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Kasha Jaqueline Nabagesera is one of the leading LGBTQI activists in Uganda. She recently travelled to Brussels to attend the Belgian Pride as a guest of the VUB’s official delegation. We caught up with Nabagesera in Mothers & Daughters, a pop-up lesbian bar and art space in the city centre of Brussels, to discuss Ugandan politics, the value of Pride celebrations and why she’s hopeful for the future.
Text: Linda A. Thompson
Foto: Jean Cosyn
Gay sex is a crime in Uganda that can carry sentences from three years to life imprisonment, and LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexual) people are frequently targeted in hate crimes. How does this repressive environment affect your day-to-day life like as a human rights activist?
A good day is when I wake up and everything is quiet. Politicians aren’t talking about us, and I don’t get any calls that someone’s been arrested or attacked. That’s when I might go parliament and listen to that day’s debate, or attend meetings or run workshops.
Some days I can’t leave the house at all. Because every time there’s a big political or economic crisis, politicians try to deflect people’s attention by using us as a scapegoat. That’s why you have to know what kind of rhetoric is out there, what’s being said on the radio and TV. Because if there is some news item on a national crisis, you can be very sure that the next item will be inciting hatred of homosexuality.
Why did you start Freedom and Roam Uganda and what does this organisation do?
We do a lot of economic empowerment and vocational and legal training. We also focus on health issues – so that’s everything from pap smears and cancer, to mental health issues and intimate partner violence, something that isn’t discussed enough when it comes to relationships between two women. We started this organisation as feminist women because we wanted our own space for lesbian, bisexual and queer women, where they would feel free to talk about the issues affecting them. We do advocate with others at the national level and all come together under one umbrella, that of the Sexual Minorities Uganda NGO. Today, I’m just a member of Farug though; I stepped down as director in 2013 to let in some fresh blood.
Last year, several VUB students visited Farug as part of the university’s CHanGE project. What was the value in collaborating with the VUB for you?
The VUB is and was conducting projects with local Ugandan universities on gender issues. We do not have that avenue as a social justice movement; we are censored when it comes to raising awareness of LGBT issues among students. If we do, we’ll be accused of “promoting” homosexuality or “recruiting”. So if we have partners who can help us bridge that gap, I always welcome it.
I later got a call from the university; they said it was their first time participating in Belgian Pride and that they’d love to invite me as their guest. I said: Why not? Because it gives me an opportunity to learn even more about the university’s project face-to-face and to share with them what I think would be helpful to us as an LGBT community.
You’ve organised six Uganda Prides – four successful ones; the last two were shut down by the government. You’ve said you want to organise another Pride event this August. What do you see as the value of Pride celebrations in a country like Uganda?
I realised that many of my colleagues might never have opportunity to celebrate Pride like I’ve been able to, attending Prides I’m invited to as an activist around the world. I thought: Why not take Pride to Uganda? I also realised that not all my community members are into politics; many of them are contributing to the movement in different ways. And it doesn’t have to be about politics all year round. Why not have a time where everyone who has contributed, who’s part of this struggle, who is an ally, come together, meet each other and celebrate their achievements? That’s the value – just to see people letting go of all their stresses, just for a few hours. Every day, people are hustling, crying, fighting, attempting suicide, but for one moment in the year at least they can let go. At the same time, it’s also a protest against what we go through on daily basis, and a reminder that a lot still needs to be done.
You became an activist at the age of 19, almost twenty years ago. Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m very hopeful – if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be doing this work. I read a lot and I’ve read a lot about social justice movements around the world from the past. I see where they started out and where they are today, and that gives me a lot of hope. [We went to Pride in Brussels this weekend] but the city wasn’t like this 50 years ago. So where we are today is really not that unique. Others have been there and have gotten out of there, so that gives me hope.
What is you want most for the future?
We want protection. To be free from violence; that is the very first thing. We just want to be who we are without people pointing at us, beating us, killing us; without having our workshops shut down, without being sacked from jobs or being expelled from school. We want to go to church and celebrate our faith and not have the preacher incite violence toward us or our community. It’s so basic really; I don’t even know why we have to beg. These are inherent rights we are born with, but our government has made it so difficult for us to exercise them.