“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.
“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.
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.
“But you’re the wife,” Rihana says. It’s more statement than question.
“No,” Jeff says. “There is no wife.”
“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