Sunday 26th January 2014 marked three years since the murder of David Kato, the Ugandan LGBTQI-rights activist and teacher. Kato was instrumental in fostering a sense of community and support network for LGBTQI Ugandans facing a rising tide of homophobia from the state and media. He was also prominent in resisting the legislation that is currently being tabled in the Ugandan Parliament, a bill that would see life imprisonment for gay people. As of January 17th 2014, that bill seems to have been blocked by the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who has called for further evidence that homosexuality is a social ‘problem’ rather than ‘biological’ (‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘natural’). The exact future of the bill remains unclear.
The film, Call Me Kuchu (2012) is a tribute to Kato’s life and work, as well as an exposition of the LGBTQI community’s struggles against state-sponsored homophobia, fuelled by sponsorship from conservative Christian groups in the USA. When our small, co-operatively run art-house cinema in Champaign, Illinois screened Call Me Kuchu, and when I agreed to act as a post-film discussant with my colleague, T.J. Tallie, I was little prepared for the question that I was asked to reflect on. “What historical examples would you draw on to help and encourage this group of LGBTQI activists?” As a white, queer historian, the beneficiary of the legacy of British imperial exploitation, I had no intention of rehearsing a historian’s version of the ‘it gets better’ campaign. Indeed, to do so would simply replicate imperial condescensions and liberal teleologies. I was stumped as to how to respond.
Looping through my mind were the images from the film of Westerners condemning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the United Nations, threatening the withdrawal of aid should the bill pass Parliament and remarking on the ‘barbarity’ of state-sponsored homophobia. Responses to these international threats in Uganda, as well as in Zimbabwe, has been to condemn homosexuality as a ‘Western’ disease and proclaim homosexuality inherently ‘unAfrican’, even though the law to which they are adding – Section 140 of the criminal code punishing “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” – is a British imperial inheritance dating back to 1860. The Ugandan LGBTQI activists who are seeking justice, equality and acceptance stand at this most precarious juncture, caught between the legacies of European imperialism and the struggles of a post-colonial nation to assert independence and legitimacy at a terrible cost.
Reflecting on that impossible question, it is not the many inspiring examples of LGBT activism that spring to mind. Rather, it is the more sober but plentiful histories of popular prejudices and their enshrinement in law, so frequently linked to periods of socio-economic depression and instability. The rise of Nazism in post-World War One Germany is the classic, and oft-cited, example. The rise of racism and trans-phobia in Greece today offers another, as does the rise of racism and homophobia in Russia. The apparent increase in instances of police homophobia in Egypt suggests a relationship between unstable times and assertive, homophobic masculinity.
To return to Uganda and international condemnations of state-sponsored homophobia, it seems to me disingenuous and dangerous for Western nations to use the strategies and discourse of imperialism in an effort to support ‘gay’ rights (it is interesting how quickly trans* rights drop off when the discussion reaches the international arena). It is the historical entanglements of sexuality, masculinity and racism with imperial capitalist economics that render the position of these Ugandan LGBTQI activists so precarious.
Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas (eds), Queer African Reader (Dakar, 2013)
Onni Gust is Mellon post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, researching and teaching on early-nineteenth century gender formation in the context of European imperial expansion, particularly in India. Onni teaches European Imperial History and Gender and Sexuality Studies, works with LGBT youth and takes part in queer anti-racist and trans activism in the UK and USA.
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