Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera: “Africa’s LGBT community is stronger together”

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera is one of the leading LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activists on the African continent. She is one of the founding members of the Ugandan LGBTI movement and played an instrumental role in scrapping down draconian anti-gay legislation in 2014 that became widely known as the “kill the gays” bill (the draft law called for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality”), earning the country notoriety far outside its borders. In an interview with Equal Times ahead of the Pan Africa ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) conference in Gaborone, Botswana, Nabagesera discussed why Ugandan lawmakers are taking a subtler, but more dangerous tack this time and why she sees her fight as a pan-African one above all else.

What is the value of meeting activists from across the continent at the pan-African ILGA conference?

In the LGBT community in Africa, we have networks: we have the gay men’s network, we have the trans network, we have the sex workers’ network, we have the Coalition of African Lesbians. And all of us come under one network as a continent – Pan African ILGA. [I’m here] to sit and reflect on what we’ve we been doing the past two years. Every two years, we meet as a continent and celebrate our successes. We look at best practices: ‘What can we copy from this country? What have they achieved?’ Because as much as we all come from different countries, we share so many similarities. When it comes to arguments like ‘homosexuality is un-African’, when it comes to religion, when it comes to culture. We have all this in common, so we have to share resources, skills and knowledge.

It’s also important for us to know what’s happening on the African continent because we know we are stronger together. Because we’ve seen our politicians copying one another, so it’s very important to keep tabs on other countries.

How would you describe your strategy as an organiser?

I’ve seen so many movements die on the continent because their leaders are no longer active, have died or have left the continent. I don’t want that to happen to the Ugandan movement. It’s why I decided to step down from the organisation I started [Freedom and Roam Uganda, or FARUG] after 10 years, so that other people can lead it while I’m still able to help out. I stay near FARUG, so every time they need counsel, I’m just a phone call away. I want – even when we’re not here tomorrow – for the movement to continue. It’s why I’m just happy to be part of the foundation, to see that other members don’t have to repeat the same mistakes we made, but that they learn from them.

I understand that homosexuality is a crime in Uganda, but what kind of behaviour exactly is illegal under national law?

“Acts of carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” section 145 of the penal code –that’s what they are using to prosecute my community. It’s a British law that all former colonies have; you go to Jamaica, Asia, Africa, India…you will find the same thing. Being former colonies, our governments have used this to criminalise homosexuals. It carries sentences of a minimum of three years to life imprisonment.

How does this law tie in with the 2014 law that became known as the “kill the gays” law? That law was rejected on procedural grounds thanks to your efforts and those of fellow activists, but there are rumours that the government is trying to reintroduce it?

The reason they tried to introduce tougher laws in Uganda is because it’s very difficult to determine who is practising “acts of carnal knowledge against the order of the nature”. The law is very clear; you have to be caught in the act. That’s why they tried to introduce this tougher law; because we know the loopholes and they wanted to stop us from advocating. Because that article cannot stop us from advocating. Under the 2014 law, even just failure to report someone gay carried sentences; me travelling to talk about LGBT issues would have been illegal.

That law was passed but it was nullified that same year after we petitioned the court. Because the government feels that we’ve been let off the hook, they’re now trying to introduce a different bill. But they do not want the same kind of attention they got from the international community in 2014, so they’re using very cunning language so that people will not pay attention.

What do you mean?

With “kill the gays”, they learnt their lesson. So, they’re introducing laws with more inviting titles and language so that people think they are supporting anti-pornography laws for instance. Everyone would support anti-pornography laws. But when you read the content of the laws that they are reintroducing now, they’re actually fighting civil society; they’re fighting sexual minorities; they’re fighting women. This is the new trend our parliamentarians are using, so they don’t get international attention. That’s why it’s important for us to really fight so that the new law doesn’t reach parliament. Because the moment it does, it will be passed.

What leverage do you have to stop the bill from reaching the floor?

We lobby a lot. We use our network to lobby parliamentarians to make sure they talk to their own fellow members of parliament to stop this nonsense and madness. We use our political networks so, for instance, the diplomatic missions help us lobby. Because we’re not in this fight alone. Some members of parliaments are supportive of LGBT rights. Many of them have had to pay a political price and were not voted back into parliament when they helped us petition the constitutional court [to nullify the 2014 bill]. No matter whether they’re a church leader, media personality or politician, every time people come out openly to support LGBT rights, they pay a price – just like activists.

Why do you think that the government insists on portraying homosexuality as a threat to traditional family values?

That language is not Ugandan language. The “protection of traditional family values” is American evangelical language. This is the language they are spreading around the world, and they are specifically targeting countries that are so much into Christianity. Everywhere these evangelicals go, afterwards anti-propaganda laws are passed. But we not only need to change laws; we also need to change mindsets.

How are you doing that?

We are using my media platforms [Kuchu Times and Bombastic Magazine] and continuing to engage with our oppressors. As long as the mindsets of people haven’t changed, you haven’t really done anything. That’s why we’re trying to share our stories and raise awareness of the plight of LGBT people, of sex workers, of women. It’s going to take years and years to change mindsets, but we do not want to be like South Africa, where the laws criminalising homosexuality were changed, but the mindset was never changed. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of hate crimes there.

Are you hopeful for the future?

We’ve come a long way. When we started out, we were just a handful of activists. Today, the movement has tens of faces because people are willing to stand out and be counted, so that visibility is already a success for us. Before people feared openly discussing homosexuality, but now people no longer whisper in cafés; they openly discuss these issues. And we’ve built a strong network of allies around world. We didn’t have this when we started out; we were just young activists out of school. Some of us were dropouts, others were homeless. We just used our passion to do the work. But now with passion, knowledge and even resources, we are on another level. So, trust me, the movement has changed. Of course, we’ve seen a lot of backlash over the years. The more visible we become, the more backlash we receive, but that is part of struggle.