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Interview with LGBTI Grassroots Activist Jay Mulucha

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Jay Mulucha, LGBTI activist. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Uganda, 2014

Jay Mulucha is the founder and executive director of Fem Alliance, a grassroots organization that serves LGBTI Ugandans mostly in southern Kampala.

The following is edited from a conversation with him on January 28, 2015.

How are things in Kampala right now? Have they improved since the Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down?

Things are not much better at all—there is a new Anti-Homosexuality Bill that we think they are planning to re-table again in Parliament. It was supposed to be done in December last year so we are scared that as soon as they reopen this year’s session [in February] they may introduce new legislation.

Most of our colleagues have fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. Others are planning to leave soon. People are running away. We don’t know who will stay, who will be here to advocate for us. We’re losing our friends, our human rights defenders. But of course we don’t blame them—it’s not safe here.

What are the main differences between this new bill and the last version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act?

There are only some small differences, but it’s even worse than the last one. According to the new bill they now recognize transgender people, in a bad way. Now they’re targeted too.

Before, they were excluded because lawmakers didn’t understand the distinctions between sexual identity and gender identity?

Exactly. Now they’re becoming more aware, and they’re targeting all LGBTI people. Part of the problem is that our advocacy work has made people more aware of all LGBTI people, but we’re not going to stop.

It also means that more people are starting to learn more, are learning that we live and exist. Now, average people actually talk about the LGBTI community. Some of them are even trying to understand it—in a good way. We aren’t invisible.

What’s responsible for that shift in public attitudes?

People used to not talk about these things in public. But we tried to conduct research about the myths of homosexuality and the origins of homosexuality—and we spoke to the older people in rural areas and they told us, “We know it exists. It has always been here, we just never discussed it, it was secret.” So we are trying to show people that this isn’t just something brought by westerners and western cultures. It has always existed in Uganda.

The more we do our advocacy and reach out to people and supply them with new information and knowledge, the more they understand.

So do you feel like average Ugandans are becoming more accepting?

Not exactly. Even though the government has declared that the [2014 Anti-Homosexuality] law is null and void, that doesn’t matter on the ground. Crimes are continuing to happen. People are still being attacked.

One member of Fem Alliance was arrested after her parents turned her in as a lesbian. She was jailed for two days without being charged at her parents’ request. The police were probably bribed. This is Uganda. Anything stupid can happen.

How is your work with Fem Alliance going?

We’ve expanded our computer training program and started a few economic empowerment projects—most of our members don’t have jobs because people refuse to employ LGBTI people, so we try to come up with ways to help them sustain themselves. We teach candle-making, arts and crafts, how to make jewelry and clothes to sell, how to make cakes.

We’re also trying to reach more people in the slums with health information. We offer counseling, we give them information about obtaining medication. We have a new clinic that’s offering free healthcare to the LGBTI community, so we have to let young people know that there are places for them to go to access free services.

What’s the main difference between your organization and the bigger, more visible non-profits on the other side of Kampala?

We are working at the grassroots level. We are actually reaching the LGBTI community in rural and slum areas. Those big organizations are busy doing the big picture work, traveling to conferences, compiling research, and that’s important, but we’re keeping people safe. We go down to the roots.

When the bill was passed, most of the violence that was taking place, most of the people attacked were in the rural and slum areas—so we have to do more. Sometimes we go out to homes and stay with people if they think they’re in danger. We’re always there.

If you’d like to reach Jay, he can be contacted at femauganda@gmail.com.