10/08/2016

It could have been the flamboyant Princess Rihana, the transwoman who wore a skirt made out of condoms at the Uganda Mister and Miss Pride contest. Or the Sassy Sasha, the confident refugee from Congo… Or Immanuela the traditionalist who dressed in backcloth... Or the witty Poison Ivy who dedicated her red outfit to victims of the Orlando shooting… But we shall never know after the police came and raided the Ugandan LGBTIQ beauty pageant, arresting dozens of people and nearly driving one man, who jumped out of the window because of fear, to death.

Arthur Mubiru, the transman who lost his nursing job at a public hospital because he was being forced to wear women’s uniform, was my personal favourite for the Mr Pride title. For no other reason than that, even after all life has handed him, he exuded the confidence of a King. A conqueror. In a way, all the contestants, who were part of the fifth annual gay pride celebrations in Uganda were. After all, the East African country was once dubbed the worst place to be gay after it proposed a law that would punish certain gay acts with death. The law that faced a lot of criticism and pressure, including the suspension of international aid, was nullified by Uganda’s constitutional court in 2014.

It felt like a truck of ice being hauled onto the fire.

It is this nullification and the grudging acceptance, that gay rights were, after all, human rights that came with it, that emboldened Uganda’s gay community as they went ahead to organise pride. To enter the rainbow coloured hall where the show was held was to step into a rare realm of radiant freedom. Couples held hands and laughed. Long lost friends exchanged hugs and pecks. Fearless men, women and others glided in wearing glitter, mini-skirts, short shots, big necklaces, hijabs. The contestants paid homage to the global village that we are all becoming by dancing to Beyonce and remembering the Orlando shooting victims.

Then they got back to their roots, dressed in backcloth, traditional sheets, tunics and smoking the local pipe often used in traditional healing. A common refrain among the contestants was the assertion of their ethnicity: I am Ugandan. I am Burundian. I am Congolese… all not-so-subtle rebuffs to claims that homosexuality is an import from the west.

The arrival of police felt like a truck of ice had been hauled onto the fire. Each one whispered the news to a neighbour who whispered it to another neighbour and, within a blink, the contestants disappeared and tables cleared. But there was nowhere to run as uniformed and plain-clothed police men swamped in, particularly targeting transmen and white people, grabbing them and arresting close to two dozen people.

They commanded us to get into the small corner from where somebody had just jumped out of the fourth floor of the building. People whispered that she was a transwoman and that she could have died. But this was the least of the concerns of the police officers who seemed to savour every moment as they examined us like market vegetables on display: “Look at you,” they jeered as they took pictures with their cell phones. One woman I was standing next to looked defiantly into the cameras.

“I have seen this before,” she said. “My father is a military man and I am not scared of these people.” Another transwoman dashed shaken into the crowd. “They have taken my picture,” she said in disbelief. “They told me, ‘stand there and I take your picture and I show this to your parents.’ Can you imagine?” His nose trembled and he dripped with sweat.

Hours of uncertainty

After two hours, they let us go. With a declaration that the raid had nothing to do with gender or sexual orientations but was, rather, a necessary step to protect us from terrorist threats. In the same breath, the leader of the police officers, whose uniform name tag read Mugerwa, declared that he never wants to “see such nonsense” in his area. Mugerwa also claimed that the organisers had not gotten the perquisite permission under Public Order Management laws that require that where three or more people are gathered, they must seek police permission. The Constitutional court nullified a similar legal provision 2008 for violating the right to freedom of expression and assembly but government reenacted and continues to use it.

The raid attracted condemnation from international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as from the US mission in Kampala. In Uganda, apart from the Uganda Human Rights Commission which put out a statement condemning the high handedness of police, most human rights organisations and even media continued to perpetrate the culture of silence when it comes to LGBTIQ issues.

The one person whose ire spoke loudest was Uganda’s Ethics Minister, Father Simon Lokodi, who threatened to evangelise the public and police to mate violence on gay people if they continued with the pride activities they had lined up for the entire week.

This did not, however, daunt Uganda’s gay community and who shared pictures of pride celebrations that went on in spite of the threats. Gay rights activist Frank Mugisha tweeted: “No form of intimidation will stop us , we shall have @Prideuganda2016 every year, right here in Uganda”.