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What it's like planning the first Pride in a country where it's illegal to be gay

“Most people here have never met an openly LGBT+ person”

What it's like planning the first Pride in a country where it's illegal to be gay
04 July 2018

On 1 July 1972 the UK’s first Gay Pride march took place in London. The protest was organised by the Gay Liberation Front, who aimed to show that gay people were proud and not ashamed. Coming out of the shadows to stand up for LGBT+ rights, the GLF wanted to increase visibility and, as the name suggests, demand liberation from the shackles of heteronormative society.

Almost half a century later, much has changed within the Pride movement. London Pride 2017 saw corporations including banks, supermarkets and law firms sponsoring floats, with an array of political parties taking part in the parade. Last month Sheffield Pride even came under fire for depoliticising its 2018 event by describing it as a “celebration, not protest”. 

This year, Costa coffee released limited edition Pride cups 

As the debate over the purpose of Pride in western nations like the UK continues to swirl, new Pride events are constantly emerging across the world where they face even more obstacles and ignorance. With over 70 countries continuing to criminalise same-sex activity between men, including 45 that also criminalise female homosexuality, organising new Pride events can be challenging, dangerous and, in some places, impossible. But each year LGBT+ people defy political, cultural and geographical barriers in the name of visibility.

“Most people [here] have never met an openly LGBT+ person,” says Dr Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an NGO that advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights for LGBT+ Ugandans. “The only information they have is what they read in the media, which is extremely negative.”

At present, 34 out of 55 African nations prohibit consensual same-sex activity, meaning Africa has a higher number of criminalising countries than any other continent. Politicians, faith leaders, and the media have been quick to capitalise on hostility towards the LGBT+ community, creating fertile ground for discrimination and violence to thrive.

“Uganda is very dangerous for any person who is known to be gay,” says Frank. SMUG was founded by his close friend David Kato, who was murdered in 2011 after becoming the face of Uganda’s gay rights movement. Both male and female homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, and a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that a staggering 96 per cent of respondents did not think that society should accept homosexuality.

Attendees were brutally beaten and organisers were thrown in jail

Frank says he was motivated to become an activist in an attempt to escape the “heterosexual and hostile environment” that dominated his early life. In 2012, he began organising the first ever Pride Uganda. A task that was far from easy and marred by legal, political and cultural obstacles. 

“Ethics and integrity” minister Simon Lokodo is one of the most powerful opponents of LGBT+ rights in Uganda. As a former Catholic priest, he exemplifies the close relationship between Uganda’s political and religious leaders. In a 2014 interview he stated that he would rather die than kiss another man, even comparing it to eating his own faeces. After 2012’s event was raided by authorities, Pride Uganda diminished in profile over the subsequent years. In 2016, despite a successful opening ceremony, 2016’s Pride was halted by police. Attendees were brutally beaten and organisers, including Frank, were thrown in jail.

Anti-gay protesters marching in Kampala in 2014

After Pride 2016, we decided to reach out to the police and politicians to form a dialogue to avoid the same thing happening again,” explains Frank. In addition to seeking advance permission from police, Frank held a meeting with Lokodo to explain why Pride was so important LGBT+ Ugandans.

“He telephoned me and told me ‘bring me LGBT people to my office’,” Frank says. “I took him fifteen LGBT people. He questioned each of them and couldn’t believe they were ‘like me’.

“He asked: ‘why would you be with men when you could be with so many beautiful Ugandan women?’ Some people found it funny, but it shows that homosexuality in Uganda is seen as nothing more than a sexual act.”

Despite this meeting, on the eve of 2017’s Pride, police informed organisers of their intention to halt the event. To avoid the violence of 2016, which left the community scarred and shaken, Frank and his fellow organisers made the heart-breaking decision to cancel the event in advance.

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“I am optimistic that we are seeing changes,” Frank says, despite the numerous setbacks. “The fact that we have dialogue with the police and faith leaders and are embracing social media as a way to change the media narrative gives me hope.” Pride Uganda will return in 2018, though it remains to be seen whether the authorities will allow it to go ahead uninterrupted. “If the public don’t see gay people, then they remain ignorant,” says Frank.

“Pride gives a lot of hope and acceptance to so many closeted LGBT+ people in Uganda. It is a moment of happiness and peace that is denied to us the rest of the year.”

“The government is always clamping down on us, making sure we cannot push things forward”

King Mswati III of Swaziland (recently renamed eSwatini) is one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world. This means he retains control of political, legal and religious institutions in the southern African nation, which has a small population of just 1.3million.

“Everything goes back to the King as the guardian of tradition and the church as the guardians of society,” says LGBT+ activist Melusi Simelane. “Society is structured based on tradition and what the church says.” 

The situation in eSwatini is both intricate and interesting because there is currently a “legal vacuum” surrounding homosexuality, meaning that LGBT+ people are not protected from any forms of discrimination. Pro-LGBT+ organisations like The Rock of Hope Swaziland, where Melusi works, are only allowed to form because of freedom of expression laws.

“The government is always clamping down on us making sure we cannot push things too far forward,” he says. Sodomy is currently banned in eSwatini based on a colonial-era law that was imposed by the British, although it is no longer enforced. “It’s like saying: ‘I have a gun, but I’m not going to shoot you because my policy is not to shoot you. Though I still could if I wanted to,’” explains Melusi.

This year saw the first ever Pride celebrations in eSwatini. Partnered with international NGO AllOut, Melusi has been at the helm of organising the event. Given the complex after effects of colonisation, and the fact that Pride is often viewed as a western concept, he is both excited and scared at the prospect. “A lot can change in a short time in countries with small populations and it can either go right or wrong.

“I’d love the world to see that even in a small country like Swaziland we are able to stand our ground and stand up for our rights. It is a day to celebrate our differences and diversity, for it is our differences that make us human.”

“If you’re a man, then you’re expected to act like man”

Fiji is another country to have its first official Pride festival in 2018. The island officially decriminalised homosexuality in 2010, but colonial-era laws still penalise LGBT+ people in eight Pacific countries. Lagi Seru of the Rainbow Pride Foundation, Fiji’s main LGBT rights group who lead the organisation of Pride, asserts that cultural and religious barriers still impact LGBT+ Fijians in all areas of life. 

“Fiji is of Christian faith and we have rich connections with our culture and tradition,” explains Lagi. “There are a lot of conservatives who do not accept homosexuality or people expressing themselves openly. You’re put into certain boxes. If you’re a man, then you’re expected to act like man.”

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Over the last decade Rainbow Pride and other LGBT+ groups have attempted to sensitise the public and key government departments, such as the police and the military, to LGBT+ issues. “This awareness and advocacy work has increased understanding about the LGBT+ community,” he explains. “We are here to stay and we are part of the diversity that exists in Fiji.” But there is still work to do. “The biggest issue that we need to address is violence and the lack of understanding of within communities, workplaces and churches.”

Lagi believes that Fiji’s first Pride parade, held to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in May 2018, has been an effective tool for healing divisions. “The march was planned to raise awareness of the community and the challenges that we face on a daily basis,” he explains. “Community members loved it and it was a safe space,” he says. “It was totally new and had never happened before. It gave the community a big boost and we’ll definitely be back next year.”

“If I’m forced to hide I feel like I’m in a hostile environment that won’t accept me, which is toxic” 

As LGBT+ people break new ground in tropical places like Fiji, this year will also see the first official Pride celebrations in Antarctica, proving that LGBT+ people can create communities anywhere. Zachary Morgan first stumbled across a job advert for a dishwasher at McMurdo, a United States operated Antarctic research centre, in 2009. Two months later he found himself travelling towards the South Pole.

“I’ve always loved to travel and knowing that I’m somewhere that’s so far away. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to,” he explains. Despite not knowing much about the US involvement in the region, Zachary liked it so much that he still works as a cook at the station a decade on. To his surprise, the continent’s largest research station, which currently has a winter population of 133, has a thriving LGBT+ community.

“It was when I first came down I had no idea what it was going to be like,” he says. “I had just come out and I was self-conscious about my sexuality. Almost immediately I found LGBT+ people and everyone was very supportive and welcoming.”

The LGBT+ community and allies at McMurdo station

Most of the LGBT+ people living in McMurdo have lived there for several winters and know each other well. Meetings between the roughly ten LGBT+ people and allies are regular. “We’re a nice tight knit group,” Zachary explains. “The group is fairly large this year so we thought: ‘why not have a Pride celebration?’”

The event, which will be open to anyone, including the nearby research station run by New Zealand, reaffirms to Zachary the importance of being your authentic self. “To hide is stressful. If I’m forced to hide I feel like I’m in a hostile environment that won’t accept me, which is toxic,” he says.

“Living here I don’t have to hide anything and I can be truly honest and live authentically.”

McMurdo’s first Pride celebration comes at a tense time in America, the country which most of its residents call home. There was a spike in anti-LGBT+ hate crimes following the election of Donald Trump, and the president is threatening to chip away at LGBT+ rights with his proposal to ban transgender people from the military, as well as his support for the First Amendment Defense Act, which could enable discrimination across all areas of life from housing to healthcare. Zachary believes that Pride has never been more relevant. 

“Even though we won the battle for marriage equality in the US we still have to keep fighting for our rights and showing that our voices are heard,” he says. “It’s always good to see new people coming here and being themselves.

“To me, that’s the point of Pride everywhere.” 

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(Pics: Costa, Getty, Zachary Morgan)