Post submitted by Michael Wagner, Corporate Partnerships Chair of the Portland Steering Committee
On Thursday, July 10, a group of LGBT and faith-based organizations based in Portland, Oregon, presented a screening of the documentary Call Me Kuchu, a critical presentation of the situation on the ground in Uganda in the year preceding the passing of the now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB). The film primarily follows the life of David Kato, “Uganda’s First Openly Gay Man,” who uses his position and life experience to spearhead LGBT activism in his home country, which was a place that, at the time, was starting to become exceedingly hostile toward LGBT people. The film also introduces audiences to other activists in Uganda, including John “Long Jones” Abdallah Wambere and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, both of whom were present for the screening and an accompanying live Q-and-A in Portland’s Hollywood Theatre. Members of the Portland HRC Steering Committee, who serve Oregon and Southwest Washington, accepted a gracious invitation to meet with both gentlemen before the film.
According to Wambere, who has attended screenings of Call me Kuchu across America, the audience in the Hollywood Theatre in Portland was the second largest he has seen.
Bishop Senyonjo, who proclaimed a great deal of affection for Portland, was pleased that the message of the film was being delivered to Portland. For Senyonjo, the AHB represents a fracturing of the Ugandan people and a clear abuse of the message of Jesus Christ. He repeatedly referred to the preaching of Lively and others as “Bad News” rather than the “Good News” that he believes the gospel is meant to bring.
“For me I am a Christian, but the heart of the Christian faith is love. And, Jesus Christ himself said he came to bring the Good News. But, to me, a lot of what has been said as ‘Good News’ against homosexuality is bad news. Jesus Christ did not discriminate against anybody. He brought Good News to the poor, the captives, to the oppressed, and the marginalized people. But when they [we] exclude - that is no longer good news. We are contradicting the real message of what we call the Gospel,” explained Senyonjo.
Senyonjo, who was an official Bishop in the Anglican Church was relieved of his title, authority and even pension, for voicing opposition to both the government’s and the church’s attitudes toward LGBT persons. Today, Senyonjo leads St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala, Uganda’s capitol. There, marginalized persons can seek health and vocational services that the government and social organizations are prohibited from administering.
The idea of solidarity is one that both Wambere and Senyonjo lament has left Uganda. Senyonjo believes LGBT issues are now scapegoat issues for a government that has left the country’s chief issues of poverty, education and disease by the wayside. Wambere described a Uganda in which homosexuals were left to live their lives in private, free of blackmail or intimidation. He even described nights on the streets of Kampala in which, as a gay man, he could remark on the beauty of heterosexual men freely, without fear of retaliation.
“You could talk about homosexuality in your clique of friends and perhaps others would know you are gay, but no one would attack you. From my point of view, Ugandans were a peaceful and loving people - we had love, solidarity,” explained Wambere. “And then at some point trends started changing. From 2009 on, it seemed there was a daily sermon against homosexuality.”
In February 2014, the AHB became law in Uganda. Despite its immense scope of reach, both men continue to work to change minds in Uganda. Wambere, though now working from the United States, founded Spectrum Uganda, and remains an advocate from afar. “When the Ugandan government came in to stop our projects we had to ask the government, what are you doing, how will you help them access services from other new providers to help them continue their treatment?”
He explained, “Work is going on, underground, despite the harsh environment. We cannot totally say that we are all going to run away or close. Our offices are still operational. Bishop’s offices are still open. Spectrum offices are still open. We are part of a coalition of Sexual Minorities Uganda.”
For Senyonjo, it is spiritual. He said, “We [St. Paul’s] are going to do more counseling, we are going to care more for the sick people. We are going to offer more vocational counseling so people can seek jobs. We will continue the chapel. People need prayers. We don’t want them to be discouraged thinking God doesn’t love them.”
As both men continue to work for LGBT persons in Uganda, they remain hopeful. Wambere believes there may be hope in the nation’s judicial system to see the law overturned. If not there, then perhaps in the regional East African Court. Senyonjo, a believer in education, believes that positive attitudes toward LGBT persons will come with access to education. For both men, solidarity is something they believe will come back to Uganda.
They remain cognizant that this is an international issue, created by ideas imported to their country. “I think,” said Wambere, “even as the people fight their own battles here [Portland], I think they need to join hands and also continue fighting the battle with the rest of the world. Because if they ignore the rest of the world. It is going to be a big problem for them.”
“It is the business of the whole world not to allow human abuses,” noted Senyonjo.
The Human Rights Campaign has lobbied the United States government to respond to the plight of LGBT persons in Uganda. In a letter to President Barack Obama, HRC President Chad Griffin implored the President that, “An immediate demonstration of significant consequences, moreover, will put other leaders who are considering similar bills on notice that enacting anti-LGBT laws will affect their country’s relationship with the United States.”
On June 19, 2014, the United States announced new sanctions against the Ugandan government and Ugandan human rights violators, even canceling a regional military exercise and imposing visa restrictions, in response to the AHB.