oh, I want to date you, I want to meet you,” or they make up problems. There are some “problems” I’m sceptical of because I think they just want to get me arrested. So I wake up every morning, and I plan my day. I cannot live without a plan, and I have to be watching my back all the time. Sometimes I have to go from place to place with colleagues so that we don’t be alone.
There are some places you can’t go, no matter how much you may want to; I’m liable to be attacked there. Some days I get a lot of calls and requests from LGBTI people saying they need help, and I forget about needing to take care of my security.
Since you first became an activist in the LGBTI community, have you noticed any significant changes in any regards? In terms of society, in terms of the policy, in terms of attitude: has anything improved?
Oh, yes, so much. When I started doing this work, we had very little support from other human rights organizations because of their homophobia and transphobia. We had a handful of organizations who’d work with us, mainly women’s rights organizations and some partners who worked with Human Rights Defenders.
But we’ve seen a shift in that. One time, an executive director of a human rights organization told me, “Frank, I’m okay with you; you’re not like the others,” because I’m not a transgender person or someone who “crossdresses.” And I explained, “I’m exactly like that, and we’re all like you.” The conversations and relationships with people along the way have changed their hearts and minds. I’ve created a lot of allies and partners within the human rights sphere.
It was a bit difficult for the LGBTI community to do anything outside our community. However, we now can go to friendly restaurants, friendly bars; places where we can go, and we’ll receive service like anyone else. People will frown at you, but they won’t attack you or beat you.
The scariest thing in Uganda was being outed in the tabloids because they’ll say all sorts of stupid things about you and write all these bizarre headlines. People would wake up every morning and make phone calls to each other to ask “are there any newspapers out with me in it?” because they were scared of being outed. It’s the end of your life. People would change their phone numbers. After all, they didn’t want to receive any phone calls from their family members and friends because they were so scared after they had been outed.
This has reduced and we’ve done a bit of work educating and providing information to the newspapers. We have also created our own media and also used social media.
We now have more visibility, and that visibility and resilience have in some ways diluted the extreme homophobia. Before, we were seen as aliens or abnormal parts of society; people referred to us as “different” or “abnormal.” But now some people won’t mind us. I’ve also seen a shift in the young generation who are more concerned about other pressing issues like employment, good education, rather than someone’s dating history. This is in some ways because of pop culture, including Western music and Western movies. Having something LGBTI in the media has been normalized for the young generation and they’re not as conservative as other generations were before.
I also see a little bit of a shift from the government, though I wouldn’t say that the government is very progressive. It still definitely wouldn’t support anything seen as “advanced” homosexuality.
That sounds like some good changes.
Yeah, and I’ve also seen a lot of change with the ministry of health. As I said, there are so many facilities where we have done a lot of work in trying to make sure that at least some facilities where we can send our members. Right now, the minister who is there is a bit progressive. However, she has a conservative background of being a bit evangelical, she’s a bit advanced when it comes to providing services. It has taken us a lot of effort and work to get her to where she is now, but we fear that the moment she leaves that post as minister, and they bring a new one, that things will go back.
How can readers best support SMUG and the work of your organization?
There are so many ways readers can support us. One is we need a lot of solidarity. When we had the “Kill the Gays Bill,” we got a lot of international support. With all the attention that was on Uganda, we could not be ignored by the Ugandan authorities, and they said, “You know, this is becoming an international issue; we have to rethink this legislation.” Of course, there was cooperation from our civil society partners here in Uganda, but international voices and international solidarity amplified it.
It’s also crucial for international partners to reach out to us directly and ask how they can help. We need resources to support the LGBTI community, especially now when we have to get things like food and shelter for our members. We also need a lot of technical support. People who can volunteer and provide support to the organization in terms of writing, online work, strategic campaigning; we appreciate that.
Lastly, help keep LGBTI voices active in all cultures around the world. Hold politicians accountable. Remind other LGBTI people that they are taking all the rights that they have for granted. There are many LGBTI persons around the world in countries like Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, for example, who can’t even speak the way I’m talking; who can’t even show their face because if they did, they would suffer. I call on all the LGBTI community around the world to think about the Global South and how they can keep supporting us.
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