Under the headline “Hang Them,” on the front cover of the Ugandan tabloid notorious for outing gays and lesbians, sat a picture of heterosexual Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. His inclusion was only the latest example of the persecution that the bishop has faced for speaking out on behalf of the country’s embattled homosexual community.
The Ugandan Rolling Stone (no affiliation to the US publication), which has outed almost 30 gays and lesbians over two of its issues, epitomizes the heightened discrimination that gays and lesbians and their allies have faced following the introduction of legislation that would, among other things, implement the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” After an outcry from Western donors, the Ugandan president backed away from the bill and it stalled in committee. In the year since the bill was introduced, however, gays and lesbians have still faced violence, eviction, and job loss.
Though he is heterosexual and married with children, the 78-year-old wasn’t surprised by his inclusion in the tabloid. Senyonjo, who has a kind, grandfatherly manner, has experienced similar treatment since he first started counseling gays and lesbians; he is one of the few members of the clergy in Uganda who does so. “I’m somehow used to this kind of talk and harassment,” he said, referring to looks and comments when he’s out in public, prayers for him to change his mind, and once, a slap from a stranger in the street. “These are the sort of things I expect,” he said.
In 2001 when the Church of Uganda discovered that Bishop Senyonjo was working with gays and lesbians, he was expelled and stripped of his pension. Local papers accused him of being motivated by money from American gay groups, being gay himself, and “recruiting” children into homosexuality and threats of mob justice got so bad that the bishop was forced to stay in the U.S. for six months.
Despite the persecution, he has continued to support Ugandan gays and lesbians, counseling those who come to him from a tiny office in a Kampala suburb. “I feel I have to do my work whatever is said by people against me,” he said. “My conviction is that I have to bring good news to people who are marginalized.”
In a nation where as many as 95% of citizens oppose the legalization of homosexuality, many see his efforts differently. The paper’s publisher, Giles Muhame, explains the bishop’s inclusion by calling him a “gay sympathizer,” adding that, “by protecting people who practice an activity which is outlawed, he is condoning evil.”
A Kampala court has granted an injunction temporarily banning the tabloid from outing gays and lesbians until November 23 when a final decision will be made. Muhame said his newspaper will continue to print articles denouncing homosexuality and he is hopeful that the judge’s final ruling will allow the paper to continue outing gays because, he says, “we have about 70 [more] pictures that we want to publish.”
But Muhame contends that his newspaper is not responsible for the attacks on those gays and lesbians outed in his pages. “Whatever happens is as a result of their own misdeeds. It is their own behaviour that is causing the attacks.”
Stosh M. is one such victim. Just days after her name and picture were published, Stosh was out buying cigarettes when a crowd of 10 or 12 neighbors, including some former friends, stood outside the shop and jeered. After the first stone was thrown Stosh ran for home. “I did not look back. Stones were going by me and they were saying, ‘This one is a faggot.’” Stosh stayed hidden in her house after that, though she has since gone into hiding in another part of the city. “I couldn’t stay in that place. I wasn’t feeling safe at all anymore.”
Sitting at a table in a dark corner of a local bar, Stosh asks for a cigarette. She’s smoking more these days, she says, and her longtime partner tells her she’s been talking in her sleep “about the stones.”
Frank Mugisha, of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), notes that the gays and lesbians targeted by Rolling Stone aren’t the only homosexuals to be harassed in the past year. SMUG has documented 20 cases of gays attacked and 17 arrested in the year since the anti-gay legislation was proposed, though Mugisha suspects that the actual numbers may be much higher.
Sitting in his office in an unmarked house in a Kampala suburb, Mugisha explains that the debate over the proposed law has increased the profile of gays and lesbians and polarized opinion on homosexuality even further. “Everybody is thinking, ‘What can I do for or against homosexuality in Uganda?’ Some people are saying, ‘What can I do to support this minority group?’ and some people are saying ‘What can I do to stop these monsters?’”
In many instances the persecutors were directly motivated by the impending bill. Mugisha says that despite the fact that it is not law, people still cite it as a justification for discrimination:
In two rural areas [where gays were arrested] I asked the people, ‘Why did you choose to give these people to the authorities after living with them for a very long time?’ They told me it was because Uganda has come up with a law that you are supposed to arrest homosexuals. These are people who have grown up in the same place and lived in the same place for over 15 years and been known as homosexuals and have never been harassed; but when the bill was introduced, they were harassed.
Since the initial outing there’s been renewed talk about passing bill, making it the law of the land. While it has yet to reach first reading in the Ugandan parliament, the bill’s author, David Bahati, has indicated that he’s continuing to push for its passage.
Seeing his face on the cover of the tabloid has, for Bishop Senyonjo, revived fears that he could be made a criminal before the law. “What [they] were publishing was quite scary,” said Senyonjo. “They were saying that they have a lot of money behind them; they were saying… that the bill could resurface. If the bill is passed, I would definitely be in trouble.”