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Will LGBT Ugandans Ever Be Free? Inside the Fight for a Queer Country

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Sweet Love, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the bedroom of the Children of the Sun safe house with her "husband," Kenneth, with whom she has been in a relationship for two years. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Sweet Love, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the bedroom of the Children of the Sun safe house with her "husband," Kenneth, with whom she has been in a relationship for two years. 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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Samson Turinawe, founder of the group Universal Love Ministries, poses for a portrait. ULM organizes trainings and seminars with religious leaders in Uganda to try and sensitize them to gender and sexuality issues and reduce homophobia and the role religion plays in spreading it. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Samson Turinawe, founder of the group Universal Love Ministries, poses for a portrait. ULM organizes trainings and seminars with religious leaders in Uganda to try and sensitize them to gender and sexuality issues and reduce homophobia and the role religion plays in spreading it. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Javan, a young transgender woman, spends time with her family at home. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Javan, a young transgender woman, spends time with her family at home. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

The Kampala poolside nightclub is dotted with patrons sharply dressed in tight skirts and slim shirts. The evening air is warm but fresh, the pop and hip-hop loud enough that you have to lean in to be heard. Groups of men and women crowd around small high-top tables, taking selfies and then marveling at them. Others sip bottles of Club Pilsener, their eyes fixed on the soccer highlights on TV. Some are young and some are old, some single and some married. Some are straight and, surprisingly, some are not.

Just a few years ago, Uganda, a calm East African nation of 41 million people, became known as the most antigay country in the world. Homophobic American evangelicals teamed up with Ugandan politicians and religious figures to warn against the impending global gay agenda. To keep the gays at bay, they claimed, Uganda needed stricter punishments. Fourteen years in prison—the maximum penalty for acts of homosexuality—was not enough. Under the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, the original draft of which proposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” sodomizers and anyone caught harboring them could be locked up for life. Although the legislation was overturned after only six months, the anti-LGBTQ sentiments that arose alongside it linger on. 

Living in Kampala, the nation’s capital and home to 1.5 million people, turned into a nightmare for gay, lesbian and transgender Ugandans, some of whom were beaten and stripped in the streets, chased by angry mobs or jailed. 

But you wouldn’t guess that from the relaxed atmosphere at Cayenne on Kampala’s north side. Few people seem to notice the transgender woman dancing by the pool, and if they do, they don’t seem to care. 

Read the full story in the October 2017 Collector's edition of Playboy.

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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.

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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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A cross hangs at the safe house of Children of the Sun, a group that shelters at-risk and in-need LGBT persons. At present, nine are staying in the tiny two-room apartment, some fled abuse or persecution, but others stay there to be in a community of people like them. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

A cross hangs at the safe house of Children of the Sun, a group that shelters at-risk and in-need LGBT persons. At present, nine are staying in the tiny two-room apartment, some fled abuse or persecution, but others stay there to be in a community of people like them. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Members of the LGBT community, allies and others gather for a church service led by gay, black American pastor Joseph Tolton. Tolton comes to East Africa several times a year to mentor local pastors in "radical inclusivity" and to be more welcoming to the LGBT community. He and others like him are in some ways the anti-Scott Lively. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Members of the LGBT community, allies and others gather for a church service led by gay, black American pastor Joseph Tolton. Tolton comes to East Africa several times a year to mentor local pastors in "radical inclusivity" and to be more welcoming to the LGBT community. He and others like him are in some ways the anti-Scott Lively. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

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Worshippers sing during a Sunday service at Watoto church, an English speaking Pentecostal church, in downtown Kampala. Activists say Watoto, led by American pastor Gary Skinner,  has been instrumental in spreading homophobia, including through hosting American evangelical Scott Lively. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Worshippers sing during a Sunday service at Watoto church, an English speaking Pentecostal church, in downtown Kampala. Activists say Watoto, led by American pastor Gary Skinner,  has been instrumental in spreading homophobia, including through hosting American evangelical Scott Lively. 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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Hajjati, 22, a trans woman and the executive director of Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, shows off her heels while posing for a portrait in the RMU offices. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.

Hajjati, 22, a trans woman and the executive director of Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, shows off her heels while posing for a portrait in the RMU offices. Image by Jake Naughton. Uganda, 2017.