On January 26, 2011, David Kato was brutally murdered in his home. As Uganda’s first openly gay civil rights activist, his violent death engendered cries of outrage around the world and refocused the spotlight on homophobia in Uganda. The documentary Call Me Kuchu follows the last months of a courageous soul who sacrifices his freedom, his safety and ultimately his life for the struggle for LGBTI rights. Raising pertinent questions about the role of religion and the state in homophobic persecution, the film juxtaposes domestic legal victories and persecution and the dual effects of international pressure.
Uganda has garnered many column inches in recent years, seen as the heartland of African homophobia. One of the legal battles focused on a crusade against Ugandan homosexuals by Uganda's The Rolling Stone, which released names and photographs of 100 allegedly gay citizens. Opportunistic missionaries have flooded to Uganda, fanning the flames of fanaticism, with evangelical Lou Engle naming the country “ground zero” in the fight against homosexuality.
These developments are underpinned by a long-standing social conservatism in Uganda, wary of sexual difference. A study conducted in 2010 by the Pew Research Centre found that only 11% of Ugandans viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable. An insidious environment indeed, but not one without complexity.
Call me Kuchu is sensitive to this nuance, exploring the roots of homophobia in Uganda but providing a level of balance often missing from other accounts. The characters of Pastor Maale and Bishop Christophe Senyonjo help to highlight the role religion plays in Ugandan anti-gay fervour. While Senyonjo proclaims the words of St Paul, “we are all one”, Maale declares homosexuality a block against the prosperity of the Ugandans and in doing so, gives us a window into the complex conflation of circumstances behind Ugandan homophobia.
It is not religion in of itself which leads to homophobia, however, nor a history of social conservatism. Rather, it is the cynical manipulation of both of these cultural seams in the context of poverty and scarcity. Kato’s references to the HIV epidemic further illuminate the social fractures behind homophobia. In a country where 1.2 million people are HIV-positive but only 170,000 have access to anti-retroviral drugs, the government’s refusal to tolerate homosexuality has branched out into many broader issues - such as healthcare, where many organisations, including those with only a slight leaning towards LGBTI issues, have been threatened with deregistration.
But state-sanctioned homophobia is not a uniquely Ugandan issue. In 78 countries spread across the globe, homosexuality is a criminal offence. In five of these, being gay carries a death sentence. The activists featured in Call Me Kuchu are embarking on the same journey travelled by gay rights organisations the world over. They face the same obstacles and the same tired falsehoods of immorality, social decay and sexually predatory behaviour. Indeed, Section 28 of the 1988 UK Local Government Act, banning the promotion of homosexuality, reflects the same intolerant toxicity as that which lies behind the proposed Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Through this bill, the state is “jealously guarding” homophobic legislation originally instituted by British colonial rule, asserts academic and activist Sylvia Tamale.
What is unique about the African gay rights case are the dynamics of international engagement in the issue. While American evangelical groups, preaching messages of hatred towards the gay community, are invited to share the same platform as government ministers, condemnation by donors and the UN to prevent the passing of homophobic legislation are condemned as Western interventionism. In the volatile context of gay rights across the African continent, international commentary, both homophobic and humanitarian, is being used to bolster arguments of African exceptionalism.
According to David Bahati, the Ugandan MP who introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, “[homosexuality] is un-African because it is inconsistent with African values, of procreation and of the belief in the continuity of family and clan”. Robert Mugabe in 1995 went yet further remarking, “What we are being persuaded to accept is a sub-animal behaviour and we will never allow it here”.
In the face of emotive arguments around African sovereignty, the international community has not shown a strong enough hand to prove their commitment to the fight against African homophobia. Only this week, the UK government suspended £4 million ($6 million) in aid to Uganda amid claims that donor money had found its way into the private accounts of government officials. Contrast this diplomatic strong-arming with the much weaker rhetorical pressure applied against a bill fundamentally stripping thousands of gay Ugandans of their human rights, and it is easy to see how cynical African leaders can construe the international equal rights agenda as cultural neo-imperialism rather than a hard-wired commitment to the cause on the continent.
Yet despite all this, progress is being made. Kato’s fledgling movement, which appears in the film at once brave and tragically isolated, has sparked mass international awareness. Uganda held its first gay pride march in August this year, attended by 250 people. While police arrested three participants, all were quickly released and celebrations continued. The defiance exhibited by Kato was present here too, emblazoned across placards reading “African and Gay. Not a choice”. One attendee remarked, “We couldn’t have done this kind of thing two years ago, and for those that were here back then, they almost can’t believe things are safer and better now.”
The road remains a long one however. The Anti-Homosexuality bill was reintroduced to Ugandan parliament in February this year, while British producer David Cecil faces two years' incarceration in Kampala for a production about a gay businessman.
Call Me Kuchu is a deeply moving illustration of the issue. It is heartbreaking and inspirational in equal measure. It juxtaposes moments of jubilation with moments of despair and provides plenty of fire in the belly when considering gay rights in Africa. But we must not let this be all the film does. Gay rights remain an international, not an African, issue. To say otherwise further demonises an already misunderstood continent. For those attempting to escape persecution, the UK does not offer the sanctuary one might expect. From 2005-2009, almost all gay asylum seeker claims were initially refused and ministers admitted last year that the government has failed to record statistics on the numbers applying. Against this backdrop, we must continue to emphasise that to live without fear and love who one chooses is an international human right. In the words of David Kato, a luta continua (the struggle continues).
Call Me Kuchu is released today and is currently being screened at venues around the UK. It was shown at the Frontline Club in London yesterday and is showing as part of Film Africa 2012 this evening at 20:45 at the Ritzy in Brixton.
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