Richard Lusimbo is eloquent, smart and a very sharp dresser. He counters the conventional laid-back activist , with trademark suits. Activism is his business. In February this year, Richard was ‘outed’ and name as Uganda’s ‘top homosexual’ by a tabloid newspaper in his home country, Uganda. The day before, President Yoweri Museveni had signed into law the controversial Anti -Homosexuality bill, which made the work Richard does and that of the organisation that he works for, Sexual Minorties of Uganda (SMUG), illegal. Life for the LGBTI community in Uganda has not been easy, as members of the community have to not only worry about the law, but face threats from the public at large. In spite of this, Uganda’s movement is undeterred in its efforts to fight this discriminatory law and is currently challenging it in court.
One a recent trip to Kenya, our East Africa editor Kevin Mwachiro spoke to Richard Lusimbo who shared how life has been for him ever since the law was enacted and his subsequent ‘outing’ .
Kevin Mwachiro: How did that feel for you?
Richard Lusimbo: I felt weak; I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t because I had been outed, but I felt weak because I didn’t know what the reaction from my family, friends and landlord would be. I didn’t know what to do. I remember Friday February 28 very well. I literally had to sit and decide whether I needed to go out and buy the newspaper. I ended staying indoors the whole day.
KM: How did you know that you were in the newspapers?
RL: I got a call from a friend that morning who told me that I was featured in the Red Pepper newspaper. I asked her to send me the pictures via Whatsapp and there I was! The images they were using from the Advocate magazine. They had stolen that story and images and twisted it to have the title, “How we became homos” . That headline was really damaging. I could not believe that had happened. I automatically knew I was in trouble. When I went onto Facebook that morning, there were abusive messages there as well. I had to log off as it became too much to deal with. I started receiving ‘funny’ calls with people asking me how I could have given Red Pepper an interview. I received very many hateful text messages. People seemed to have taken a position based on that story. I decided not to explain myself, as it seemed pointless at that time. There would be no audience willing to believe me. So many things went wrong that day, it was such a horrible day. Friends came home and spent the day with me. I took no chances and stayed indoors that day as I knew if I went out of the house, the results would have been detrimental for me.
KM: Why are people in Uganda so violent towards the homosexual community?
RL: We have a society that believes that the police are slow to react and therefore resort to mob violence. They believe they have a responsibility to deal with us. At times, my fear is not from the government, but from the public. The media have misrepresented us and this has not made the situation better for us. They expose us to risks and therefore the community at large acts on what they are told. They believe they are implementing what is right for them. We live in a community that is incited by the media. The media are not educating the mass, but goes on to promote their ignorance.
KM: What was the reaction of your family to you being outed?
RL: My dad has not spoken to me since the story was carried in the paper. My step-mom called me the day after and told me that I should go back to the church and repent. I knew her reaction was an indication of what my dad was also thinking. My siblings have not spoken to me either.
KM: You must feel extremely lonely?
RL: I have friends, though family is always important. Though it would be nice to have the support of my brothers and sisters and to know that you can count on their love and support. I’ve a few cousins who’ve supported and still love me. Some of my friends have withdrawn their friendship and don’t want to be associated with me. It has been lonely and difficult time to me. I keep on hoping my family would have been there for me.
KM: With all that has happened to you, why are you still in Uganda?
RL: I have a responsibility and role to play in Uganda. There are so many LGBTI people in Uganda who can’t speak out like I can. But, they need our representation. I feel I have a social responsibility as a Ugandan and I believe I have a responsibility to contribute to my country’s development. I will not allow discrimination nor let a stupid and foolish legislation push me away. The best way to win the battle is not when you are away, but when you are at the forefront. For my activism to be effective and to have an impact, I need to be in Uganda.
KM: How can the movement in Uganda be supported?
RL: We need regional support and we have good regional connections here in East Africa, that has been good for us. Though, we need more African voices reaching out to our Uganda Government. This will help fight the common misconception that homosexuality is un-African. If we have more African voices saying the prosecution of fellow Africans is wrong this will create a big impact. Having said that, we still need and continue to work with our partners in the West. We’ve seen that working together has been effective and has raised awareness on the plight of the LGBTI people of Uganda and this has not left us in isolation. It has helped us create a global family of support.
Richard Lusimbo is the Research and Documentation Manager at SMUG. SMUG is one of the organisations participating in the Ji-Sort programme that is supported by Hivos.