The European: Dear Ms. Nabagesera, you founded the LGBT rights organization FARUG in 2003, when you were 23 years old. What drove you to the decision to become an activist?
Nabagesera: I don’t think that events make people activists. Everyone is born an activist but only some people act upon it. I just could not sit back and see all the injustice and abuse that is happening to my community and to myself. I realized that the only way I can stop this is to stand up, speak about it and try to make a difference.
The European: As a pupil you were expelled from school because you wrote a love letter…
Nabagesera: Yes, I was expelled because I wrote a letter to a girl I fell in love with.
The European: Why is there so much hate towards homosexuals in Uganda?
Nabagesera: Many people are very ignorant and we have a big right-Christian movement in Uganda, spreading lies and hateful speech across the community. And because a lot of people believe in everything they say, they also believe the lies about the LGBT-community. Others are just ignorant and want to propagate their fundamental agenda.
The European: Are politicians also using anti-homosexual propaganda to attract voters and cement their power?
Nabagesera: Yes, this happens quite a lot. People use it for their political gains and to distract the people from more pressing issues.
The European: You said in an interview: “it’s not the laws I fear most, it’s the people”.
Nabagesera: Even if you change a law, you might not change the mindset of the people. So this alone would not be a big achievement – although of course a big step in the right direction. Still, the mindset of the society must change as well, because those are the people we live with, who we see every day and who, unfortunately, attack and abuse us.
The European: How do you try to change their mindset? What do you tell them?
Nabagesera: First of all, I ask them if they have ever met someone who is openly gay. Because a lot of people hate gay persons without ever having sat down to listen to them. When they tell me, that they have never met a gay person, I ask them, what they would do if they would. Their reaction then guides me in the right direction, telling me what I can do. Sometimes the answers are so scary that you just have to walk away. If someone is willing to set gays on fire, there is no possibility for fruitful dialogue. After all, I must also protect myself at the end of the day.
The European: How is it possible for you to live under such circumstances?
Nabagesera: I would not say that it is impossible for me to live in Uganda because it’s very dangerous, but I can say that my life is not an ordinary one. I always have to watch out, anticipate what could happen to me next. Many people are very hateful and would like to see me dead because they have been told that I am part of a group that is “recruiting” their children for homosexual practices and is “promoting” homosexuality. So I have to be careful, avoid certain places, have to make sure to use safe transportation and I can only stay in neighborhoods where people do not know that I am gay.
“Our success led to more hate”
The European: In 2012, a Ugandan newspaper reported about you and other gay activists, using the headline “Hang them!”. Your friend David Kato, whose name was on this list, was murdered soon after. You have been threatened and attacked too. Have you ever thought about giving up and leaving the country?
Nabagesera: No – leaving would just make things even worse. We need to make sure that we forestall this injustice from ever happening again. The only way to stop homophobia is to continue fighting. We cannot hide and make the oppressors win. But this is not just about winning – it is about our lives.
The European: Despite all the atrocities, you don’t seem to have lost hope.
Nabagesera: I have so much hope. Just look at Europe: the people learned from their mistakes and now they are trying to do things right. It happened in other parts of the world too. So yes, I am very hopeful that one day it will happen in Uganda too. And I am happy to be part of the movement that drives this change that will lead to the liberation of my country – even if I might not live to see it.
The European: When you say liberation of the whole country, you seem to imply more than just ending the injustice towards a minority.
Nabagesera: Discrimination hinders development. There are a lot of LGBT people who could help to develop our country but they are unable to do so because they are expelled from school, stigmatized and discriminated. So the LGBT issue is really about the whole nation. The only way we can walk together and develop our nation is by stopping homophobia.
The European: After ten years of activism: what has changed so far?
Nabagesera: We changed a lot. Ironically, our successes also led to more hate and homophobia in Uganda because in the past homosexuals did not exist officially or in the public mind. Then we stood up and said: “We do exist. We are here and we are here to stay.” Our visibility alone angered so many people that big protests began to happen all over the country. Even our own families and communities know now that homosexuals do exist, there is a national debate now and we have started to have a dialogue with government officials. And the movement grew from just two people to a good number of activists who are standing up now. To me, that’s a clear success.
The European: Is there a country you want Uganda to become like in terms of LGBT rights?
Nabagesera: First of all, I do not believe that there is a country that deals with this question in a perfect way. Even in countries that allow gay marriages and even adoptions, LGBT people still face discrimination. So no, I do not think that there is a perfect country – not yet.
The European: How important is international support for homosexuals in Uganda?
Nabagesera: Of course it is needed, because we are not an isolated country. The world is a global village. Other societies have been in the same place we are now, and learning from them is great because we see what mistakes have been made and which options and possibilities we have. It is important that the people in my country know that the world is watching and supporting us. This will make hatemongers think twice.
“The pope took a brave stance”
The European: Is it true that Hillary Clinton once saved you from imprisonment?
Nabagesera: Yes, me and some other activists were detained after holding a Gay Pride. Hillary Clinton had just honored our foundation a day before that and was still in the country, waiting for her plane at the airport when she heard about our arrest. She talked to the officials and we were released.
The European: You mentioned the role of the Catholic Church before. Many priests are openly fueling hate against homosexuals. Shouldn’t it be the pope’s moral obligation to stop this?
Nabagesera: Well, the pope has taken a very brave stance and stood out against such hatemongering. Especially the conservatives regret that they have appointed him. But his statements do not force them to change. But the bare fact that this church said something positive about homosexuals is already a landmark. Because all we have been hearing from the Catholic Church until now was discriminatory. So when a pope says for the first time: “gays should be respected”, I see it as a good sign. Something good might come out of this.
The European: You visited Germany for the past few days, but you’re flying back to Uganda today. How are you feeling right now?
Nabagesera: I am excited. Of course, I am also a bit sad because I really enjoyed the comfort and the lovely people here in Germany. I was able to walk freely on the street without fear that someone is going to hit or insult me. I am going to miss all that, but at the same time I have to go home. I have a mission to accomplish.
The European: So you still love your country?
Nabagesera: Despite all its flaws, it is the most beautiful country in the world. Everyone would love it.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Allon Bar: “We’re setting standards”