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Fleeing Violence, LGBTQ+ Ugandan Refugees Face Long Journey to Resettlement

LGBTQ+ Ugandans must navigate both dangerous homophobia and the hostility and stigma that can come with being a refugee.

LGBT refugees from South Sudan, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo protest to demand their protection at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 17, 2019.

When Paul Canary Kanyamu fled his home in Uganda to escape violent persecution, he lost everything. He left behind a full life and close family members — though the horror of his circumstances was heightened by the fact that these relatives were among his tormentors.

Kanyamu’s crime, the source of this grievous oppression, was to love his partner: to be a gay man in Uganda. For that, he was forced to live in fear of his fellow Ugandans, his government and his own kin. “After my parents discovered that I’m gay, they wanted to kill me,” he told Truthout. “My parents and the community. Now, I’ve had to run to Kenya to seek for protection.”

This is the harrowing reality for Kanyamu — and for all LGBTQ+ Ugandans since May, when President Yoweri Museveni signed sweeping anti-gay legislation into law. The law, widely condemned internationally, has made an ill-defined set of actions punishable by decades or life in prison — and, in cases of so-called “aggravated homosexuality,” by the death penalty.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but this bill has made for a dramatic escalation. Now, with up to 20-year sentences imposed for the vaguely delineated “promotion of homosexuality,” LGBTQ+ advocacy, journalism and rights organizations have been criminalized, as has leasing housing to gay people, and more. (The initial version of the law had made even identifying as gay a crime, though that provision was later eliminated.) Perhaps even more than incarceration, the bill’s true threat is that it has emboldened widespread anti-gay violence by mobs, vigilantes and police. Many LGBTQ+ people have chosen to flee the country.

LGBTQ+ Ugandans, and gay, trans and queer refugees worldwide, must navigate both dangerous homophobia and the hostility and stigma that can come with being a refugee. Even assisting LGBTQ people can incur violence against helpers. Despite the risk, there remain many allies along escapees’ path — first and foremost, the courageous gay rights activists still aiding the community in Uganda.

In the middle distance on the path to escape are others: international nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits and sponsors abroad, many of them in more liberal countries in the West. But the West is far from Uganda’s savior; in fact, it is United States-based religious reactionaries and their ghastly ideologies that bear real responsibility for the Ugandan LGBTQ+ community’s plight. Only limited numbers have made safe escapes. But better than to escape is to never be forced to abandon one’s home in the first place — and it is U.S.-born hate that has denied this to them.

Legislated Homophobia

The Ugandan gay and trans community has faced legal vilification for much longer than the recent 2023 law. An earlier iteration, 2014’s “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” was annulled in the courts, but homosexuality remained illegal, and the act’s grim aftereffects rippled throughout the country, spreading violence and fear. So too with this latest law, which has again sparked homophobic assaults, with police among the perpetrators. All manner of socially corrosive consequences have followed: for instance, medical clinics attacked for treating LGBTQ+ people, HIV patients left too fearful to seek care, and gay people shaken down by extortionists that threaten to leak their identity. Those who have chosen to escape must make it across the border to Kenya; the majority remain in Uganda, yearning to go unnoticed and fearing for their lives.

Frank Mugisha has stayed to fight. As the leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the country’s central gay rights advocacy group, he has taken an unflinching stance against LGBTQ+ persecution — work for which he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Mugisha and other committed activists have built SMUG over the course of two decades. It now comprises 18 sub-groups that furnish all kinds of support for gay, trans and queer Ugandans.

Truthout reached Mugisha at work one morning in Uganda’s capital of Kampala. By phone, he described SMUG’s extensive mutual aid efforts: “First of all, we have our own system of supporting the community. Some of these systems are very sophisticated but require a lot of mobilization, a lot of reaching out,” he said. The organization is equipped for “providing mental health support, providing food relief aid for some of the people who can’t go to work anymore and some of the people who have been disowned by their families and are living with friends…. And for those that are evicted from their homes, we try to make spaces available.”

SMUG’s jail support organizing demands particular resolve. “For those who get arrested, we show up at the police stations, however risky it is, and try to get lawyers and partners who can support them and get them out of prison,” Mugisha said. “We also provide them with safe spaces where they can stay after they’re out of prison.”

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Ugandan government has attempted to suspend SMUG under flimsy pretenses, and their work has drawn intimidation and pushback of all kinds, from legal challenges to violence — though SMUG is not alone in that, as LGBTQ+ shelters, gay bars and individual activists have also been attacked, by rampaging bigots and the police alike.

Mugisha, for his part, faces incessant death threats, some of which are very serious: In 2011, his fellow activist and friend David Kato was beaten to death. That SMUG and Uganda’s other activists continue their work under real threat to their lives is a testament to their own mettle and to the strength of Ugandan LGBTQ+ people. “We are a community that is so resilient,” Mugisha told Truthout. “We will try to work together as much as we can to provide all this support.”

“Why can’t countries have a pathway that allows a safe way for LGBTQ people to reach safe countries that are accepting, and where people can be free?”

In fact, SMUG may have a chance to nullify the most pressing threat. “Right now, we are in court challenging the legality of this law … on grounds that it is unconstitutional,” Mugisha said. Their petition claims the law was hurried through and unjustly expedited, and so did not receive requisite consultation. Moreover, its explicit targeting of a minority violates Ugandans’ constitutional rights. “So we’re in court, and we have three petitions right now challenging this legislation. We’re very hopeful right now that they will be successful.”

In the meantime, persecution remains ongoing. The Ugandan government has already made good on the bill’s abhorrent promises. By the end of August, the first invocations of the new law resulted in the arrests of two men. The men allegedly committed vile sexual abuses. Because their victims were male, the two would be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” and sentenced to death — not for being rapists, but to make a point about the same-sex aspect of their crimes.

For other LGBTQ+ Ugandans, the more salient fear is that the law will expand to make consensual, non-abusive sex between men punishable by death as well. Also at the forefront of concern is the possibility of decades of imprisonment for the “promotion of homosexuality” (which, with such broad verbiage, can be contorted to mean almost anything), in addition to the raging extrajudicial violence and homophobic fervor. The refugees that Truthout spoke to repeatedly stressed that they feel they escaped with their lives.

Such an escape necessitates that refugees enter bordering Kenya, after which many proceed to, or are found and deposited in, an enormous tent complex known as the Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement. But though the United Nations-operated camp is ostensibly a haven for Africa’s persecuted, many LGBTQ+ people there have claimed that upon entering Kakuma, the threat to their lives was far from over.

Kakuma

Overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the sprawling Kakuma camp was built in 1992 to shelter those fleeing sociopolitical upheaval across many African countries, from Eritrea to Sudan. There are innumerable allegations that living conditions and food security at the camp are poor — and worse, that LGBTQ+ people, who are very much in the minority of the 200,000 gathered there, have been left vulnerable to threats from all sides. As the UNHCR has acknowledged, LGBTQ people at the camp are at immediate risk of abuses, from neglect to murderous violence, from other refugees, from local Kenyan bigots and from police.

SMUG’s Mugisha echoed these concerns.“Many LGBTQ persons are struggling there,” he said of the camp. “They have been subjected to similar violations to those they ran from.”

Masereka Z. can attest to that reality. (He has requested that his last name be redacted out of fear of reprisal.) Masereka, a gay Ugandan man in his early 20s, has been wronged many times over by his government, by other Ugandans and, like Kanyamu, by his own family. He alleges that when he was outed, he and his partner were physically assaulted, and the aggressors then set his house set on fire. While hiding in Kampala, he was discovered by local police, and, he alleges, was starved and tortured at their hands. After he was finally released, battered and weak, he made his way to the Busia district, then across the border and into Kenya, where UNCHR agents picked him up and took him to Kakuma. When corresponding with Truthout by video, he was huddling in a temporary metal-walled shelter, sweltering under a blazing sun. Masereka’s confinement came with no means of support. He says that to leave the shelter to make money is too dangerous.

For gay and trans refugees, their odds of resettlement are slashed before they begin: Only 37 asylum countries recognize LGBTQ+ identity as a valid claim.

He described a ruthless attack that took place within camp borders on July 9. Men armed with knives stabbed, strangled and beat him. His assailants intentionally disfigured him, taking his right eye and leaving other permanent damage. He alleges that in the time since, he has not received adequate medical attention; his face is now a testament to what he has suffered.

“I can’t go back to Uganda,” Masereka told Truthout. “They will kill me. But here in Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps, LGBTQ refugees are being threatened, attacked, persecuted and tortured. But the UNHCR don’t mind.” He says that when he tried to report the harassment and seek protection, police turned him away. “The police favor the homophobic people because they are also homophobic…. We’re facing a lot of threats, torture. Living in fear, no freedom, peace or safety.”

Kanyamu also spent long months at Kakuma. He too witnessed and was subjected to comparably horrific abuses. “I experienced a lot of homophobic attacks — a lot of them. The refugee camp was a very homophobic place. The camp has very bad living conditions.” Kanyamu’s pain was evident as spoke. “Homophobic people could come invade our shelters. A lot of transgender people were stoned. Our items were stolen…. Refugees are suffering…. People are dying at a very high rate. A lot of premature death, a lot of rape. Life is really very bad.”

The worst violence Kanyamu suffered took place in Kakuma. “The most grave attack, I will never forget, happened on the second of March, 2020. I was pushed into a long ditch by a homophobic person. The bones in my right leg were broken and dislocated. And today, I still have that disability.”

Mugisha, echoed by many others, was appalled to hear the stories that members of his Ugandan community have brought back from Kakuma. “The UNHCR is terrible. It’s terrible. There was someone who was so frustrated at their situation [that they took] their own life outside the office of the UNHCR. The [resettlement] process is tedious, it is long. Some of the staff have been rumored not to be LGBT-friendly. The prospect is not favorable for an LGBTQ+ person,” he said.

UNHCR representatives, asked for comment on these allegations, responded with the following statement:

Challenges in the refugee camps exist and we are doing our best to ensure that all refugees in Kenya, including those with an LGBTIQ+ profile, are provided with the best possible protection and assistance on a fair and equal basis. LGBTIQ+ refugees residing in the camps have free and non-discriminatory access to services offered to all residents in the camps, including food, shelter, counselling, healthcare and specialized gender-based violence services.

The UNHCR statement went on to cite the agency’s efforts to respond to violence with increased security patrols, reporting measures like a hotline, coordination with local law enforcement, and legal support and counseling for refugees.

It concluded: “UNHCR remains deeply concerned about the spread of incorrect information regarding the LGBTIQ+ situation in Kakuma. The situation is very complex, and the spreading of misinformation undermines our continued and collective efforts to protect those in need.”

Kanyamu is one of the few LGBTQ+ people fleeing Uganda who has successfully relocated abroad. He was sponsored by Canadian citizens who learned of his plight online, enabling him to leave Kakuma to resettle in Vancouver, British Columbia. Masereka, however, has not been as fortunate. At the time of publication, he remains in the treacherous limbo of Kakuma. Back in Uganda, unknown thousands more linger in hiding, waiting for their fate to unfold.

In his plaintive and sincere voice, SMUG’s Mugisha made an appeal to LGBTQ+ communities in the West. “We need solidarity. The LGBT community in the West should not take it for granted that they have rights. Their siblings in the Global South are really struggling,” he implored. “They need to provide solidarity to us —we need it.”

That need alone should be reason to aid LGBTQ+ refugees. But the U.S. owes more to Uganda than is apparent on the surface. It is a grim irony that the U.S., one of the nations best-positioned to help gay and trans Ugandan refugees, also bears significant responsibility for their oppression. The appalling truth is that the last decade of escalating homophobia in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa has been directly instigated and inflamed by our homegrown, all-too-familiar evangelical Christian right.

Religious Homophobes Warn of Impending Human Rights

Neocolonial missionary conversion efforts in Africa are nothing new. But in the last decade, a particular crop of U.S. religious reactionaries, seeing their agenda begin to falter in the Barack Obama years, would set their sights on new breeding grounds abroad. One of their primary targets was Uganda. In 2009, the Zambian LGBTQ+ advocate Rev. Kapya Kaoma produced a groundbreaking report, Globalizing the Culture Wars. Reverend Kaoma’s research documented several religious denominations newly active in Africa; key groups included televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, a Catholic group called Human Life International, and the Mormon activist Sharon Slater’s group Family Watch. Evangelicals and other religious extremists have committed massive spending to the continent to export their culture war.

Whatever ambient religious conservatism and homophobia was preexistent in Uganda, the ideological character of this upsurge is very much a Western import. U.S. evangelicals, wrote Kaoma in another report on the issue, stoked fears of a “collapse of the African family at the hands of the international ‘gay agenda.’”

Mugisha concurred that the evangelical role in catalyzing this wave of hate should not be underestimated. “Most of what we’re seeing now — the waves of homophobia and transphobia — is because of the influence of the Christian evangelicals, especially Americans,” he said. “We’ve never seen this before in Uganda.”

Elements of the U.S. religious right have directly lobbied African governments to impose anti-gay legislation, including the Ugandan hate laws. They’ve also pushed to institute gay “conversion therapy” and further a reactionary agenda that includes agitating against reproductive freedoms like abortion and contraception (a particularly malignant act in the midst of Africa’s HIV crisis). In 2012, Mugisha and SMUG filed suit in U.S. courts against Scott Lively, a far right media personality who addressed Uganda’s Parliament in favor of the hate laws.

Right-wing evangelicals are keen to demonize Western and African human rights activists and warn of the encroaching “homosexual agenda.” To infiltrate and portray their insinuations as a grassroots phenomenon, right-wing groups in Africa have attempted to blend in by filling their lower rungs with local hires to disguise their very white, very Western origins. (The Kaoma report calls this phenomenon White Skin, Black Masks.) Right-wing polemicists charge that it is actually the endogenous African LGBTQ+ community that is the malicious “neocolonial” foreign influence — which, of course, far better describes themselves.

The barb is a calculated one. The religious right knows that the anti-colonial framing has purchase in Uganda. By supplying this ideology, they have handed opportunistic Ugandan politicians a weapon. They are now able to cast blame on minorities and reframe the longtime struggle of local African LGBTQ+ people as an alien Western agenda. Unfortunately, even the international outrage over the hate bill can be instrumentalized by these forces, up to and including President Museveni. The latter, explained Mugisha, has been able to parlay the condemnation into evidence of his anti-Western bona fides and burnish his image.

Mugisha emphasized the international nature of the struggle. “Back home in America, [LGBTQ+ people] should see that the evangelical movement is winning. They’re bringing up new legislation every day, they’re fighting trans rights, they’re fighting drag queens. But they are also fighting in Africa, in Uganda, doing their work every day. They partner with the elite — the politicians and the church leaders.”

A Long Queue Out of Close Danger

It is morally incumbent on the West to aid the victims of these circumstances. The U.S. allows a comparatively large refugee quota, at 125,000 a year, though the intake was brought to zero by Trump and is only gradually ramping back up to quota under President Joe Biden. (Notably, as of August 3, the Biden administration has instituted a drastic new asylum ban: Contra immigration law, anyone who was in the U.S. without permission will now be presumptively denied.)

Regardless, even all Western efforts combined remain orders of magnitude below global needs. Moreover, LGBTQ+ refugees face a multilayered set of barriers — not only those of a refugee, but also the complications of social stigma and systemic bigotry. Despite some efforts, the U.S. system still insufficiently accounts for their special vulnerability. Truthout reached Aaron Morris, the executive director of Immigration Equality, an LGBTQ+ refugee law, policy and advocacy organization, to elaborate.

“Most of what we’re seeing now — the waves of homophobia and transphobia — is because of the influence of the Christian evangelicals, especially Americans.”

As Morris noted, “Very few LGBTQ people are being resettled as refugees, and there’s a whole host of reasons why that’s the case. Probably the primary one is that they have an incentive not to self-identify.” In other words, it’s simply unsafe to out themselves to anyone. The stakes could not be higher for many in the global LGBTQ+ community, who “are some of the most embattled as we wait for resettlement. There are gross human rights violations happening everywhere … to LGBTQ people because of who they are.”

The difficulties only compound from there, with bureaucratic and practical obstacles to escape, added to the overarching threat of violence. Since they can’t go to police, explained Morris, Ugandans “lack access to legal protections. If you have a partner, and you don’t have access to marriage, it affects your ability to resettle together as a family.” He pointed out that potential resettlement countries in the West do “recognize sexual orientation and identity as fundamentally protected human rights that would warrant a refugee resettlement. But if they are not aware of your sexual orientation or gender identity, … then people don’t get resettled.”

“To the credit of UNCHR headquarters and the U.S. government, that’s a concern for them, and they’re interested in finding ways to change that. And we [at Immigration Equality] have been working with them to do so,” Morris added. Immigration Equality, among other efforts, analyzes and critiques immigration law, advocates for reforms and generates policy options for systemic change. They also offer legal services and represent hundreds of litigants in asylum cases and refugees for resettlement.

The organization is also “trying to work with international bodies and the U.S. government to come up with a system to better identify and prioritize resettlement of LGBT refugees.” Morris said that Western governments, broadly speaking, do want to prioritize LGBTQ+ people. On that front, the outlook is “promising.”

However, the underlying problem is that “the system is very, very slow, and a very tiny percentage of refugees globally are actually resettled every year” — with LGBTQ+ refugees, of course, representing only a fraction of that fraction. Exactly what fraction is not clear; as a matter of course, the U.S. government does not track LGBTQ+ cases, and data is sorely lacking, which only makes addressing the issue more difficult.

Only when Kanyamu arrived in Canada did he allow himself to believe that the worst of the ordeal was truly behind him. His Canadian sponsors may well have saved his life. “They heard my story. And they really came together to sponsor me, and my boyfriend, too.” Kanyamu has been settled in Canada for over a year now, meaning that he averted the worst law’s passage. But, like too many other escapees, he had to leave loved ones behind.

Before escape was even on the distant horizon, a labyrinthian and unequal process lay ahead. For gay and trans refugees, their odds of resettlement are slashed before they begin: Only 37 asylum countries recognize LGBTQ+ identity as a valid claim. Refugees to such countries are almost all referred through UNHCR or an embassy. Those who are sponsored by U.S. citizens or who are otherwise seeking entry to the U.S. are shunted through highly intensive Department of Homeland Security screenings, then processed by a resettlement agency and assisted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

One of nine primary resettlement agencies — such as the International Rescue Committee, or faith-based groups like Church World Services and HIAS, that operate resettlement centers — will then work in concert with a sprawling web of intergovernmental partners. These include the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a patchwork of federal agencies, advocacy groups, state offices, and other organizations that might assist LGBTQ+ refugees on their journey in direct and indirect ways, from policy , to legal aid, to skills training. These include dedicated LGBTQ+ legal and policy groups like Immigration Equality, as well as other major refugee aid organizations that like the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration that have an arm that attends to specific LGBTQ+ needs.

Refugees may gain assistance from international sponsors, who may raise money and offer various supports. The latest sponsor format is the Biden administration’s Welcome Corps program, unrolled in January of this year, which facilitates citizen sponsorship of refugees. The program will mobilize small groups of five or more U.S. citizens to raise money and take on other tasks to support resettlement during the first 90 days. That there are so many willing volunteers and eager sponsors speaks to the cooperative spirit and the compassion of the average public, so often lacking in the structures that govern and constrain them.

It was a similar type of sponsorship arrangement that brought Kanyamu to Canada. As he tells it, his Canadian sponsors “did great work writing emails to the UNHCR and Canadian Embassy in Nairobi to expedite the process, since I was going through various homophobic attacks, including the one that left my left leg broken and dislocated.” After the embassy issued him a visa, the IOM, acknowledging his perilous situation, expedited his escape to Vancouver.

Moral Obscenity and Moral Obligation

Kanyamu’s freedom is as sweet as others’ continued tribulations are bitter. Masereka, injured and destitute, still waits in Kakuma, one of thousands of LGBTQ+ Ugandans who continue to suffer as a consequence of the hateful ideology that the U.S. right has implanted in their home country.

Meanwhile, Mugisha’s tireless work continues in defiance of grave danger. SMUG and other Ugandans in the community make great sacrifices and take enormous risks to continue, as Mugisha put it to Truthout, to “meet up with fellow LGBTQ+ people and give them some hope and encouragement, and show them that this at some point will end. We’re trying to support those who are very vulnerable.”

From the heart of the struggle, Mugisha appealed for international aid and cross-border solidarity. “I think it’s very unfortunate that we haven’t seen any countries come up and offer very quick pathways to the LGBT community in Uganda, which has been vilified for a very long time,” he said. “This should have been the moment when countries said, Yes, we are willing to take in this number of Ugandans who want to flee for safety.

“We are calling on all countries to help the LGBT community, but they are not doing it. We’ve seen countries evacuate people who are at risk,” Mugisha said. “We’ve seen countries offer status to people who are in countries that are hostile to them. Why is that not happening to Uganda? Why is that not happening to the LGBTQ community? Why can’t countries have a pathway that allows a safe way for LGBTQ people to reach safe countries that are accepting, and where people can be free?”

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