On Saturday, August 4, Ugandan activists tried — and, on the whole, succeeded in — staging the country’s first ever LGBTI Pride. There was, however, the nasty interruption of a police raid. This came just one day after the US State Department gave a coalition of Ugandan queer campaigners its annual Human Rights Defender award, calling them a “model for others and an inspiration for the world.” On that same day, visiting Kampala, Hillary Clinton met with Yoweri Museveni and, by the Department’s account, raised the issue of LGBT rights yet again. We’ll get back to Clinton in a moment.
Pride took place in Entebbe, by the shores of Lake Victoria, and hence was called a Beach Pride Parade. (I cannot speak too highly of an event which induced my friend and colleague Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda to dress up in the manner of Some Like it Hot‘s Osgood Fielding III.) Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican attorney leading the legal battle against the sodomy law there, visited to serve as grand marshal; he writes:
The Pride March had a truly carnival atmosphere … Everything was done very tastefully as the organizers were aware that it was a public beach and many young children were around. Many parents even brought their kids over to hear the music and listen to the few speeches and share in the jubilant atmosphere. The Pride organizers even shared food and drinks freely with the onlookers.
However, according to a statement from Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG):
Police stormed the venue where people had gathered after the march and ordered the party to stop and that no one should leave the area. Police is believed to have been tipped off by either a small group of Christians who were for baptism a few yards away or by the local[s] of the area who had gathered to witness the pride march. Police alleged that there was a gay marriage taking place and that two gay men were seen kissing. They then declared that the gathering was unlawful and wanted to arrest the whole group.
The “gay wedding” has now become the stimulus of choice for moral panic and police repression around the world. The propensity of the general public and the gendarmerie to fantasize nuptials with no provocation is one of the more fascinating aspects of our present moment in modernity, and one of the least remarked side effects of Goodridge v. Massachusetts.
Among those arrested were Tomlinson; Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, director of FARUG and the coordinator of Pride Uganda; Jay Abang, FARUG’s programs manager; and several others. Tomlinson writes:
I was detained for assisting a 60 year old woman climb into the back of the police van after police officers refused to help her! … After a very confusing and utterly disgraceful performance at the station by the police (including the officers insisting we all sit on the bare floor until we were processed, one officer pushing a young female to the floor and another verbally abusing the 60 year old female anthropologist from Makerere University) we were all released without charges or an explanation.
After their release, Kasha Jacqueline said,
I feel like our rights have been trampled upon. It is becoming a habit of police to interrupt our gatherings. It is as if a section of Ugandans do not deserve certain rights. The laws and bills [Uganda's draconian, proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill"] have not been passed but police is already enforcing them.
Now, back to Clinton. Her support for LGBTI activists in Uganda, and for their freedoms of association and assembly, is genuine and unquestionable. What is questionable is her support for those freedoms as a property of Ugandans in general. After all, the US rushed precipitately to congratulate Museveni on his victory in a fraudulent presidential election in 2011. It issued only anodyne expressons of regret in the ensuing months when Museveni brutally suppressed demonstrations against the sham vote, arrested his opponent and members of Parliament, and ordered Ugandans shot for engaging in walk-to-work protests against skyrocketing fuel prices.
A curious form of reverse “pinkwashing” is at work in the Ugandan case, I’d (almost) argue. Museveni’s crackdowns on LGBTI people give the US something to condemn, so that it can claim it’s done its due diligence in criticizing Uganda’s rights record. For Museveni and Clinton alike, they help keep the spotlight off other violations. It’s not that the abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity are comparatively minor, or that the others are more grave or violent: far from it. But the US reprimanding Museveni for the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” won’t bring his regime down; if the US dissociated itself from his election fraud, it might.
So, in Kampala this time, Clinton pretty much left the question of when Uganda’s dictator might leave power as something for him to think about casually in his spare time: ”It is important for leaders to make judgments about how they can best support the institutionalization of democracy,” she told reporters. “It’s not about strong men, it’s about strong institutions.” But the man is strong, so strong! — and we need him. “U.S. officials stressed that Clinton’s visit to Uganda was aimed at thanking it for its strong security assistance in Somalia and elsewhere”:
In Uganda, Clinton visited a military base where Ugandan and U.S. soldiers showed her the U.S.-made “drone” aircraft now patrolling the skies over Somalia, where an African Union force is seeking to crush al Shabaab Islamist insurgents.
Uganda, a strong U.S. security partner, has contributed the bulk of the Somalia force and Clinton said she foresaw a day when drones might help the United States and Uganda with another of their joint military efforts – the hunt for renegade Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
“Now we have to figure out how to look through thick vegetation to find Joseph Kony,” Clinton said, after inspecting a drone, a small unmanned aircraft no more than a yard long and mounted with cameras.
The United States last year dispatched about 100 military advisers to help Uganda and other central African nations track down Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been charged with repeated atrocities against civilians.
Give Museveni enough drones and you won’t need a few perambulating Christians to point out the perilous promixity of Pride. Electronic surveillance will search out the signs of gay weddings, and ensure that no exchange of vows passes without massive retaliation.
Although hunting down Joseph Kony would certainly be a popular move with the thousands of Americans hoodwinked by the viral video campaign earlier this year, it’s a minor matter to the US. The important thing for us is that Museveni is Stable, and willing to support US counterterrorist interference in East Africa, as well as our access to raw materials. If using some drones to neutralize an annoyance to the Museveni regime is the price the dictator charges, then, drone warfare being cheap, it’s easy to pay. Indeed, the function of the Kony 2012 campaign and the attendant hysteria becomes clearer and clearer in hindsight. It mobilized a public that by and large couldn’t tell Uganda from Uzbekistan to take some painless cyberaction on behalf of one of Africa’s more unpleasant despots. Indeed, while the US feints at criticizing Museveni’s harshness toward the gays, the head of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism introduces measure after measure to expand US military activities in Uganda: ostensibly to oppose Kony, but actually to prop up Museveni’s army. All very convenient.
Kampala’s campaigners for LGBTI rights have in fact long pressed their Western supporters to couch their opposition to Uganda homophobia in terms of Museveni’s appalling record as a whole — not to single out queers for special grace and favor. However well the message may have gotten across to Western civil society, it’s unlikely to play terribly well with the US government. But it does a disservice to the brave activists who marched, and faced down police, in Entebbe to divorce their courage from the politics and repression that give it meaning.
Images from Uganda Pride, 2012.