“We have more urgent problems than gays.” “I don’t care whether there are gays or not, whether they are killed or they live. I am not gay, why should it bother me?” “I am OK with gays as long as they stay gay from afar.” “I don’t want them killed, but I’m not going to get killed for gays either.” Attitudes like these are commonly heard among my Ugandan compatriots. Two years ago my own attitude would not have been that different. I was among a section of Ugandan society that strongly believed the country had more pressing problems to address than the struggles of sexual minorities. Part of the reason for this is that I come from the Acholi ethnic group, which has endured a quarter of a century of war, and many of whom still live in fear of the rebel warlord Joseph Kony. We had our own tragedy: the fight for equality, dignity and restorative justice for the people of northern Uganda.
But then, while I was writing a play about the war in northern Uganda, the LGBT cause chose me. I had never heard of homosexuality as a sexual orientation until 2009, when Uganda introduced its anti-homosexuality bill amid massive international protests. Hearing about it in that context made it very easy for me to believe that most of the negative things being said about gay people were true, such as that they were “recruiting” young high school students into the “practice” using materialistic enticement.
But at the Sundance Theatre Lab, I found myself working with a scriptwriting mentor who was gay, and also creative, intelligent and generous. This made me reassess my understanding of homosexuality. I realised that the value of a human being is not measured by his or her sexuality. It also made me realise that one day I could wake up to find someone I loved being put to the noose and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And all because I, like so many Ugandans, was in denial that anyone I knew could be gay. I felt changed, and I knew I wanted to do something. So I decided to write a play.
I spent the better half of 2010 carrying out research. Among other things, I wondered about whether the concept of homosexuality existed in African culture. I also wanted to investigate the structured recruitment of children by the LGBT community. As I always do, I first consulted my reliable team of Acholi elders. They told me that gay men and women have always existed among the Acholi society and are commonly referred to as “obedo dako dako” (gay) and “obedo lacoo lacoo” (lesbian). They also acknowledged that the communal nature of the Acholi society forced many gay and lesbian people to conform to what was considered “normal”.
I also learned that what the government characterises as “recruitment” can also be seen as mentorship and compassionate protection. When a girl or boy is struggling with what they have been told are “abnormal” sexual attractions, it is tradition for members of the LGBT community to take them in and help them understand who they are. Through this counsel, these young people come to understand that there is nothing wrong with them.
Whatever they are going through is normal. They are not alone.
Equally important to my education, I found that sexual abuse by LGBT individuals was no more frequent than by heterosexual adults who abuse children.
After this preliminary research, I contacted the LGBT community in Uganda for interviews, and was put in touch with Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, founder of the LGBT rights organisation, Freedom and Roam Uganda. At first Kasha was wary: why did I want to write a play about them? I told her that I believed we Ugandans can sometimes over-react to hearsay, when we should do careful research and get concrete, balanced information. Soon after, Kasha organised the interviews that helped me develop my play. I hope that audiences will not only be moved by the story but inspired to help us bring the play and educational campaigns to Uganda and the other countries – 78 in total – where it remains a crime to be gay. In five of these nations, as will be the case if Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation passes, death is the ultimate penalty.
Will Uganda ever experience a moment of dramatic change or reverse on this issue? I don’t know. Perhaps most people will never have the awakening that I did. So long as they don’t, thousands of LGBT people will continue to live in fear of being themselves. But, we the writers and artists, no matter how late we join the battle, will be alongside them in their fight, if armed only with a pen.
Judy Adong is a Ugandan-born playwright and film-maker.