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Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church

Just after 11 last Sunday morning at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter is starting the Sunday service as he always does. He runs through the opening salutation and the collect for the day, and then he welcomes everyone to church as he always does, introducing Old First “as a community of Jesus in Park Slope where we welcome people of every race, ethnicity and orientation to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

The congregation—some eighty strong on this sunny but cold February morning—is the usual mix of Park Slope churchgoing types: a smattering of journalists, a few artists, a handful of old ladies, some rambunctious children. But in the back row of the tin-ceilinged, wood-floored hall, there’s a visitor. It is Megan Phelps-Roper’s first time not only at Old First but also at any church not called Westboro Baptist. Yes, that Westboro Baptist, the Topeka, Kansas, congregation that has become famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for its strident views on sin (and the abundance of it in modern America), salvation (and the prospective lack of it), and sexuality (we’re bad, in far more colorful terms).

For nearly all of her twenty-seven years, Megan believed it: believed what her grandfather Fred Phelps preached from the pulpit; believed what her dad Brent and her mom Shirley taught during the family’s daily Bible studies; believed (mostly) what it said on those signs that have made Westboro disproportionately influential in American life—“God hates fags”; “God hates your idols”; “God hates America.”

Megan was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter. Effervescent and effusive, she gave hundreds of interviews, charming journalists from all over the world. Organized and proactive, she, for a time, even had responsibility for keeping track of the congregation’s protest schedule. She was such a Westboro fixture that the Kansas City Star touted her—improbably, as it turns out, because a woman could never have such a role at the church—as a future leader of the congregation.

Then, in November, she left.

I first met Megan in the summer of 2011, when I went to Topeka to spend a few days with the Westboro folks for my book project. During that visit, we talked about faith, we talked about church, we talked about marriage (and Megan’s feeling that, given the prospects, it would require no small amount of divine intervention in her case), and we talked about Harry Potter (for the record, she’s a fan). She seemed so sure in her beliefs, that I could not have imagined that some fifteen months later, we’d be having a conversation in which she tearfully told me that she was no longer with her family or with the church.

Mostly, the tears have subsided—“in public, anyway,” she says one afternoon, as we sit in a Tribeca café. “I still cry a lot.” Forget what you know of the church. Just imagine what it is like to walk away from everything you have ever known. Consider how traumatic it would be to know that your family is never supposed to speak to you again. Think of how hard it would be to have a fortress of faith built around you, and to have to dismantle it yourself, brick by brick, examining each one and deciding whether there’s something worth keeping or whether it’s not as solid as you thought it was.

As we talk, Megan repeatedly emphasizes how much she loves those she has left behind. “I don’t want to hurt them,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt them.”

Her departure has hurt them already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay. “My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”

To some, this story might seem simple—even overly so. But we all have moments of epiphany, when things that are plate-glass clear to others but opaque to us suddenly become apparent. This was, for Megan, one of those moments, and this window led to another and another and another. Over the subsequent weeks and months, “I tried to put it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to hold that sign, ‘Death Penalty for Fags.’” (She had, for the most part, preferred the gentler, much less offensive “Mourn for Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols” anyway.)

What “seemed like a small thing at the time,” she says, snowballed. She started to question another Westboro sign, “Fags can’t repent.” “It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,” she says. “It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.”

She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature “is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,” Megan explains. “All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”

This, of course, assumes that the church’s teachings and God’s feelings are one and the same. And this, of course, assumes that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that this much-debated document handed down over the centuries has, in 2013, been processed and understood correctly only by a small band of believers in Topeka. “Now?” Megan says. “That sounds crazy to me.”

In December, she went to a public library in Lawrence, Kansas. She was looking through books on philosophy and religion, and it struck her that people had devoted their entire lives to studying these questions of how to live and what is right and wrong. “The idea that only WBC had the right answer seemed crazy,” she says. “It just seemed impossible.”

The act of leaving Westboro is as weird as the church itself. Sometimes it’s described as a shunning process, but that’s not entirely apt. It is, in the eyes of the remaining members, a sort of death, but it’s a gentle one, because the carcass isn’t just dumped or ignored. One church member, who has lost two of his kids to the outside world, told me that he still loved them and that he set them up as best they could with what they’d need to start their new lives—some money, some household goods, even a car.

Megan didn’t leave alone; her sister Grace decided to go with her. They stayed just one night in Topeka. Then, after returning to their family home to retrieve some things they’d not packed the night before—“it was so weird and horrible to ring the doorbell,” Megan says—they left town.

They decided to disappear for a while, and found rooms in a house in a tiny Midwestern town. They needed space—to think, to read, to imagine what had previously been unimaginable. Their lives had largely been scripted, and “now that we’re writing our own script, everything seems a lot more tenuous,” Megan says. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”

Once a constant Tweeter, she hasn’t posted anything online since October. “I don’t know what I believe, so I don’t know what to say,” she explains. “I haven’t been ready to talk about any of this.” She’s only doing so now, and briefly, because, she says, “I was so proactive before and vocal about the church. My name means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me. I want people to know that it’s not now how it was.”

But how is it going to be? She’s still not sure. They’ve been trying new things; one of their housemates made sushi one night, the first time Megan tasted raw fish (“yum!”). They read a lot—“I liked ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ There was a quote that was perfect for where we were: ‘Wonderful how one loses track of the days up here in the mountains.’ And you know what else I loved about it? I could be completely mistaken about what the book means, but where the book began and where it ended was the same. It makes your problems seem like small things. It gives you perspective—well, it gave me perspective, that my problems in the grand scheme of things are not as horrible or monstrous as they seem.” They talk to each other for hours each day, about religion, about God, about the Bible, about the future, about how to treat people, about “what’s right and what’s wrong—capital R and capital W.”

That raises the question of regrets and amends, for things they’ve said and signs they’ve held and judgments they’ve passed. “I definitely regret hurting people,” she says. “That was never our intention. We thought we were doing good. We thought it was the only way to do good. And that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

That’s not how the message was received. “I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I would talk to people about how I knew the message was hurtful,” Megan says. “But I believed it couldn’t matter what people felt. It mattered that this was what God wanted.”

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus resuscitates a girl who is believed to be dead, commanding her, according to the King James Version that is favored at Westboro, “Damsel, arise.” The verse has long been a favorite of Megan’s, and it has taken on new and special meaning since her departure from the church.

Now that she has arisen, what does Megan Phelps-Roper think God wants her to do? She smiles and puts her hands on her cheeks as I ask the question. She laughs, but it’s a weird laugh—hollow, a little nervous.

“I have no idea,” she says. “I mean, I have almost no idea. I know I want to do good for people. And I want to treat people well. And it’s nice that I can do that now in a way that they see as good too. How exactly do you accomplish that? I’m not sure.”

Over lunch, we had talked about so many big questions: Predestination. Hell. The Bible. Sin. Big things and small about how “church” is done at Old First versus what she grew up with at Westboro. The Bible verses were the same—there were readings on Sunday from Jeremiah, from I Corinthians (on love), and from the Gospel of Luke. She knew one of the hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and during the singing, “that was when I felt most at home.” But she was struck that the congregation had a role beyond singing hymns, and noted that she’d never before been in a church where women’s heads were not covered. “It just felt really different. I didn’t think it was bad,” she says with a shrug. “It’s literally so very different that it is hard to compare them.”

At times, there’s something about the way she unpacks these observations and answers my questions that makes her seem much younger than her twenty-seven years. There’s an innocence, almost a naivete. But how else would it be? How else could it be, given the boundaries that have always marked the hours of her life?

Now that those boundaries are gone, “I’m trying to figure out which ones were good and smart, and which ones shouldn’t be there anymore,” she says. “I don’t feel confident at all in my beliefs about God. That’s definitely scary. But I don’t believe anymore that God hates almost all of mankind. I don’t think that, if you do everything else in your life right and you happen to be gay, you’re automatically going to hell. I don’t believe anymore that WBC has a monopoly on truth.”

She hopes to emerge from this season “with a better understanding of the world and how I fit into it,” she says, “and how I can be an influence for good.” This all sounds lovely and rainbows and unicorns, but really? You may believe it or you may not, but Megan won’t budge on this—and a trace of the characteristic Westboro stubbornness that I experienced in Topeka resurfaces. She is emphatic: “It’s true! I wanted to do good! I thought I was. And that wish hasn’t changed.”

When I push her to articulate what she wants for herself, she reminisces about an interview, in her Westboro days, in which a journalist asked her what she wanted her legacy to be. “I had only a few seconds to think while my mom answered the same question,” Megan says. “And then I said: ‘That I treated people right.’ That’s still true.”

Thank God for second chances.

Read a statement from Megan and Grace here.

I first met Megan and Grace in the summer of 2011, when I visited Westboro Baptist Church. Read more about that visit here.

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Life Has Hills

Inside one young, gay Ugandan man’s struggle to navigate the intersection of poverty and discrimination, pain and hope

“We wanted to have Christmas.”

It was December 2014, and as Moses looked around his hovel in a slum in Kampala, Uganda, there was just one thing of significant monetary value: his boyfriend John’s old laptop. So they sold it.

With the $55 they got, they bought ingredients for a lavish Christmas dinner: two live chickens ($11), potatoes (55 cents), green beans (70 cents), bananas to make the staple called matooke ($2). They cooked. And they feasted.

Then, after Christmas, they splurged on a rare night out: They went to the movies (Men in Black III) and bought sodas.

Within two weeks, all the money was gone.

Uganda is one of the world’s most youthful nations; more than three-quarters of its citizens are under 30 years old. According to the government, just 5% of working-age Ugandans under 30 are unemployed. But this relies on defining “employed” as anyone who has worked an hour for pay in the past week. More trustworthy estimates of the actual youth-unemployment rate vary range from 65% to over 85%.

Four years ago, Moses lost his job as a photo-lab technician because he is gay. That he even had a job to lose made him an outlier among Uganda’s young people. That he struggled to find another one had less to do with his sexuality — which few of his friends know about — than with the state of the Ugandan economy.

While the particulars of Moses’s story may be unique, his life at the intersection of poverty and discrimination is not. The voices of LGBTQ Ugandans that we read and hear are usually those of middle-class activists, a tiny elite in a nation where a fifth of the populace subsists on less than $1 a day. “What we need is advocacy for health care. What we need is food. What we need is economic empowerment,” says the Ugandan transgender advocate Bad Black. “Many people are suffering silently at the grassroots.”

Moses grew up middle-class. His father was a chef, and his mother worked at a bank. “We had a very beautiful house — and it was our house,” he told me when I visited him at home in Kampala last summer. They had a car, too, and a microwave, and a toaster, and a refrigerator that was always full of food.

The family was faithfully Protestant. “My mom taught me how to pray. My dad taught me that without God, nothing is possible,” Moses said. “God protects me. God provides for me.”

After his parents died — his mom when Moses was in his early teens, his dad a week after Moses took his secondary-school final exams — he and his sister could not make the loan payments. They lost the house and everything in it.

After he finished high school, he applied to a university in Canada, and he proudly showed me his acceptance letter. (“Do you know where Regina is?” he asked me. “It must be very cold.”) But he lacked the proof of assets that the Canadian government required for a visa. He tried to find a friend to lend him their bank statements, but nobody agreed to this dubious strategy.

A few months before I met him, he moved into a one-room hovel in a slum several kilometers north of central Kampala. (A friend in America had wired enough money to cover the $40-a-month rent.) It had no indoor plumbing. He fetched water from a nearby well and shared an outdoor latrine with the neighbors. Everything he owned was arrayed on the floor.

John, a hair-extension salesman, gave Moses money when he had some to spare. Usually, it was enough for a week’s worth of mobile-phone airtime (30 cents), tea (3 cents), and sugar (18 cents for a packet that would last seven days “if you just put very little little little,” Moses said), but no food.

Over the past four years, he has lost about 100 pounds. “Every day you’re becoming smaller,” a friend said to Moses recently. “Are you in a modeling competition?” He replied that it was good to lose weight.

“I love food. I think about it all day. I think about meat. I think about matooke. I think about rice. I think about vegetables,” Moses told me. “That’s what I think about most of the time.” When he got hungry enough, he would contact a friend to ask if he might be able to come over for dinner — he’d done that two days earlier. That was the last time he’d had a meal.

Shortly before leaving his house, I asked his age. “Right now?” He smiled. “Thirty. Today is my 30th birthday.”

Early one morning, I met Moses at his house. He was planning to go to a recruitment agency in downtown Kampala, which he did once or twice a month. I’d asked if I could join him, and he said yes, as long as I didn’t mind walking, since he had no money for the minibus.

The roads in his neighborhood are unpaved, so by the time we reached the main road, our shoes and pants were coated in fine red dust. We walked past the Roadside Guest House for Safe Accommodation; an outdoor casket shop, where the baby-sized coffins outnumbered the adult ones; eight-foot-high mounds of empty plastic water bottles; and an old man selling pineapples and watermelons from wheelbarrows. Forty-five minutes later, we were in the town center.

Kampala, Uganda

When we walked through the agency’s doors, the recruitment manager recognized Moses immediately and greeted him. Moses asked if there were new openings. The answer was no. The manager got a call on his mobile phone — ringtone: the praise song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” — and excused himself. We waited, and waited, and waited. When he finally returned, he told Moses — not for the first time — that many other applicants have university degrees. Moses doesn’t, putting him at a disadvantage. Also, there was now a new procedure: Going forward, job listings would be posted only online. He handed Moses a slip of paper with a URL on it.

Moses whispered his thanks. As we left, he quietly said: “It’s the same old thing: They tell you to wait.” More significantly, the recruitment agency had, in the name of efficiency and technological progress, erected another obstacle between the educated poor—people like Moses—and paid employment: He couldn’t afford the 35 cents per hour that Internet cafes charged for online time or the 30 cents it would cost to upload his resume. “It will be more convenient for people who have money,” he said with a sigh.

Afterward, over breakfast at a diner nearby, he told me more about his family. His devoutly Pentecostal sister has disowned him because he is gay, but she won’t tell any friends or relatives because of the shame that it would bring on the family. “When you change and are ready to become a real African person, let me know,” she said. “Go to church. It’s a demon.”

He does attend church, though he stopped going to prayer meetings after one all-night session last year. One attendee mentioned homosexuality. “He said, ‘We should pray this doesn’t come to our nation,’” Moses recalled, laughing weakly at his memory of the man who had no idea a real live gay person was right there in that prayer circle. “I just felt out of place. But I still do pray,” Moses said. “I just feel maybe God can make a miracle, especially for LGBT people in Uganda.”

He has maintained contact with one cousin. “Twice a week, she’ll call,” Moses said. His cousin has tried to find him a girlfriend. “I like white women more,” Moses told her. “Why would you prefer white women?” his cousin asked. “She wouldn’t give me a headache,” he replied, counting on the fact that she’d never be able to find a white woman to set him up with.

Moses has slightly sleepy eyes that, no matter whether he’s telling a happy story or a sad one, give him the look of a dreamer. When he talks, his eyes tend to drift upward, as if he’s constantly looking to the sky for ideas, or help, or inspiration. When he feels especially downcast, he pulls out some old family photos — the only souvenirs of his previous life—shuffling through them repeatedly. “I look at my pictures and I cry a bit and I think about my mom and my dad,” he said. “I wish they were around.”

Sometimes, he imagines having kids with John. “I would like two girls and one boy,” he said. “But it is just a dream. How would we do it? I don’t know anyone who has, not here. But I love kids so much.”

After we finished eating, he said he had something he wanted to tell me. He looked around the half-empty restaurant and dropped his voice.

In the spring of 2015, he felt so desperate that he finally reached out to a Ugandan gay-rights organization for help. A caseworker opened a file, but, according to Moses, said it was unlikely that any support would be available, unless he wanted enough money to get to Kenya, where he could register as a refugee. (I heard such accounts from several sources. Two lawyers who work with LGBTQ refugees in sub-Saharan Africa told me separately that it aids fundraising in Europe and the U.S. to be able to say that persecution is pushing Ugandans to flee.)

Moses didn’t want to leave. Most of the time, he felt physically safe. Hunger was his biggest problem. And as frustrated as he was, he didn’t know that it would be much better elsewhere. Anyway, he said, “Uganda is my home.”

One day, Moses got a call from someone saying he thought the organization had figured out a way to help. Could Moses meet to discuss? Of course he went. And when he asked the man what help he could get, “he said, ‘I have to do something with you before.’” He raped Moses.

According to Moses, when he went back to his real caseworker and reported the attack, his response was, “You shouldn’t trust everyone you find.”

Moses feared that if he went to the police, he’d be arrested for sodomy, and if he went to a doctor, he’d be turned into the police. But he was in such great pain that, finally, a friend he’d confided in told him he had to seek medical attention. He went to a free clinic near his house. The doctor immediately asked: “What have you done? Did you have anal sex?” Moses replied simply: “Something bad happened to me.”

(That friend shared with me some correspondence from immediately after the attack. The caseworker did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Though he has lost faith in Uganda’s gay-rights organizations — “they did not help me” — he professed no anger at God. In fact, he was more confident than ever in God’s goodness, because surely this had to be part of a master plan. “I don’t doubt God,” he said. “I believe God lets it happen for a reason. Maybe there is something better for me that I just don’t know yet. Life has hills, and maybe you have to live with these to get to your destination.”

One evening, I took Moses and John to dinner. They chose a Chinese restaurant in central Kampala.

With John next to him, Moses’s spirit seemed lighter, his manner more playful, his laughter louder and more frequent. John was the more reticent of the two. But over sizzling beef (their choice), “special” fried rice (their choice), and a steamed tilapia with ginger and scallions (mine, which they barely touched), John began to talk about his devoutly Muslim family. His parents did the hajj; “for my mother,” he said, “we had land in some village and we sold it, because she said, ‘It’s my turn to go to Mecca.’”

Though he still refuses to eat pork or drink alcohol, he now identifies as Christian. He attends church with Moses. While he has resisted Moses’s suggestions that he be baptized, they say the Lord’s Prayer together at bedtime. “Sometimes,” John said, “you wake up and you don’t know if you will survive the day. I think you need God in every situation.”

I asked Moses how he manages to remain hopeful. He picked at the food on his plate. “I have nothing to lose,” he said. “That’s why I can be hopeful.”

You should know, by the way, that Moses is not his real name. That evening, I asked him to pick a pseudonym. He said, “How about Moses? I’ve always liked Moses.” He reflected on the Biblical Moses’ long journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness. He drew strength and inspiration from the fact that God had picked Moses to do something great in the world.

After dinner, as I walked back to my hotel, it struck me: the Biblical Moses never entered the Promised Land.

Last December, I sent Moses a Facebook message to see how he and John were doing. (His pay-as-you-go mobile network provides 25 megabytes of free data on Facebook monthly.)

John, who had been working for and living with his uncle, was fired and kicked out after his uncle learned about his relationship with Moses. Then, in November, Moses’s landlord evicted him. The couple found an abandoned house and squatted there until it flooded during a rainstorm. Now Moses was staying with a cousin.

“I feel so helpless,” Moses said. He had been praying “every second” for “a stable life.” Christmas would be spent “with John and no food.” They had nothing left to sell.

But some months later, Moses wrote to tell me that he did get a late Christmas present: a job. He asked that I not disclose where. He’s not out to his co-workers. He fears that someone will learn of his sexuality, and that it might again cost him what passes for his livelihood. The pay isn’t much — just over one U.S. dollar a day. He doesn’t earn enough to rent his own place. But at least he can eat regularly without begging for meals.

“Not yet lucky,” he told me. “But I feel so hopeful.”

Additional reporting by Timothy Meinch. This story was reported with the support of the International Reporting Project.

Questions? Comments? Email me: [email protected]

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“I Forgot I Hated God”— Uganda’s LGBTQ community finds hope and strength for the future in the very thing so often used to abuse them: faith

Unshakable in Uganda— the story of Clare Byarugaba, a lesbian activist working out her faith

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“I Forgot I Hated God”

Uganda’s LGBTQ community finds hope and strength for the way forward in the very thing so often used to abuse them: faith
By Jeff Chu and Timothy Meinch

“I had a dream.”

We are sitting in a restaurant in Kampala, Uganda, with Dennis, a Protestant lay chaplain, when he recounts a dream inspired by a painting in his house. The painting depicts Matthew 19:14, in which Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

The children Jesus embraces in the painting were replaced in the dream by Dennis and his friends. “Jesus was calling,” he says. “Jesus was calling us in a group. I was leading the group, and Jesus was leading me. We were all following Jesus. And I felt there was hope of living in peace.”

He smiles, seeming to understand how unexpectedly sunny this dream, this story, sounds to foreign visitors to Uganda. Dennis is gay. We sit at a lone table in the restaurant’s far corner, away from other customers. Whenever the waitress approaches, he stops talking.

Dennis asked not to be photographed in any identifiable fashion, fearing he could lose his job for being gay.

“You can hide yourself in religion. That’s where you can feel comfort,” Dennis says. He notes that the same religions that have famously helped oppress LGBTQ people in Uganda — which is more than 80% Christian, about 15% Muslim — have also been their refuge and their hope. His faith in a protective Jesus is why he hasn’t left his country. His faith in a loving Jesus is what compels him to serve essentially as an underground pastor. His faith in a transformative Jesus is why he believes his country will change. “With time, people will come to know the truth,” he says. “They will know who we are. The truth will reveal itself.”

In 2005, Uganda became the second nation in the world to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (Honduras was the first.) Four years later, a member of the Ugandan Parliament proposed legislation that would have imposed the death penalty for some instances of same-gender sexual activity. The legislation was eventually softened — the harshest penalty was reduced to life imprisonment — and passed. But in 2014, the country’s High Court nullified it on a technicality.

Earlier this year, Uganda elected a new parliament and extended President Yoweri Museveni’s tenure for another five years. During the campaign, anti-gay rhetoric again escalated. Museveni — who has been in office since 1986 — stuck mostly to coded language. He recently increased government funding of churches, praising them for the ways in which “they have helped the state to police the minds of its people.”

His rivals were more direct. “Uganda will never be a homosexual country,” said Pastor Abed Bwanika, who pledged to “rehabilitate them to become normal people.” Benon Biraaro, a retired Army general, proposed partnering with Uganda’s neighbors to form a regional bulwark against homosexuality, reinforcing the popular, historically inaccurate argument that it was imported from the West.

The (few) politicians who have opposed anti-gay legislation were put consistently on the defensive. During the campaign’s first televised debate, Amama Mbabazi — who has pledged to protect minorities’ rights — was challenged to prove his heterosexuality. “I am a married man,” he replied. “My wife is a woman, we have children, and I have incredibly beautiful grandchildren.”

Anti-LGBTQ discrimination continues in Uganda, even in the absence of new legislation: Two weeks ago, police raided a Pride-related beauty pageant. Several prominent activists were arrested and later released without charge. After Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo reportedly threatened to halt the rest of Pride, aided by vigilante mobs if necessary, organizers postponed the rest of this year’s event.

Lokodo, a former Roman Catholic priest excommunicated by Pope Benedict XVI for entering politics, has consistently invoked Ugandan religiosity. Stroll Kampala, and you’ll have to dodge minibuses plastered with proclamations of the faiths of their owners — “Jesus Saves” and “John 3:16” for Christians, “Bismillah” and “Allahu akbar” for Muslims. Shopkeepers often testify through the names of their establishments — the God Is Able Meat Supplier, St. Joseph and Mary New General Hardware, the Alpha & Omega Clinic. Our favorite: “Pool of God’s Grace.” It’s a liquor store.

Imagine a chain of these, all across America.

Uganda’s religiosity and history are typical of much of Africa. Homosexuality is illegal in some three dozen African nations, most of which retained colonial-era anti-gay laws written by Europeans. In recent years, several — including the Gambia, Nigeria, and Senegal — have either strengthened enforcement or added new laws.

What’s unique to Uganda is the regularity with which the Western media covers anti-gay activity there. That we know relatively more about the LGBTQ struggle in Uganda has to do largely with a small, robust group of savvy activists who have cultivated relationships with foreign governments, human-rights groups, and media. This has spawned numerous articles, Roger Ross Williams’s award-winning documentary “God Loves Uganda,” and a BBC doc called “The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay?” (A Kenyan activist, seeking to contextualize, not minimize, Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ culture, asks, “If Uganda is really the world’s worst place for gays, how is it that they manage to celebrate Pride there every year? That would be impossible in Ethiopia or Eritrea or Somalia.”)

Most coverage places the LGBTQ community on one side and the forces of religion on the other. But in such a pious society, what happens to the spiritual lives of LGBTQ Ugandans after they come out?

“I have been pushed away from the church,” a transgender woman who goes by the name Princess Rihana tells us over dinner one evening. Raised Catholic, she still identifies as Christian, but last attended church in January 2014. “If I go to any church, they know,” she says. Dramatic and ebullient, Rihana — who named herself after the singer Rihanna but never explained what happened to the second “n” — leaned in for effect and widened her eyes. “They see you and then they preach things on you.”

We meet Rihana with two of her friends, a gay Muslim man named Babu and a transgender Muslim woman known as Bad Black. As Rihana and Babu eat — since it’s Ramadan, Bad Black, a prominent activist, is awaiting sundown to break her fast — they notice that we both wear wedding bands. So they ask about our wives. Timothy is married to a woman, but Jeff is married to a man and says so. “No!” they say, almost in unison. Though they’ve heard about gay marriage, they claim never to have met someone in a legal same-sex union.

Bad Black, Babu, and Princess Rihana

“But you’re the wife,” Rihana says. It’s more statement than question.

“No,” Jeff says. “There is no wife.”

They laugh.

“No, seriously, there’s no wife.”

Rihana asks who does the cooking. Jeff says he does.

“You’re the wife!” Rihana insists. As nontraditional as she may be as a transgender woman, traditional gender roles typically prevail in Uganda’s LGBTQ community. Rihana loves cooking. “Maize. Beans. Vegetables. Matooke,” she says, when we ask what her specialties are. (Matooke is a plantain-based staple of Ugandan cuisine.) “And chicken. If you tasted it now, you wouldn’t want to go back to New York.”

Her late mother taught her how to cook. “She was a good chef,” Rihana says. “She never knew I’m her daughter. She thought I’m her son.”

Her surviving relatives have shunned her — her father after his local parish shunned him: “They said he was the father of a gay.”

Babu’s family is devout; their compound even has a mosque. An aunt caught him having sex with another man, but kept his secret for a year. When the rest of the family finally learned of his sexuality, he was vilified. He worked at a gas station until a cousin told Babu’s boss that he’s gay. He was fired. “My brother promised me, ‘I will not rest until I accomplish one of these two things: If I don’t get a mob to beat you up, at least you will be in prison.’”

Amid a largely hostile society, these friends have painstakingly created a new normality — their own community, their own social support structures, their own spiritual spaces. Like Rihana, Babu loves to cook, and the table has become a sort of informal communion. “Most of us are good at cooking,” he says. “Most of us grew up as Mommy’s boys and Mommy’s girls.”

Marginalization has also compelled them to reexamine what they believe and why. Babu, the most reserved and philosophical of the trio, has come to believe that Islam’s god and Christianity’s are the same. “They are just different names and approaches,” he says. He often reads the Bible, taking comfort in its complexity and ambiguity: “I love that confusing story about Creation, about Adam and Eve. If Adam was first and Eve was second, and they had Cain and Abel, where did the rest of the world come from? Did they sleep together? Some people said they had girls too, but they just didn’t write about them. It’s so confusing!”

Babu often wonders how God views homosexuality. In his adolescence, he says, “sometimes I would wake up and pray in the middle of the night and cry. I had never heard of anyone like me.” He adds, for clarification, that he doesn’t recite traditional Muslim prayers in Arabic. “I pray in English.” That way of talking to God feels more intimate, more personal, to him.

Rihana also believes in a personal God. At one point, she smiles wistfully and says, “He is the reason you are here.”

There are foreign fingerprints all over Uganda’s faith. In the 19th century, Arab traders brought Islam along with cloth and guns. Soon, European evangelist-colonizers arrived too — areas converted by the French still tend to be Catholic, while those converted by the British tend to be Anglican. More recently, North American missionaries imported evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.

But local traditions endured too. Ancestor veneration is still common, as is robust belief in spirits. During Christian services we attended, we also heard repeated calls for repentance from polygamy, with one preacher thunderously citing the verse in Paul’s first letter to Timothy that calls for elders of the church to be “the husband of but one wife.” (Notably, we never heard any overt references to homosexuality.)

Most surveys make little room for the syncretism typical in Uganda. Illa was born into an aristocratic family, to a Muslim mother and a Catholic father. She rejected Islam, largely because of the hijab. “You are tied up as if you are in prison,” she says. Her daughters were baptized Catholic. The elder, born after a family friend raped Illa when she was 17, converted to Islam. The younger, born after Illa’s family forced her into a now-ended marriage at 20, has remained Catholic.


Illa, a lesbian who says she is attracted almost exclusively to transgender men, abandoned religion because “I thought God had left me behind.” Then a friend urged her to start praying again to cope with the toll of the struggle with her sexuality and her family—social, emotional, financial. “Then I forgot I hated God,” Illa says, laughing. Though she calls herself Protestant now, her spirituality is a patchwork quilt. For instance, she holds to Islam’s less-than-divine view of Jesus: “He is a prophet who did miracles — very many miracles — but how can I call him God? It disturbs me.”

One gay Christian leader was taught by his grandmother to keep a matchbox under his pillow. If someone unwelcome — “maybe someone who died some years ago” — visits him in his dreams, he’ll light a match in each corner of his bedroom. “You say, ‘I burn you! I have no relations with the dead because I am still living!’” he says. “They are evil spirits. Once you light that fire, never will you dream about it again. When you decide you want to go with Christianity, that still works.”

The fluidity of Ugandan spiritual expression might help explain why not a single LGBTQ person told us that their sexuality had killed their faith, even if it has changed their ties to institutional religion. Most said either that they closet their sexuality at worship or just don’t go to church or mosque. Many echoed a lesbian Christian who said, “I have had to find my own ways to reconcile my faith and my sexuality.”

These seemed less like complaints than statements of fact. “Many people avoid [churches and mosques] because it keeps on making them feel bad,” a gay Catholic named Roy says. He no longer attends Mass, “but I’ve never stopped praying. I may do a Hail Mary, an Our Father. Prayer can make me feel hope when I feel hopeless. I think, Hey, there’s the day after tomorrow.”

This theme emerged repeatedly — even among LGBTQ refugees who have fled Uganda. Ronald Waswa, who identifies as gender-nonconforming, emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between God and people who claim to represent God. He grew up devoutly Catholic and served as an usher. “I am not angry with God but I am angry at most of his followers and the preachers. They only preach from their own understanding,” Waswa says when we meet in Nairobi. “I no longer believe in praying to the saints, to middlemen. I pray directly to God.”

Likewise, Waswa distinguishes between his country and his countrymen. An elfin presence with a luminous smile, he can sound like a flack for Uganda, which he left in 2014. “I’m so proud to be Ugandan,” he says. “Have you heard that Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa? I am a citizen of the Pearl of Africa! Uganda hasn’t treated me badly — it’s the people who treated me badly. If you’re not a gay, they have great hospitality.”

Waswa no longer attends church, but credits God with helping him survive anti-gay beatings. “I have suffered but God has saved me. If it wasn’t for him, I would be dead,” he says. “Jesus suffered, but at the end, he was the winner.” (Months after we met, Waswa sent a Facebook message to say that he has been resettled in the U.S.)

Raymond, a bisexual refugee in Kenya, echoes Waswa’s sense of divinely ordained destiny. The son of a Muslim mother and a Protestant father, he identifies as a born-again Christian. The same Bible used as a spiritual bludgeon against LGBTQ people is to him a source of strength: “I like to read Revelation. It brings hope about the future. We can believe in something we don’t see. It’s so complicated. But I like it.” He smiles. “Sometimes I ask God, ‘Why have you created such complicated people? It’s funny.”

After a newspaper published a photo of Raymond attending Kampala’s annual Pride event, his father told him never to come home. He left Uganda and now awaits resettlement. Yet Raymond’s God is more than a life preserver. “God created me for a reason,” he says. “If it is to change the world, let me be the person to change the world. I pray for the wisdom of Solomon.”

These testimonies bring to mind Karl Marx’s critique of faith. “Religion,” he wrote, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” In conditions such as these, though, who could blame anyone for wanting painkillers?

One day, we have coffee with a gay, middle-class Kampala businessman. He believes the religious resilience of Ugandans — and not just LGBTQ — has everything to do with a need for hope, not in eternal life but in the temporal. “Many people don’t believe these religions because they want to go to heaven. It’s because they want to better their lives here,” he says. “Heaven is secondary.”

Raised Anglican, he once aspired to be a Baptist missionary. In his early twenties, he did an apprenticeship of sorts, traveling with two Baptist missionaries from the U.S. One day, they met some Pentecostals for prayer. Afterward, the couple confessed they had faked speaking in tongues, for credibility. “The husband asked his wife: ‘Dear, did you really speak in tongues?’” he says. “His wife agreed she did not, but she saw him doing it and she felt she had to lie.”

The missionaries’ lies were loose threads he picked at until his faith unraveled entirely. Today, he identifies as an atheist — though he has occasionally prayed to his ancestors. His conversion, he emphasizes, had nothing to do with his sexuality: “I never heard anyone in my churches dehumanizing homosexuality during my Christian journey. None of my pastors ever preached about it.”

At first, he says we can identify him by name. A day later, he texts to beg us not to, after considering what his openness — not about his sexuality but about his atheism — might cost him: “People will accept much more easily a religious gay person than an atheist here.” And there would be no god to help him through the rejection.

Faith defies logic and reason. Dennis, the lay chaplain, acknowledges this. He knows how irrational his spiritual shepherding and his desire to remain in Uganda might seem to outsiders. But again and again, he invokes his belief in the promises of the God of the Bible. In the 10th chapter of Hebrews, the writer implores readers: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Dennis has lately been considering practical ways to do that for the LGBTQ community, which suffers disproportionately high rates of unemployment and poverty. He’s lucky: He has a job, as a teacher.

He mentions some women with whom he occasionally prays. They’ve turned a house in eastern Kampala into what he believes is the city’s only lesbian brothel. “For them, being sex workers is not of their own wish. Their only job is in their bodies,” he says. “What can we do?”

This is neither lament nor an abstract question. “We are putting together different projects to make more income,” he says. “We have some women who know how to do salon work and plait hair. We have some boys who know how to make bricks.” He seems nonplussed by the possibility that customers might discriminate against businesses with LGBTQ employees.

Religion may have inspired discrimination against him and others like him, but it also feeds his desire to stay in Uganda. “Faith gives me hope. Faith gives me love and patience,” he says. “I think there is some good life coming.”

This story was reported with the support of the International Reporting Project.

Related: Unshakable in Uganda— the story of Clare Byarugaba, a lesbian activist working out her faith

Next Story — Cry, Freedom: My 2015 in Review
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Cry, Freedom: My 2015 in Review

This was the year I went full-time freelance. Which, depending on how you look at it, meant liberty or lunacy. I had one of the magazine world’s most wonderfully vague titles—“editor-at-large” at Fast Company—which came with a regular paycheck and benefits but no cubicle or expectation of coming into the office. Why would I give that up? “It is a dream job!” several people told me before I quit. Eventually, I realized: It might be a dream job for someone, but not for me. I will always treasure my many years there, but people change and so do magazines—the stories I love to tell and the stories FC loves to tell are not, for the most part, the same anymore.

No bullshit: Freelancing has been hard. Since leaving FC at the beginning of June, I have had two months during which I made zero dollars from writing. Eight days after I bought a new laptop to replace my FC one, I spilled a full glass of water on it—a $1,903.14 error. I’ve battled my lifelong shyness and wondered whether my inability to network will cripple or even kill my career. I’ve taken assignments that are not the kind of stories I love to tell—an acknowledgment of the reality of having a mortgage and living in NYC. I spent most of one month reporting and trying to write a piece that I wasn’t right for; after weeks of interviews and two agonizing drafts, I wrote the editor to say that I’d done all I could do and that he probably ought to find another writer. I got paid nothing. The editor never replied.

Here’s the good: I learned that, with writing, I’m not as bad a procrastinator as I thought—I’m even worse with paperwork and filing expenses. I know I’m lucky, too—I get to file expenses, which means I travel with other people’s money. Several assignments netted me $2 a word or more. Extraordinary people invited me into their homes, experiences, hearts, and lives. Also, I’ve never prayed or cried so much—perhaps this has been good both for my faith and my emotional openness?

There’s a bit in the intro to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus in which she writes about the creature’s discernment skills, as observed in an experiment: “It doesn’t take long for an octopus to figure out who his friends are… Within a week, at first sight of the people—looking up at them through the water, without even touching or tasting them—most of the octopuses moved toward the feeder and away from the irritator.” I am slower than the octopus. It has taken me more than a week to learn who feeds me—not just as a writer and reporter but also as a friend and a pilgrim trying to make his way through this confusing world—and who irritates. But this year has helped clarify immensely.

Indeed, freelancing has affirmed for me the importance of community. With gratitude, I think of my infinitely patient, generous husband. Of the friends who sent notes, texts, encouragement, and love while I was in Uganda—and, somehow, at some of my darkest moments. Of the close readers who have helped make my work better. Of journalists and essayists whom I’ve never met except through their inspirational work—Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Pamela Colloff and Roxane Gay and Leslie Jamison—whose every paragraph makes me want to be better, smarter, clearer. Of those musicians whose artistry fueled my writing—the sound of my 2015 was Beach House and Adele, Audrey Assad and Hillsong’s “Oceans.” Of those who have kindly tweeted and shared my stories. Though it may be my name in the byline, journalism is never solo work.

The highlights of my writing year:

Making It Work (Inc., June): What a humbling gift to be invited into the world of so many people on the autism spectrum and learn how they see life and navigate the workplace. The piece was commissioned and edited by the brilliant James Ledbetter, whom I came to respect and admire when we worked together years ago at Time in London.

African Bishop Fights to Get Children to Iowa (Des Moines Register, August): I spent July on an International Reporting Project religion fellowship (if you have an idea for a religion- or health-related story, check it out). I reunited with my buddy Tim Meinch, a Register reporter who also worked on the Westboro Baptist Church chapter of my book with me. The first piece we produced focuses on a South Sudanese Episcopal bishop, Samuel Peni, who’s trying to send his kids to be adopted by a family in the U.S. He asked new friends: “Will you take my children so they will not die?” (Who says that?!) We’ve still got some stories to come, from the most emotionally taxing reporting trip of my career, about the spiritual lives of LGBTQ people in Uganda.

Generation Hong Kong (Travel + Leisure, October): This piece, which I reported while visiting my grandmother in June, almost didn’t happen because I almost died on the trip. I am the fool who goes hiking on a near-shadeless uphill trail in 85-degree heat and 85-percent humidity with a heavy backpack and too little water. Anyway, I survived. And I got to share with the world a side of my beloved Hong Kong that’s different from what travel writers usually feature. And I got to work with Jacqui Gifford, who is so deft and kind an editor that even her harshest criticism—always right—feels like a hug.

A Little Life Is the Best Novel of the Year. I Wouldn’t Recommend It to Anyone (Vox, October): I marvel at people who can write seemingly personal essays more than, say, once a year—that’s about all I have in me. The most personal piece I’ve ever written, this is a book review of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life that isn’t really a book review. Yanagihara’s novel broke something open in me, forcing me to confront trauma in my own life that I’d tried to bury. On this piece, I got to work with Emmett Rensin, whose wise editing compelled me to simplify and sharpen.

Finally, one that isn’t journalism—

Together at the Table (Gay Christian Network Conference, January): Nobody ever told me that becoming a writer would require so much talking. That’s been especially true in the years since my book was published. I was the opening keynoter at the GCN Conference in Portland, a humbling and crazy and gratifying experience. (I cried what one friend told me were “ugly Oprah tears.” So I’m posting the text, not the video—I’m vain.)

In Emmett Rensin’s edit of my essay on A Little Life, he wrote a note that I’ve revisited repeatedly: “You can do better.” He was right in that specific instance. And generally? Some days I believe it, some I don’t. I’ve never thought so often about quitting writing—and yet I’ve never loved it so much.

Next Story — Counting the Costs
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Counting the Costs

Nobody told me how much writing and promoting a book would cost me. I’m at $30,000 and counting. But it’s been worth every penny

Writing is a business. I wish I could say that I’ve done it for entirely altruistic reasons. Certainly, at times during the reporting of Does Jesus Really Love Me?, as I racked up credit-card debt for the first time in my life, it felt like a bad business. Was I doing better or worse than anyone else who writes a work of journalism like mine? I didn’t know, because people rarely talk about the financing of book writing.

We’re secretive to our collective detriment. I know I’m among the lucky ones. For the last 13 years, I’ve earned a decent living as a writer and editor for some of America’s best (and best-funded) magazines. Thanks to my aggressive agent, Todd Shuster (who fully earned his 15% cut), HarperCollins gave me an advance that helped to defray the book’s costs. I’ve gotten publicity beyond what I ever dreamt possible. My boss at Fast Company graciously allowed me to go part-time for over a year—I needed to keep working for the steady (much reduced) paycheck and insurance. But this isn’t the kind of book anyone would write to get rich.

Though the final numbers won’t be in until after the paperback comes out next spring, here’s a rough tally of what I’ve spent so far.

$15,000 for travel and reporting – When I look at my travel bills, I sometimes wish that I’d been able to write the Great American Novel—or, really, a Half-Decent American Novel—that didn’t require me to spend so much to visit sources. But I don’t regret the travel. I’ve never loved telephone reporting, and I always want to see my subjects in their homes and offices, believing that I can learn something about them by observing them in their usual surroundings. I wanted to take readers where they’ve never been before, and in the case of places like Westboro Baptist Church, where they’ve never wanted to go. And it’s an incredible—indeed, priceless—gift to be invited into people’s homes and into their lives. Visiting 28 states, flying 20,000 miles, and driving 5,000 didn’t come cheap, despite my best efforts to find car-rental coupons, to use frequent-flyer miles and hotel points, to stay with friends and relatives wherever I could, to use public transportation, and to eat one or two meals a day when I was on the road rather than a full three. One positive was that all of my reporting took place in the U.S. One unexpected negative: Sometimes interviews would come through at the last minute, so I didn’t always have the luxury of planning ahead, which jacked up the cost of plane tickets.

$6,000 for publicity – I wrestled with whether to hire an outside publicist to supplement the one that HarperCollins provided. It turned out to be one of the best investments I made. My Harper publicist did his best, given that he was juggling multiple projects at once. But it was the wonderful Gretchen Crary at February Partners who was willing to take me on. Because I couldn’t afford a full-scale PR campaign, we agreed on something extremely tiny and targeted compared with her normal gigs. Still, she secured Frank Bruni in the New York Times a few weeks before the book came out, the Diane Rehm Show a few days before publication, and then the PBS Newshour segment with Ray Suarez after.

$800 for work space – I can’t write at home. There are always dishes to be washed, floors to vacuum, bad TV shows to be watched, and any number of other things to distract me from my work. Most of my book was written at a little café in Park Slope called Café Martin. Most writing days, I’d get one double cappuccino ($3.75) and a couple of hours later, a green tea ($2.75) with countless refills of hot water to make that one tea bag last the afternoon. $800 is my rough estimate of what I’ve spent at the café—where I’m also writing this post—since the beginning of 2011, which isn’t too bad considering that desks at writers’ spaces here in Brooklyn start at a few hundred dollars a month.

$5,000 for web design – My publisher told me that I needed to have a website for the book. “Okay,” I said. They wanted me to have something dynamic, a living thing rather than a static one. When I was searching for a web designer, I didn’t want to cheap out, under the hypothesis that you get what you pay for. At the same time, I couldn’t splash out for the fanciest, whiz-bang site there ever was. I worked with Jonathan Liss, a Chicago-based designer who had done work that I’d admired and seemed both more affordable and more flexible than New York designers I approached. He was gentle and patient, and did a fine job with my site—stellar if you count holding this Luddite’s hand through the process.

$3,700 and counting for touring – When I wrote to congratulate my friend Lisa Takeuchi Cullen on the publication of her book (Pastors’ Wivesbuy it!) and tried to commiserate with her about the difficulty of publicity, she shot back, playfully (I think), “Honey, don’t you sympathize with me … You’re getting the full-on traditional book tour! You don’t have to hustle as hard.” Ha! I replied to say that, actually, HarperCollins made clear well before the book came out that I wouldn’t be sent on a book tour. (“You’re not Daniel Silva!” one person told me.) I’ve paid for almost all of my own touring. In the months since the book came out, I’ve visited Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, Pasadena, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, Atlanta, Asheville, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Iowa City, Cape Cod, and Houston. A few strong early reviews produced a dividend in the form of plane tickets for my West Coast swing (NYC-SEA-SFO-LAX-NYC), a rental car in Seattle and another in L.A., and a couple nights in a hotel in L.A., where I spoke at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Other than that, I’ve covered the costs myself—and slept on a few too many futons for my liking. But the markets I visited are also the ones where I’ve had the strongest sales, and the time I’ve had face-to-face with readers has been one of the biggest blessings of these past six months. This fall, I’ve got stops in D.C., northern Virginia, Kutztown, Syracuse, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Miami planned. I have a bunch of frequent-flyer miles socked away, so I’ll do more if and when I can.

This is the first time I’ve run these numbers, going back through credit-card statements and my tax returns to see what’s what in sum. I didn’t realize I’ve spent more than $30,000 on this thing. It hasn’t become a best-seller, and who knows if I’ll ever get a royalty check? Even after you factor in my advance (after, of course, my agent’s cut and those pesky taxes), it’s doubtful I’m doing better financially than if I’d just stayed at my day job.

But as I said earlier, this isn’t the kind of book you write to make a lot of money. The strongest return on my investment hasn’t been financial at all. The rewards pile up daily. People I’ve met. Stories I’ve heard. Readers I’ve corresponded with. I count my compensation in testimonies, thank-you notes, hugs, new friendships. And how do you put a price on that?

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