Reflections on Oppression, Courage and Activism in Uganda


Reflections on Oppression, Courage and Activism in Uganda

By Robert Bank

Robert Bank, AJWS Executive Vice President, reflects on his time in Uganda with two of AJWS’s grantees—Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a human rights organization devoted to equality for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and Lady Mermaids Bureau, an organization that protects and advances the rights of commercial sex workers and their children.

One of the most powerful aspects of the individual and collective narratives of our Ugandan partners—those fighting for LGBTI rights and those advocating for the rights and dignity of sex workers—is the shared stigma resulting in a lack of economic self-sufficiency. This then leads to a complete draining of the life-force, except for enormous courage and resilience. It reminds me of my work with the Lesbian AIDS Project at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City, where African American and Latina women have nearly every strike against them and are often treated with disrespect in every sphere of life. 

Listening to the women at FARUG, I heard one after the other report that they had been "sacked" (expelled) from school, fired from jobs, kicked out of their clan or family, and terrified to tell their mothers or another family member of their sexual orientation for fear of being abandoned and thrown out of their homes. They have also been denied employment opportunities because their bosses found out that they are lesbians.

And yet, David Kato’s murder and funeral was so horrific and personal for them, that they all went to the funeral (but for one who is still too terrified for her mother to find out that she is a lesbian). One woman told me that David’s murder so impacted her that she “had to go for herself”—that if she didn't attend the funeral she would not be true to who she is regardless of what other people thought about her.

Another woman told me how her boss had asked for details about how she has sex with another woman and then said he thinks it’s totally unnatural and never wants to hear about it again. He wouldn't fire her, though, because she's a good rugby coach.  At one point or another, all of the women had been told that they were after young girls and that they better not recruit them. Despite being very talented, mostly as national level sports women, almost all of the members of FARUG are unemployed.   

Their stories remind me of the most egregious examples of right-wing Christian dogma. It becomes clearer and clearer how much has been influenced by the West. Combined with the heteronormative macho male-dominated African narrative, these women face abuse on a daily basis.

Despite or perhaps because of their tremendous hardship, they have moved to a new stage of activism. All of them said that they would be pleased if I blogged about them, if we put the pictures I took on our website and if we advocated for them in the US. I think they realize that it can't get worse for them now that David has been murdered. They want Uganda to know that the world is watching. They are also very grateful for their straight allies, particularly the Uganda Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. This is one of the more advanced alliances that I've seen. I don't think I've seen many equally successful models in the US of this kind of cross-fertilization between different human rights causes. We can learn from these vulnerable and relatively nascent organizations how to build a movement by finding common ground.

It was interesting to move from my meetings with the LGBTI community right into a meeting with the female sex-workers at Lady Mermaids Bureau. While many of these women are HIV-positive and living on the margins of society, they appeared bold and confident, despite the physical abuse many have experienced. They spoke confidently about sex in general, the size of male genitalia somehow corresponding to the size of payment for sex, the insistence on making their clients use condoms, and their belief in their right to be treated with dignity and respect. In many ways, their confidence in comparison to the timidity of some lesbian women mirrors Uganda’s structural acceptance of different-sex sex and its complete denigration of same-sex sex.

I continue to be awe-struck by the courageous work and perseverance of people who face relentless risk and oppression.