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Story Publication logo October 16, 2014

On Homosexuality: Uganda's Religious Leaders


Image by Daniella Zalcman. Uganda, 2014.

As Uganda struggles with anti-homosexuality legislation, the growing LGBT-rights movement continues...


It all started with David Kato, the Ugandan gay-rights activist who was bludgeoned to death in his home in 2011. That's what first drew award-winning photojournalist Daniella Zalcman to Kampala to meet the country's few but fearless gay-rights activists.

A year earlier, Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone (no connection to the music magazine) published names, addresses and photographs of 100 alleged homosexuals under the banner "Hang Them" (Kato was among those named).

"I reached out to the activism community, which was smaller than it is now -- and it's not exactly large," recalls Zalcman, whose ongoing reporting in Uganda has been supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. On that first trip, she took a series of portraits of Uganda's LGBT activists called "Double Lives," part of a larger series called "Kuchus in Uganda."

"I was surprised that they agreed to meet me. I can't understand the amount of bravery required for them to do that."

The next chapter

In 2013, the Anti-Homosexuality Act passed through parliament, but Uganda's gays and lesbians continued to feel the pressure.

The new law increased the penalty for homosexuals from a maximum of 14 years imprisonment to a life sentence, and introduced a fine and three-year prison term for anyone who, knowing of the existence of a homosexual, failed to turn him or her over to the authorities. The law was struck down in August on a technicality, but being gay still comes with a jail sentence.

While in Kampala, Zalcman decided she wanted to hear the views of everyday Ugandans, as well as their spiritual leaders.

"Everyone in Uganda goes to church, mosque, temple, whatever. And religious leaders aren't just giving sermons. They are really a support network. They are advisers and leaders in their communities and what they say really matters, so I wanted to know the breadth of opinion that was coming from the pulpit every Sunday."

Motorbike mission

Zalcman interviewed imams, rabbis, pastors -- leaders in every denomination represented in the country -- to ask them what their views on subject really were.

"I went to American-style mega churches in central Kampala and a Pentecostal church in a tin shack in the middle of a slum," she recalls.

"Whenever there's a news item on this issue, we quote a few evangelical leaders who say truly horrific things, wishing death and injury and a fiery hell on gay people. But they're not representative."

Zalcman encountered an array of voices, some stringently anti-gay, others tolerant, and many expressing uncertainty due to a lack of information and limited contact with homosexuals.

"I met one imam who had been educated in Egypt and worked in Saudi and essentially told me he wished sharia law could be enacted in Uganda. Then, I met another imam who said, 'today you say you hate gay people, tomorrow God will give you a gay son. What will you do then?'"

A Western export?

Zalcman notes that it is common for Uganda's anti-gay zealots to attribute homosexuality to Western influences. However, she adds, homophobia is a concept that also comes from the West. In particular, she points to the efforts of American evangelist Scott Lively, who presented many of the arguments and tenets that later formed the anti-gay bill to individual members of Uganda's parliament.

"Sexual identity and gender identity weren't discussed topics in Uganda, because people were in no way aware that (they) were a thing," says Zalcman.

"Lively spoke to parliament just months before the first bill was drafted, and had a very obvious effect on public opinion."

Despite the anti-gay rhetoric often spouted by Uganda's leaders in the Western media, Zalcman says she thinks most Ugandans are more indifferent on the subject than is often portrayed.

"Statistics say that 96% of Ugandans believe homosexuality is not an acceptable way of life, but most people have greater things to worry about, and don't think this should be such a big issue in parliament. There are water issues, and sanitation issues, and greater things that most people want their MPs to care about."






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LGBTQ+ Rights

LGBTQ+ Rights

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