GAY AND UGANDAN
It’s not just the act of homosexuality that carries a prison sentence; those who promote homosexuality face up to seven years in prison, meaning LGBT activist groups can’t exist in Uganda.
The new law even requires people to report anyone they know or suspect to be homosexual to the police, or face prison time themselves.
We talk to John Bosco, who had to flee Uganda after the local press outed him. Even his own family were trying to turn him in to the authorities. This is his story.
“Growing up I didn’t know anything about being gay, bisexual or transgender so it was difficult. I always knew I didn’t have feelings for girls, but I didn’t know that I was gay. That was not in my head. Very few people knew about this gay, bisexual or transgender community.
“But then in my teenage years I realised I had feelings for boys. At first I thought I was the only person who has these feelings. When people would ask if I had a girlfriend, I used to lie and say I did, but she didn’t live around here.
“When I was 21, I didn’t want to come out in Uganda because I knew how hard it would be for me to not have a job, a family or anything.
“Anyway, we used to have a place where gay people used to meet up. It was not known as a gay bar because we knew that couldn’t happen in Uganda, but as a group we used to go there. One day, some of the guys got drunk and started kissing and flirting with the straight men. The straight men were not happy and they mentioned it to the police.
“So the police raided the place and they arrested a few gay men. They were interrogated. They were really badly beaten at the police station. They were told to give names of any other gay people they knew so that’s when my name was given up. Our names were on the news and local radios, saying ‘If you know these people you have to report them to police’.
“That’s how they started looking for me. They raided my mum’s place, asking her where I was. I’d already left and was staying at my boyfriend’s place out of town. We heard on the radio what was happening to the people they had arrested. That was when I decided to buy a passport to leave. So that’s how I came out. It was not like I wanted to come out, but it was because I was forced. I was wanted by the police.”
When John arrived in the UK in 2001, he went to the Home Office to seek asylum. He didn’t know the system, so didn’t know where to start, and had no friends or family to lean on for support.“When I came to the UK, it was a real nightmare for me. I was put in a detention centre for four months until I had a court hearing to decide if I could stay. I won, but then the Home Office challenged the decision, saying I could go back to Uganda, change my lifestyle and be straight to not be persecuted.
“My solicitor put in an application for a tribunal. At the tribunal, the Home Office didn’t turn up, so the judge granted me to stay in the country, and told the Home Office to put it in writing. The Home Office didn’t do it. We wrote to MPs to get support, and Michael Hancock wrote to the Home Office, and in the end the Home Office gave me one year to remain.
“After that, I had to apply for an extension. They turned it down. I applied again; they took me to court and turned it down. The case then went to the high court, who challenged the Home Office. I was told to put in a fresh claim. I did that. They turned it down. It went back to tribunal. They turned it down. It went to the high court. They turned it down. This happened three times.
“I was working day and night to pay for my legal costs. By 2008, I’d spent over £20,000 on my case and was not getting anywhere. I also had to sign at the police station every week from 2004 to 2008, which I did without fail.
“Around August 2008, I was told to put in an application to the High Court again. I needed to pay £6000, which I didn’t have. I’d reached a point where I thought it was time to kill myself because I couldn’t suffer anymore. I’d worked day and night and done everything I could.”
On September 9 2008, when John went to sign at the police station as usual, he was detained, and told he had to sign forms for him to be deported back to Uganda. His friends from work and his church started a campaign to stop the deportation. Because of the support he was getting in Portsmouth, the Home Office moved John to another detention centre in Dover. He was due to be deported on September 14 from Heathrow. The entire campaign group were at the airport with placards, and they were giving out letters letting people know what was going on. They were faxing the Home Office and airliners in an attempt to stop John’s deportation.
“On the 14th, they told me it was time and I had to go and I said I wasn’t going. Since they arrested me on the 9th, I was told I would get to talk to somebody, yet I hadn’t, and they’d booked me on a 7am flight despite the fact the Home Office didn’t open until 9am. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. They told me that if I didn’t want to go I could go back, but next time they’d have to use bodyguards to take me back to Uganda.
“Because my case was going on in local newspapers in Portsmouth, the newspaper New Vision in Uganda copied the story from here and my picture was on the front page. So everyone knew about me and what had been going on, so it became even worse for me if I had to go back to Uganda.”
John then got a letter through the post saying he would have a bail hearing in three days, yet that night, he was told to collect his belongings, forced into a van and took to Heathrow once again.
“They said the reason they’d done it like this was because the Home Office said I had too much support in Portsmouth. They wanted to avoid the chaos at the airport, so that was why they’d done it this way. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d spoken to my solicitor. They drove the van straight to the plane, the bodyguards jumped in, they grabbed my hands, put handcuffs on, and dragged me out. One punched me in the groin. They strapped my legs and my ankles. They lifted me as a dead body. I was screaming. I was saying please don’t hurt me please don’t take me back to Uganda. They put me on the plane. I was in pain, the handcuffs were so tight, and they wouldn’t loosen them until we were in the air.
“As soon as I landed, the Ugandan police knew all about me. They said we don’t have gay people in Uganda.
“My solicitor told me I had to stay there until they got someone from Uganda to pick me up and take me somewhere safe so I could make a statement about what happened.
“Because of the stress and the damage the handcuffs did, I had to go see the doctor, and because I had no ID I had to go to the hospital that I was born at. As soon as I said my name, they knew who I was. The next thing I saw was the hospital guards. They arrested me, put me in a room and started beating me. They said you people are sick, how can you do this. I was then put in prison.
“I was in a cell that was packed. There was nowhere to sleep, and the floor was solid concrete. The inmates didn’t want to be near me. They were kicking me, slapping me, spitting on me and saying you people are disgusting, we don’t like people like you.
“When they arrested me I had £300, and they said if I signed to say I’d taken all my money and belongings and didn’t take the money I could go. I thought I’m not going to die here. I’d rather lose the money.
“I had no money and no shoes or anything. I had to walk 3 hours barefoot. I just wondered why had I been born gay.”Photo: John Bosco with Peter TatchellBack in the UK, John’s solicitor went to the High Court, and because of John’s unlawful deportation the High Court allowed him to return. After some struggle to get through customs in Uganda, John was told UK immigration knew he was on a flight back to the UK, yet when he arrived at Heathrow, without a passport, he was detained once again. The Home Office denied receiving any documentation about his arrival. After some days in a detention centre, he was finally released, although he was not allowed to work in the UK.
“My solicitor put in an application for my fresh claim for asylum, then I had the hearing in May 2009, and the Home Office said if I go back to Uganda, I could move to a part where they don’t know me and change my lifestyle. That’s when the judge said, ‘How can you tell someone to change? That shows that he is in danger in Uganda.’ I was scared. I was shaking. I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Two weeks later, John got his papers from the court saying they were allowing him to stay. Even though John has been allowed to stay in the UK, things have still been tough for him and he still struggles to fit in.
“Living in the UK has its ups and downs. I’m a black person, I’m Christian and I’m gay. I don’t fit in a black community because of my sexuality. I don’t fit in a Christian community because of my sexuality, and then sometimes I don’t fit in a gay community because of my colour.
“I have some really good friends, and some are straight. They’ve been really supportive. I had one of my hearings in Wales, and a straight couple from the church took time off to drive me there and back. They did all that for me.
“Things are better now than they were before. I was lucky in that the job I had before I was deported kept my job open for me, so when I came back I got my job back.
“Sometimes it makes me sad that some people are free. They can do what they want without looking over their shoulders and then on the other side of the world it’s the opposite. You can’t be who you are.
“The people in Uganda have the law in their own hands. They can set a person on fire, and ring the police and just say the person was gay to get cleared of it. Even the Police can bribe people for money. If you give them the money, you are not gay. If you don’t give them the money, then you are gay. This bill doesn’t just affect gay people. These things are happening in Uganda.”
Despite the severe laws for LGBT people in Uganda, John doesn’t think stopping aid money is the way forward.
“Stopping aid from going to Africa or Uganda or Nigeria or Zimbabwe is going to make the situation worse because there are gay people who might need that support who won’t get anything. When you stop aid, you are stopping aid for the poorest, poorest people in the village. So that won’t help at all and will make the situation worse because people will die, and then LGBT people will get the blame. And we don’t want this aid to be used as if it is a bribe. We don’t want people to discuss being gay in that way. We want other countries like the UK to educate the people of Uganda.
“They really don’t understand what being gay is. They compare gay people to animals. They think it’s a choice you make. They think that if you went to a same-sex boarding school then being gay grew in you, and if you see girls that will then change. You can’t even explain the logic behind it. Sometimes they blame the mothers, like maybe they did things wrong and that’s why their child is gay.
“When people say being gay is a choice, that is what really hurts me. If it was a choice, who would like to live in the situation I’m living in? Who would want to be put in prison because of being gay?
“I haven’t talked to my family for 14 years. I left Uganda in 2001. For my family it was even worse than even the government because they were the ones reporting me to the police, saying he’s here, this is what is happening. At that time, it was not the law to turn people in. I don’t blame people for doing it now the law has changed, but in 2001 it was not the same. How can you talk to them when you’ve gone through all that?
“I do really miss my mum. If she was in a place where she could listen to me, I think she would because we were really close. She had six children but I think I was her favourite. We used to do things together, like going shopping and cooking. I used to weave her hair. I was more close to her than even my sister, and sometimes my siblings hated it because they thought I was the favourite.
“I once had someone from my church who went to Uganda try and contact my mum, but they couldn’t find her. And now I wouldn’t want to contact her because it would put her in a bad situation, because if you’re contacting any gay person, even if they live abroad, then you can be arrested. It’s a crime in Uganda. Even if she wanted to contact me, she couldn’t.”
This year, John will have to reapply for his asylum status to be allowed to remain in the UK.
“I still have hope. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard but it’s good to have freedom.”