LGBT in Uganda: Messages for the pope

LGBT in Uganda: Messages for the pope


African gays, who often face persecution in the streets and sometimes prosecution in courts, have a simple plea for Pope Francis ahead of his first visit to the continent: bring a message of tolerance even if you will not bless our sexuality.

Francis travels to Kenya and Uganda, where many conservative Christians bristle at the idea of the West forcing its morality on them, especially when it comes to gays and lesbians. He also visits conflict-torn Central African Republic.

“We should not be discriminated against,” said Keith. His message to the pope: “Tell the congregation that being gay is normal and so we deserve our rights, equal rights.”

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

“If you have the right to marry a woman, then I should have the right to marry a man too - not for one party to marry in the open and me do the same in the dark,” said Babu.

Uganda, which is about 40 percent Catholic, has been seen as a bastion of anti-gay sentiment since 2013, when it sought to toughen penalties, with some lawmakers pushing for the death penalty or life in prison for some actions involving gay sex.

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

The law was overturned on procedural grounds, but not before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry compared it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany. Other Western donors were outraged.

Abdul, who grew up in a Catholic family, said Pope Francis should advocate LGBT rights because human rights are fundamental.

“Most important of all, he should influence the church to accept us because the church says being gay is wrong,” he said. “This continuous discrimination has caused a lot of trauma, depression and anxiety and has driven us away from the church.”

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

“You see me here?” said Francis. “I was chased away from home with all sorts of bad wishes by my family when they found out I was gay.”

While Francis has not changed Catholic dogma on homosexuality and has reaffirmed the church's opposition to same-sex marriage, his more inclusive approach has cheered many gay Catholics while annoying conservatives.

"Pope Francis visiting Uganda is one of the most exciting things to have happened to me, especially as we share names,” said his namesake in Kampala. “The Pope should look into the issue of how LGBT rights are handled in Uganda and how, with his powers, (he can) make a difference.”

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

“I would like the Pope to tell fellow believers that we are human beings like them, they worship the same god that we worship,” said Hector, who identifies as a trans-woman. “The Pope's coming is going to give us an opportunity to come out and tell our stories.”

The lightning progress of gay rights in much of America and Europe, where same-sex couples can marry and adopt children, has encouraged gay Africans but hardened attitudes of those who object to the idea on religious grounds.

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

“Many people, including our very own families, discriminate against us to the point of chasing us out of home,” said Mark. “We are the same, normal and harmless."

A government spokesman, Shaban Bantariza, said: "We hope the pope's message will not diverge from the core beliefs of Ugandans."

"We don't view homosexuality as a normal lifestyle but also we have chosen not to persecute those who have fallen victim to it," he said.

. Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

"I am glad, being a staunch Catholic, that among several countries in Africa, the Pope has chosen to visit Uganda,” said Chris.

“I ask him to advocate for equal human rights with the rest of the country,” he said. “We are the same despite the fact that we have different sexual orientations.”

While gays feel ostracised by the Catholic church's teachings, Africa's evangelical protestant preachers are often among the most strident opponents of homosexuality.

Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and one of the country's most outspoken advocates for gay rights, said he hoped the Pope would bring a message that gays and lesbians should be "treated like any other children of God."

"If he starts talking about rights, then Ugandans are going to be very defensive," said Mugisha, a Catholic. "But I would think if the Pope was here and talking about love, compassion and equality for everyone, Ugandans will listen."

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, likened discrimination against gays to racism, speaking during a recent visit to Kenya, where about a third of the population is Catholic.

Francis' ascent to the papacy in 2013, replacing the more conservative Pope Benedict, has heartened gay Africans. They welcomed Francis' comment early in his papacy that: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"