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The secret lives of Uganda's queer Christians

June 20, 2024
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Uganda, #LGBTQ+ rights, #police brutality
by:Bana Mwesige
"You would arrive in your 'straight' outfit and then go to the washroom and change so you could feel like you are in a different part of the world. A place where you belong."

Editor’s note: This story was published in collaboration with Minority Africa as part of the Dual Life Project, which showcases how LGBTQIA persons in Africa are often compelled by society to lead dual lives.

On a Sunday night in 2016, 20-year-old Mark was dancing at Ram Bar, a gay bar in Kampala. He raised his hands and swayed his hips to the music of Sheebah Karungi. Earlier that day, Mark was doing the same thing but to different music, for a different audience and with a different motive - he was praising God at church.

For the longest time, Mark knew who he was: a queer Christian. He had reconciled his sexuality with his faith. Whenever the conversation came up at church or within his family circles, he was slightly bothered but overall unfazed. He had perfected the art of segmenting his life into two distinct parts. To him, every queer person in Kampala lived that way. Mark knew exactly when to switch his queerness on and when to switch it off.

"I feel like one day it is all going to come out into the light," he said. "I feel like one day, I'm not gonna be able to hide it as much as I have all this time."

Numerous "incidents," such as his grandmother seeing an explicit picture on his phone, one of his ex-boyfriends inadvertently outing him to his sister or the many times his parents received phone calls from school about "an incident," helped him develop both a coping mechanism and a confidence that left him - by his own description - pretty much unscathed.

"I think one of the incidents that really scared me was a time when I got really nasty comments and tags on Facebook," he said. "My grandma was alerted to those notifications and so were some people in my family and I had to  sit down with all of them to explain myself [and] why I am  getting comments from men on my photos saying [that] I am sexy [and that] they can’t wait to see me. 

"How I got out of that was just trying to prove to my family that social media is social media and we cannot control who comments, who tags and what they tag you in; we really can't. After that incident, I had to leave Facebook completely because however many countermeasures I [had] put in place there, I still could not control what was being tagged, liked, or commented on."

Kampala's 'only haven for queer people'

Mark had a reliable and nearly airtight weekly schedule: Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were mostly for college. Thursdays were dedicated to choir rehearsal. On Fridays and Saturdays, he would go out with his queer friends.

Sunday mornings and afternoons were spent at hours-long services, which he loved. While there were some queer members on the worship team, they were "too closeted" for his liking, so he kept a low profile with them. The rest of the team, he said, couldn't care less about the flamboyant boy who always suggested costume and uniform ideas.

Once the 4- to 5-hour services ended, 'after-service' meetings would follow. Mark would eventually leave church at 3 or 4 p.m. and head home for a nap. This nap was essential, not only to recover from the hectic church service, but for another important reason: he had to stay awake all night at a gay bar.

In Uganda, societal attitudes toward LGBTQ+ persons remain predominantly negative, a sentiment echoed by the government. Gatherings of LGBTQ+ individuals are frowned upon and often raided, as they are considered to be "promoting" homosexuality. These attitudes have been codified into various laws, such as the repealed Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 and its successor, the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023.

Sunday was the perfect day for a gay bar in Kampala to operate. It was the only day they could run in the shadows, avoiding police interference and the possibility of other partygoers raining on their parade.

Mark loved the bar. He met his first boyfriend there. In fact, he met everyone he knew, including the closeted church gays, at that bar. There was no class or social hierarchy.

"Everyone there just was gay," he said. He found that was exhilarating, and looked forward to it so much that he often cancelled all his Monday morning plans, including school and lectures, to be able to go to the bar.

"Ram was like the only haven for queer people," he said.

"All queer people from all these different places would meet and feel like themselves. I remember we used to come with changing clothes; you would arrive in your 'straight' outfit and then go to the washroom and change so you could feel like you are in a different part of the world. You know, a place where you’re not judged, where you belong."

Mark had been going to the bar almost religiously every Sunday since high school. He knew what to expect. But on that fateful Sunday in 2016, what Mark didn't know was that in just a few hours, he would be placed in a cold police cell and his double life would come crashing down on him like a ton of bricks.

"The harshest men you would ever find"

At around midnight that day, a swarm of policemen raided Ram. Mark was one of the last patrons to become aware of the raid as he sat at the far end of the bar. Most of his friends had escaped by jumping over the fences into the neighbours' compounds and hurried quietly into the night. 

"It happened so fast that I only realised it was happening when the DJ stopped the music and there were these very dark and rude men with guns telling us to get outside to the parking lot of the bar," Mark recalled.

"That is when I realised that most people had jumped from behind the bar. A few of us who were left, I think we were around 40, were brought into the parking lot."

"These were the harshest men you would ever find," he said, describing the policemen, "they kept on saying really homophobic words to us: 'Oh my god! They look like girls. They act like girls. Bring them out! Bring them out!' They kept on saying 'chuka chini'  ('Get down' in Swahili). It was very scary. Very scary. When we sat, everyone was shaking to their bones and muscles. For most of us, this was the very first time we saw homophobia and police in the same place. We didn't know what was next for us."

After rounding up everyone who hadn't escaped, the police claimed they had raided the bar because they had been tipped off about the use of illegal narcotics at the premises. They checked everyone's bags for over an hour and ransacked the bar. 

In Mark's bag were a change of clothes, a notebook and a small devotional. It was flung onto an already accumulating pile of personal effects. He would never see that bag or its contents again.

Wanted to come out - 'but not like that'

After the search, the police insisted on taking everyone to the station to make statements. At around 3 a.m., they asked Mark to submit his next of kin. The media had already descended on them, and by morning, their faces would be plastered all over the news.

"The only person I was thinking of was my grandma. I didn’t want her to see me like that," he shared. "At the back of our minds, we know that we have to come out to our families at some point, but not like that! 'Not like that!' is what I kept on telling myself.

"I had no idea where my 'straight' outfit was. I was in a croptop and very short shorts, an outfit that my parents had never even seen in my closet. I was in a place where they would never expect a person who has school the next morning to be. I was with people they had never seen me relate to. People they ridiculed. I was one of those people. All I could think about was: it was over for me."

After mulling it over, Mark decided his best bet to bail him out of his predicament was one of the closeted church acquaintances he wasn't particularly fond of. Mark called him up, and fortunately, he was awake. But it was too late for him to process bail and come up with the money to bribe the policeman on the case, and so Mark spent the night in jail.

Eight hours later, Mark was finally granted bail. None of his family members knew. 

The following day, he went about his Monday as usual. Thankfully, his identity was not revealed to the media. He heard horror stories of people breaking their legs as they tried to jump over the walls of the bar; people who would be later detained and denied bail for months - some of whom it was their first time attending a gay bar.

Hundreds of facets yet to be explored

After this incident, Mark wanted to lie low - but ultimately he didn't. Within a few weeks, he was at another gay bar (one that had sprung up to take financial advantage of the situation), feeling more confident than ever that he could overcome whatever challenges the intersection of his faith and sexuality might bring in the future.

"I was scared shitless, I was traumatised by how brutally those policemen had handled us, but I scheduled lunch to open up to this one person who had rescued me in my time of need when I least expected it," he said.

"He opened my eyes: You know you can’t live your whole life in hiding."

"At first, I was very sceptical about going," he said, referring to the new bar that opened, "but I mustered up the courage and went. This time I knew what I was going for. I used to go to Ram without knowing what I would do if something like that ever happened, but this time I went boldly."

Mark claimed he is "even more queer now than ever," and that he has a harbors a new appreciation for "church gays." He said they are his "lifeline," and that they have strengthened his faith. 

"I am [still] afraid of the ones who are closeted because you can never predict the next move of a closeted Christian," he said. "But again, they all have good reasons why they are not out of the closet; [the same] reasons I had at a certain point. So I’m not too hard on them. I just don’t overshare with them. I know their heart and where they are coming from."

During challenging moments, Mark reminds himself that there is another queer family, though hidden, awaiting him as he leads worship at church. He doesn't feel like he's leading a double life any longer, though. Instead, he sees life as having hundreds of facets yet to be explored. Faith and sexuality are just two of them, he said.

Edited and reviewed by Samuel Banjoko, Yair Oded and Uzoma Ihejirika. 

Image by randominstitute.

Article written by:
Bana Mwesige
“I feel like one day it is all going to come out into the light.\'
© Random Institute
“I feel like one day it is all going to come out into the light."
\'The only person I was thinking of was my grandma. I didn’t want her to see me like that.\'
© Random Institute
"The only person I was thinking of was my grandma. I didn’t want her to see me like that."
“I was scared shitless, I was traumatised by how brutally those policemen had handled us.\'
© Random Institute
“I was scared shitless, I was traumatised by how brutally those policemen had handled us."