Perseverance of the Saints

Jeff Chu
Jeff Chu
Aug 25, 2016 · 12 min read

Embattled yet unbowed, seven LGBTQ Ugandans—six Christian, one Muslim—testify to their changing but enduring faith
By Jeff Chu and Timothy Meinch

A confession: We landed in Uganda with plenty of questions about the spiritual lives of its LGBTQ people. We expected to hear accounts of suffering. We did not expect to receive story after story of resilient trust in God and anticipation of brighter, more secure futures. “Privilege is an enemy of hope,” writes the public theologian Christena Cleveland. Given that, perhaps it’s unsurprising that, amid Uganda’s persistent poverty and rampant anti-LGBTQ discrimination, we heard so many testimonies of great hope, rooted in profound faith.

Sometimes, it’s best to let people speak for themselves. So here, excerpted from our interviews with them, are seven stories—four from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and three from Ugandans who have sought safety and refuge in neighboring Kenya.

Raymond, 24, born-again Christian, bisexual, Nairobi

“My father is a farmer, my mother a shopkeeper. My father is Protestant, my mother Muslim. I grew up in a family with six kids — I am second-born.”

“When I was 14 or 15, I used to bring this girl home. My aunties told me: ‘You are still young! You will get infected with HIV!’ So I stopped bringing girls home. I brought boys. And my aunties said, ‘Ah! What’s this? Your friends are gay!’ And I said, ‘Leave my friends!’”

“In 2011, I started working with a researcher at Makerere University who studies sexual minorities. I learnt more and more, and I met others. But I still felt so small. I felt uncomfortable to call myself bi. My father, he would get rumors from people. I was doing research about trans sex workers. People who saw me said to him: ‘I don’t know what your boy does! I see him with girly-girly boys! He may be a sex worker!’ I said no. Then last year I went to Pride. I appeared on the front page of the newspaper. My father said: ‘Never come to my house again.’ I was still going to a born-again church, but when the papers put me out, I couldn’t anymore. They were looking at me like I was the cursed one. I came to Kenya in January.”

“So many people who are like me, they commit suicide. I have something in me that makes me strong. I used to ask God, ‘Why am I like this?’ If He really is there, why did He make me that thing which people abuse? But I realized He created me for a reason. When I am depressed or get challenged, I look up to Him.”

Maggie, 20, born-again Christian, lesbian, Nairobi

“If I wasn’t a believer, by now I would be dead. When I was 13 or 14, I was at boarding school, and me and my girlfriend were caught red-handed. My dad told me I would never go to school again. My stepmother convinced my dad to let me go back to school.”

“When I was 16, I invited my girlfriend to stay. My stepmother thought we were just friends. My dad happened to go away for work and he was going to stay away some days. But he came home unexpectedly and caught us. I was beaten. My brother and stepmother were defending me. My dad pushed my brother onto my stepmother onto the floor. She was pregnant. She lost the baby.”

“I spent the night on the streets. The next day, I went to my mum’s. My auntie, who hated me so, called my dad and told him I was there. My mum said, You have to leave this place before your dad comes.

“My girlfriend gave me money for transport to Busia, at the border. At the start it wasn’t so bad. The UNHCR welcomed me and helped me, gave me money and told me to rent a house. But then the other problems came. A gay boy and a lesbian girl and I rented a place. A Kenyan pastor asked to borrow some money. He helped us get our house, so that’s why we gave it to him. But then later we didn’t have any so we asked him to give our money back. He said, ‘I am going to tell people you are gay and lesbian and you are not Kenyan if you tamper with me.’ He started coming at night with other Kenyan guys, so we felt insecure and we went to another place.”

“Then 36 of our colleagues were arrested. So we had to leave that place.”

“Then there were four of us — two gays, two lesbians. The other lesbian did not dress well — very short skirts. The neighbors started to complain. They said, ‘Why do you think Ugandans are using this place? What are they doing? They are gays!’ And someone told the landlady. They threw us out.”

“The next house, it was two Kenyans and three Ugandans. The Kenyans blackmailed us. So I had to leave that place.”

“Then a lady was hosting me and she did not want to host me anymore. So I had to leave that place.”

“And now I’m staying alone. I don’t think I ever feel happy. I have no money. I have to get food from my friends. When I think about my family, my mum, my siblings, I cry.”

“I go to a born-again church. I lie to them. I lie so much. I say I come from Rwanda so they don’t think I’m Ugandan. I feel bad so much for the lying.”

“The problems I’ve been getting—the many times I’ve been chased out, being rejected by my dad, being here in Kenya — sometimes I feel like God doesn’t accept this. Sometimes I think God is forgetting me again.”

“I want to go to a safer place — I don’t care where. I want to go to school. I want to join the police. I think I will be safe there. What I feel in my heart is it would be safe there.”

A____, 23, Pentecostal, lesbian, Kampala

“I grew up in a Christian family. We had to go to church. We would pray every evening. My sister knows that I’m a lesbian. She’s okay. The rest of my family does not know. I’m afraid for my mom — if she found out, she might collapse and die.”

“I go to a Pentecostal church. I like it. My girlfriend goes to a different church; when I first met her, I liked her eyes—I just saw love. My faith, it’s just a part of me. Nothing can change me or my Christianity. Nothing. I’ve never doubted it. But I don’t think about it too much. The Bible talks about it being better to have small faith. We don’t need to have a lot. If we had too much, it might confuse us. I just know God is God. Whatever situation, God is still God. You can have money or not—He is God. You are laughing or crying—He is God. He remains God.”

Aaron, 21, Christian, gay, Kampala

“My family used to say, ‘Aaron, you have gay friends!’ I acted like a straight person, because I couldn’t let them find out. One day, they saw a friend of mine in the newspapers. My elder sister said, ‘Aaron, come, I want to talk to you. What do you have to say?’ I said, ‘He is my friend! But I didn’t know!’ I was lying. My sister is a Christian. She said, ‘I feel pity for that guy. They are about to take him to prison.’”

“I’m still going to church. Being gay doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to go to church or you’re not supposed to pray. I like praying. I need to pray to my God. To keep me not in the closet. That He will give me life and keep me alive. You can’t protect yourself. You always have to pray to God. Accidents happen. Incidents happen. Once, I was in a bar, and I was robbed. The guy had a knife. He said, ‘Give me the money you have, and your phone, or else I will cut you.’ He followed me into the loos. He said, ‘I’ve been watching you. I know what you’ve been doing.’”

“God is where I can run to when I feel depressed. I go to the place which is quiet, and I start crying to my Lord. I say, ‘This has gone beyond.’ Whenever you pray to God, He always answers. God is always there.”

“I try to keep my other life apart. It’s difficult. I can’t take my boyfriend to meet my mum. She knows him as well, but she doesn’t know he’s my boyfriend. The thing I fear most is that I don’t want my mum to know what I am. I know the time will come, and she will know, but not at this age.”

“Sometimes I do sex work. I wouldn’t say it’s good. I do it when I feel like I need to—I do it to have fun and to get money. I don’t want my boyfriend to know—he is a good person. He doesn’t cheat. Sex is a part of us. On the other side of the street, they also do what we do. It does make me feel like we are the same as the other. We all need the same things.”

Princess Rihana, 26, Christian, transgender, Kampala

“Rihanna is my role model. I love the way she is—her style, her music, the way she feels when she is singing. I love how she does everything. That’s why I decided to call myself her name. There is just one thing I wish in life: to meet her. It’s a dream. It’s a wish.”

“I can’t go to any church. They will know me. But I know: God is everything. He is the one knowing what will happen tomorrow, what will come today, whether I will breathe or not. There are times when I say, ‘Oh, God, you have left me aside. I thought you were beside me.’ God annoys me, but He is the reason I am still here.”

Babu, 27, Muslim, gay, Kampala

“I grew up in a staunch Muslim household. We grew up knowing how to pray five times a day and fasting. I really believe in my God, but I don’t go to mosque anymore. There was a time when everyone was preaching about homosexuality. Anytime they were coming up with examples of young people misbehaving, they were talking about that, so some of us just gave up.”

“One day, one of my cousins, who used to like me so, so much, he called me and said, ‘I want to see you.’ I wasn’t suspicious. But when we met up, he grabbed my phone and immediately started beating me. Punching me. Kicking me. He said I am a curse on the family. He told every member of the family that I am a disgrace—even our grandfathers and our grandmothers. He said, ‘We have a mosque in our compound. How can we have a person like this in our family?’”

“I don’t know in my faith what God really thinks. Maybe I have not read enough of the Koran. I wonder. I read the Bible a lot, because it’s just in simple English. Sometimes I have attended Christian churches. I do have this feeling that God is just one. I think there is just one heaven and one God.”

Ronald, 23, Roman Catholic, gender-nonconforming, Nairobi

“I define myself as a gender-nonconforming person. I don’t use gay. I don’t feel like I am male or female.”

“I grew up in a Catholic family. I used to go to Mass every Sunday, and I served as an usher at St. Noa Cathedral. My responsibility was to make sure everything was in place and to assist the priest. Every morning and evening, we said our prayers. I believed all of what the Church was teaching.”

“When I was 15, I was able to talk to different people to ask for knowledge: What is it like when someone is attracted to someone of the same sex? Everybody told me: ‘Those people are evil. You must not allow them in the community. Do not allow them near you.’”

“Some churches, many Africans, try to believe their culture does not accept homosexuality. But when you study history, one of the Buganda kings was gay. I came to understand that some homophobia—not homosexuality—was exported from your countries, from Western countries, to Africa.”

“On the 26th of December 2014, I was attacked. It was Boxing Day. Most people go out. We didn’t, because we didn’t have enough money. Some people in my village came and beat us very badly. We had wounds everywhere. We went to the hospital and we got first aid, and the next day, we got a bus to Kampala. I never went back to my village. In January, I came to Kenya, because it was near.”

“My life is not secure here in Kenya. On the 9th of this very month, we were taking tea. We heard some people outside making a lot of noise. Some of the words, I can’t forget. I don’t know how they found us. But now, when people see you are Ugandan, they think you are gay and trying to go to America. Or they see skinny jeans and they think you are gay. This is Africa!”

“These people — I don’t know who they were, not our neighbors — said they would attack us. The landlord called the police, and they took us in. One policewoman removed an earring of mine forcefully and started threatening us. They told us we should not bring our behaviors here. We should keep it in our country or wait for Obama to take us to his country, because he has no problem with our behaviors. The police wanted to prove we were gay and to open charges. We all gave statements that we are not gay. In the end, we had to lie about why we left Uganda. I said my dad was a politician and when he contested the 2011 election, he lost the vote and I had to leave. My dad is a businessman. He is not involved in politics. In Africa, we have a saying: ‘A thief has 40 days.’ It means that on the 40th day, you will be dead. The police said, ‘This is your 39th day.’ They said, ‘We don’t have the capacity to protect you anymore.’”

“I will get married someday, but it may take long. Oh my God, I do want children — whatever God will give me. But everyone would like to have as many as you can, right? I would have as many as I can. I don’t think I could go with anyone who is not a Christian. It’s impossible. It may create some conflicts. When I’m with my boyfriend, I would want to eat pork!”

“I thank God for my life. I have suffered, but God has saved me. I don’t ask Him for a lot because He has already given me so much. He has given me life. When I was attacked, I was praying God would save me, and he did. I have seen each and every thing. Most people fear death, but I have tasted it, and I am not afraid of it anymore.”

[In the spring of 2016, Ronald was resettled in the U.S. as a refugee.]

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

Related stories:

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

“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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Jeff Chu

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Jeff Chu

Reporter | Writer | Author, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America” | Storyteller | Pilgrim | Seminarian

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