Ugandan LGBT activist asks Colorado students for solidarity

Clare Byarugaba traveled from Uganda this month to plea with Colorado’s student activists to support her country’s LGBT community, which has been under government attack.

As one of the few openly LGBT activists in Uganda, Byarugaba has risked her family relationships, personal safety and freedom to advocate for civil rights and put an end to the anti-gay coalition formed between conservative U.S. evangelicals and Uganda’s political leadership.

Byarugaba led a group of activists to combat the country’s anti-homosexuality bill enacted in 2012 that would have sentenced LGBT people to prison. The measure was defeated in court because of a procedural foible in 2014.

“Right now being gay in Uganda is not illegal,” she says. But “homosexual acts” are prohibited based on an antiquated British colonial law still on the country’s books.

“Our government is using a law imported into Uganda by the British to issue criminal charges for same sex conduct or what they call ‘unnatural offenses’ or ‘unnatural acts,’” she says.

Having fought these laws, Byarugaba has incurred the wrath of anti-LGBT Christians. She says she cannot safely walk down the street in Uganda alone. She cannot take public transportation without being insulted. She is trolled and condemned online. Perhaps most painfully, her own mother threatened to call the police on her if she did not quit advocating for LGBT rights.

“I’m really a target. Once you’re visible, once you refuse to be underground and once you refuse to apologize for you are and who you love, once you don’t conform to society’s expectations for who you should be, you become a pariah. You become a target of violence,” she says.

The next phase of the movement, as Byarugaba tells it, requires healing rifts within families and encouraging straight allies – especially parents – to speak out on behalf of their LGBT children. She is raising funds to organize a PFLAG chapter to spark conversations between parents and children about LGBT life and struggles in Uganda.

On her tour across Colorado, she asked students to look beyond their borders, recognizing that people in the United States have fought to decriminalize same-sex desire and to champion marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws. She hopes U.S. students will travel to Uganda and question people in power about the nation’s attitudes toward the LGBT community. Her hope is that Americans will not come to Uganda as know-it-all saviors but will instead take leadership from on the ground LGBT activists.

“It’s important to keep an eye on Uganda and to keep asking good questions — of course, with guidance,” she says. “When exercising solidarity, there is a need for you to speak with the LGBT community in Uganda. Do not speak for us. Speak with us, and let us guide you in what is most helpful.”

Photo credit: Clare Byarugaba