Reflections on World AIDS Day and LGBT Rights in Uganda


Reflections on World AIDS Day and LGBT Rights in Uganda

By Jordan Namerow

Originally published in The Bilerico Project.

I am not used to speaking in code. The last time I did this was when I met a stranger for lunch in Uganda during the summer of 2008.

Past stray chickens, a passion fruit tree, and street curb vendors luring me with fresh bananas, fried meat, phone cards, sneakers, and an assortment of plastic combs, I arrived at a hole-in-the-wall café that smelled like fried fish. The stranger whom I was meeting was easy to spot: she wore dark baggy jeans, an over-sized button-down shirt and a black baseball cap that covered her tightly braided cornrows and hid her eyes. Barely lifting her head, she looked up at me nervously and murmured "hello." She, too, had spotted me easily—if, for no other reason, because I am white.

"You want to eat?" she asked.


We got ourselves plates of fried tilapia, mustard greens, and matooke—mashed green bananas. For a solid three minutes, we said nothing.

"Thanks for meeting me," I said at last, making a timid effort to break the ice. I told her a bit about myself (I am Jewish and gay) and what had brought me to Uganda. I was volunteering with American Jewish World Service at a grassroots human rights organization that focused on HIV/AIDS advocacy and was interested in learning about the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

"What do you want to know?" she replied.

"I'm curious about your life; what it's like for you here."

"It's hard. Really hard. I got thrown out of school because of it. Thrown out of my home. You have to be careful if you want to survive. You have to be discreet. You learn to speak in ways that no one will understand. You know what I mean, yes?"

I did. Nothing could make a Ugandan more vulnerable than speaking frankly about homosexuality in a public space, especially with a white American. And so, we spoke in code—a reality that is all too familiar to the LGBT community in Uganda and in Africa at large.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. What's more is that LGBT Ugandans have been excluded from conversations, programming and advocacy surrounding HIV/AIDS prevention. In June 2008, three Ugandan LGBT/HIV human rights activists were arrested and detained after publicly objecting to the exclusion of sexual minorities from HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Uganda. These activists were also denied entry to the National Conference on HIV/AIDS. They were charged with criminal trespass, briefly imprisoned and then bailed out prior to enduring (and ultimately winning) a court case.

Even the human rights organization with which I volunteered does not acknowledge LGBT people as part of the collective story of HIV/AIDS or recognize the stigma, discrimination and shame doubly felt by Ugandans who are both HIV-positive and queer.

In the summer of 2008, Uganda was swept up in anti-gay hysteria marked by a campaign of public "outings" in local newspapers and the arrests of people on the mere suspicion that they are gay.

I met a man who was at a bar having beer with his female friends and was arrested because the police suspected he was gay. He remained in jail for 48 hours. I met a transgender person who endured verbal and physical harassment on the street every day for wearing necklaces and women's shoes. I met a closeted woman living with a same-sex partner who was scared of leaving her home at the risk of "being seen."

While the situation in Uganda worsens, next door in Kenya, there are some signs of positive change. In late October 2009, Kenya announced that it would carry out a census of its gay population in an effort to include the HIV-positive gay community in its HIV/AIDS prevention programs despite the fact that homosexuality remains against the law.

It's been a year-and-a-half since I was in Uganda; a year-and-a-half since I had my first glimpse of what it's like to habitually speak in code as a means of self-protection; since I attended the court hearing of the Ugandan gay activists charged with criminal trespass after being denied entry to the National Conference on HIV/AIDS.

I am fortunate to live in New York City where I can be honest about who I am and what I care about without risking my safety. I feel grateful to have gone to a high school in which helping to form a gay/straight alliance was complicated but not impossible; to live in a part of the world in which HIV/AIDS activism has been largely defined by the struggles of LGBT people while honoring the totality of HIV/AIDS that transcends race, class, age, nationality and sexual orientation.

No doubt, World AIDS Day means much more to me after witnessing the invisibility of LGBT experience from HIV/AIDS awareness in Uganda. What does World AIDS Day mean for the Ugandan lesbian I met for lunch? For the closeted HIV-positive man too afraid to leave his home? Do they feel the politics of this global epidemic bound up in their own lives? Or do they  just feel fear?

Jordan Namerow is the Senior Communications Associate of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). She is also an alum of AJWS's Volunteer Corps and Alternative Break service programs in Uganda and Nicaragua respectively.