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East Africa’s Queer Community Searches for a Home of Its Own

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Sweet Love (left), a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the Children of the Sun safe house with her partner of two years, Kenneth. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Sweet Love (left), a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the Children of the Sun safe house with her partner of two years, Kenneth. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Sweet Love, a transgender woman and the chairperson of Children of the Sun, poses for a portrait with a necklace from her boyfriend. She sits at the Children of the Sun safe house, which shelters at-risk and in-need LGBTQ+ persons. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Sweet Love, a transgender woman and the chairperson of Children of the Sun, poses for a portrait with a necklace from her boyfriend. She sits at the Children of the Sun safe house, which shelters at-risk and in-need LGBTQ+ persons. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Young people in the living room of the Children of the Sun safe house. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Young people in the living room of the Children of the Sun safe house. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Young LGBTQ people gather in the living room of the Children of the Sun safe house. At the time this photo was taken, there were eight people sleeping in the two-room apartment, though the number fluctuates daily from six to 12. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Young LGBTQ people gather in the living room of the Children of the Sun safe house. At the time this photo was taken, there were eight people sleeping in the two-room apartment, though the number fluctuates daily from six to 12. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Shamim, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the safe room at Ice Breakers Uganda, an LGBTQ health-services organization. Shamim had been been staying there for four months when this photo was taken. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Shamim, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the safe room at Ice Breakers Uganda, an LGBTQ health-services organization. Shamim had been been staying there for four months when this photo was taken. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Joseph, an HIV+ transgender woman, founder of the HIV and transgender support group Come Out Positive Test Club (COPTC) and a longtime LGBT activist in Uganda, poses for a portrait. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Joseph, an HIV+ transgender woman, founder of the HIV and transgender support group Come Out Positive Test Club (COPTC) and a longtime LGBT activist in Uganda, poses for a portrait. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Javan Mugisha, 19, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait near her home in Kampala. She left Uganda after a mob beat her, stripped her naked and paraded her up and down the street yelling, "He's a homo," behind her. She fled to Kenya and spent nearly a year there as a refugee before returning to Uganda in order to make a stand and reconcile with her family. But now, she faces a stream of abuse from the general public. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Javan Mugisha, 19, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait near her home in Kampala. She left Uganda after a mob beat her, stripped her naked and paraded her up and down the street yelling, "He's a homo," behind her. She fled to Kenya and spent nearly a year there as a refugee before returning to Uganda in order to make a stand and reconcile with her family. But now, she faces a stream of abuse from the general public. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Javan sits in the family's living room, while her brother Shema stands in the doorway. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Javan sits in the family's living room, while her brother Shema stands in the doorway. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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The dance floor at Ram, a bar in Kampala which hosted LGBTQ+ nights on Sundays and had become the de facto gay bar in the city. It closed a few months prior, leaving Kampala without a single dedicated bar for the LGBTQ+ community. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

The dance floor at Ram, a bar in Kampala which hosted LGBTQ+ nights on Sundays and had become the de facto gay bar in the city. It closed a few months prior, leaving Kampala without a single dedicated bar for the LGBTQ+ community. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Javan dances with friends at Ram, a bar in Kampala which hosted LGBTQ nights on Sundays and had become the de facto gay bar in the city. It closed a few months ago, leaving the city without any bars with openly LGBTQ nights. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Javan dances with friends at Ram, a bar in Kampala which hosted LGBTQ nights on Sundays and had become the de facto gay bar in the city. It closed a few months ago, leaving the city without any bars with openly LGBTQ nights. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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A view of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

A view of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Tolton speaks with Ugandan pastors after a church service. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Tolton speaks with Ugandan pastors after a church service. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Members of the LGBTQ community, allies, and others gather for a church service led by pastor Joseph Tolton. He and others like him are in some ways the antithesis of Scott Lively, the American evangelical accused of inflaming anti-homosexuality sentiment that led to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Members of the LGBTQ community, allies, and others gather for a church service led by pastor Joseph Tolton. He and others like him are in some ways the antithesis of Scott Lively, the American evangelical accused of inflaming anti-homosexuality sentiment that led to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

In 2013 Uganda gained international recognition as a horrific place to be gay when the country passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, infamously known as the “Kill the Gays” bill.

In the aftermath of its passage, LGBTQ activists in Uganda were granted funding, access to resources and a global platform that catapulted them into the spotlight. “But on the flip side,” says photographer Jake Naughton, “the visibility created an allergic reaction on the ground where violence is happening at an increasing rate, and it’s not from politicians or religious leaders. It’s from everyday Ugandans, the people in your neighborhood, at church, your family.”

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A crucifix hangs at the safe house of Children of the Sun, a group that shelters at-risk and in-need LGBTQ persons. Though activists say religion has exacerbated and inflamed homophobic violence in Uganda, many in the LGBTQ community are themselves deeply religious. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

A crucifix hangs at the safe house of Children of the Sun, a group that shelters at-risk and in-need LGBTQ persons. Though activists say religion has exacerbated and inflamed homophobic violence in Uganda, many in the LGBTQ community are themselves deeply religious. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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A priest, one of the old guard of LGBTQ rights advocacy in Uganda and Kenya, poses for a portrait at his home outside of Kampala. He had been defrocked due to his advocacy and has just become a priest again. He did not want to show his face in order to protect his livelihood. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

A priest, one of the old guard of LGBTQ rights advocacy in Uganda and Kenya, poses for a portrait at his home outside of Kampala. He had been defrocked due to his advocacy and has just become a priest again. He did not want to show his face in order to protect his livelihood. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Today Uganda could be more dangerous than ever for the gay community, despite the annulment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014.

Naughton’s project, This is How the Heart Beats, calls attention to the forced migration of LGBTQ refugees in East Africa. The series follows the refugees as they flee their homes in Uganda, seek haven in Kenya, find resettlement in the United States, and for some, make a decisive return to Uganda.

Curious how the events of 2013 have resonated in the country, Naughton traveled there in 2017 to record the lives of ordinary LGBTQ Ugandans. Although the people in the photographs may not formally identity as activists, the banal actions of their daily life become a form of activism, a defiance of those who wish them banished or dead.

Naughton acknowledges that as a white American there’s a limit to how his experiences relate to a Ugandan, but “as a gay person, there’s an implicit trust that I understand the danger and the stakes of being a queer person represented in the media,” he says of his ability to access East Africa’s LGBTQ community.

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Chupet, 22, a transgender woman and refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poses for a portrait in Kampala. Since arriving in Uganda in 2013, she says she has been unable to acquire legal refugee status because of obvious identity as a trans woman. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Chupet, 22, a transgender woman and refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poses for a portrait in Kampala. Since arriving in Uganda in 2013, she says she has been unable to acquire legal refugee status because of obvious identity as a trans woman. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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A transgender woman and activist, who goes by Hajjati, poses for a portrait in the office of her organization, Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, which advocates for transgender sex workers. Hajjati would wear the heels in public if she could. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

A transgender woman and activist, who goes by Hajjati, poses for a portrait in the office of her organization, Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, which advocates for transgender sex workers. Hajjati would wear the heels in public if she could. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

In Kenya, the refugees Naughton photographed often asked him to conceal their identity out of fear that their families back home could encounter retributive attacks. It came as a surprise then that in Uganda almost everyone was happy to have their faces shown. “Most people were [already] out in one way or the other,” says Naughton, adding, “that didn’t mean the stakes were lower.” They constantly face the perils of being openly gay, but there is this sense of “people know who we are and that’s just how it is,” recalls Naughton.

To mirror the intense public and private scrutiny LGBTQ people run into in East Africa, Naughton often uses off-camera flash when photographing. The bright light flooding the frame offers a visual metaphor for the unwanted surveillance gay Ugandans endure. Contrasted by deep shadows created by the flash, the dynamic provides an “elegant way to talk about the dual nature of being a queer person in East Africa,” says Naughton, indicating the secrecy that can be bred by the threat of harm.

Naughton increasingly sees himself as a documentarian of queerness in the present moment. “It’s really hard as a gay person to see the incredible violence that people have to experience because of an identity that I share,” he says. On the other hand, Naughton is heartened by the profound resiliency of queer people, their zest for life, and their ability to brave an unimaginable amount of trauma and then turn those experiences “into something beautiful.”

A young transgender woman named Javan embodies the qualities Naughton describes. After surviving brutal abuses in Uganda, Javan fled to Kenya. Six months later she returned home saying, “I have to make a stand. What kind of example do I show for other Ugandan trans people if I leave?”

In a luminous portrait Naughton made of Javan near her home in Kampala, she looks directly into the camera with a look of calm empowerment. The Ugandan LGBTQ community is “committed to reforming the country’s beliefs about queer people,” says Naughton, “and they are there to stay.”

You can follow Jake Naughton on Instagram and check out more of his photography on his website.