Last year, a group of Ugandans invited submissions for Bombastic, a new LGBT magazine they hoped to launch. According to the founders, they received 10,000.
Story after story rushed in — some conveying hope, depression, isolation; some telling disturbing tales of exorcisms or conversion therapy or "corrective" rape.
The fight for and against gay rights in the East African country has become an informational one — evidenced most recently by last month's news that Uganda spent more than $200,000 on a public relations campaign following the bad press that surrounded last year's anti-gay law, which promised a life sentence for anyone discovered to be engaging in same-sex relations. The law was later struck down on technical grounds, but the country's politicians have threatened to reintroduce a new version imminently.
Uganda has become an increasingly dangerous place for LGBT people to live in. In 2011, their precarious situation was highlighted with the death of the country's most prominent gay rights activist David Kato.
Kato was murdered months after his photo was published in a local tabloid accompanied by a message calling for his execution. The police claimed it was a robbery, though activists labeled it a hate crime.
Vincent, one of the founders of Bombastic, told VICE News that — apart from the occasional salacious and malicious exposé — he feels that the Ugandan media "don't want to talk about the fact that there are gay people."
"The reason why we started Bombastic magazine is because the media shared all the bad stories and we had to find a solution about how to communicate to the public," Vincent — who requested that we only use his first name — said in an interview with VICE News. "The solution we found was to start our own initiative so people can tell their own stories from their heart."
The idea for the magazine was conceived in 2013, and realized last year. Initially the small group of gay Ugandans launched a "Reclaiming the Media" campaign. They considered creating a newspaper, but decided a glossy publication would last longer. After funds were raised through donors — particularly one organization that the group has vowed to keep anonymous — the activists managed a limited print run of 15,000. An initial team of 12 editors expanded to 100 volunteers who agreed to go "into the field" to all five main regions in Uganda to distribute the final release.
"We targeted universities, supermarkets, print media, and then also managed to leave magazines where people were driving cars on the street," Vincent said. "We targeted big media houses, NGOs, government offices, and even people on the street. Supermarkets, places they sell newspapers."
One of the personal stories in the magazine features an unnamed LGBT person writing about being subjected to a "corrective rape" organized by her own mother. At another point, she says, her mother handed her over to police so they could imprison her as punishment for being gay. She was expelled from her school, and later fired from her job after an article in Uganda's Red Pepper tabloid newspaper labelled her a lesbian, while giving the details of the courier company she worked for.
Another girl, who uses the pseudonym "Angel," says that she had been forced to emigrate, and — now in Iceland — still battles depression every day. "If I had a choice, I would never be a lesbian," she wrote. "The look the whole family gives you: No matter how good you do, you are forever the black wicked sheep of the family."
Shehnilla Mohammed, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission program director in Africa, told VICE News that because "Uganda is a socially conservative and religious society, the country is predominantly Christian and homosexuality is regarded as 'un-Godly' and 'un-African'. This is a remnant of British colonialism further exacerbated by an onslaught of charismatic evangelical churches — mostly American."
Photo via Vincent/Bombastic
This pervasive attitude does occasionally erupt into violence, as happened in Kato's case.
Mohammed also said that any security concerns expressed by LGBT community in Uganda were definitely justified. "Not only do they have a president who is homophobic and anti-homosexuality laws, but they live in a homophobic society where they are constantly facing the threat of being exposed, arrested, attacked or killed."
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni advocated loudly for the bill, though in October, he expressed doubts after noting the economic implications of such legislation.
"I supported the idea of punishing harshly those who lure minors into homosexuality. We should also punish harshly those who engage in homosexual prostitution," he said.
"Our scientists argued that all homosexuality was by nurture not nature. On the basis of that, I agreed to sign the bill, although some people still contest that understanding," he wrote in an editorial, in which he also said that "the arrogant approach of some foreign governments" had also been a provocation.
Museveni added: "It is now an issue of a snake in a clay cooking pot. We want to kill the snake, but we do not want to break the pot. We want to protect our children from homosexuality, but we do not want to kill our trade opportunities. That now forces us to disassemble this whole issue."
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni pictured at last year's Rwandan genocide commemorations. Photo by Sally Hayden.
In his Academy Award-shortlisted documentary "God Loves Uganda," director Roger Ross Williams examines the links between American evangelical aid and anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. One of those he interviewed was Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican priest and academic who has studied the influence of foreign missionaries in the country.
"American evangelicals are all powerful in Uganda," Kaoma says in the film, adding, "That power is used to persecute those who are trying to question them." He also says that while many Ugandans believe that homosexuality is a Western export, actually a lot of the homophobic sentiment in the country comes from Western religious groups, who he believes are "exporting their own values and enforcing those values on the people."
Mohammed spoke to VICE News about her take on this. "As people get poorer and feel more and more helpless about their situations and about the democratic processes in their countries," she said, "the more they turn to religion. Some African leaders, Museveni being one of them, who want to retain their hold on power, use this situation to further their cause. They will constantly attack LGBT people as being un-Godly and un-African as a way to rile up the people and distract their attention from the real problems facing the country such as poverty, inequality, HIV/AIDS, etc."
On reason for the level of anti-LGBT feeling in Uganda, Vincent was quite definite in his interpretation. "Money," he said. "It's all about money. Today we have many religions that do funding and they're authoring their own agenda. So their agenda is to preach the gospel."
However, Vincent feels his group's actions are making a difference. "A family in Gulu [northern Uganda], a parent was saying that when he read the book she realized that her daughter had been suffering all along. He said when he read the book and saw what other people had been going through — a binding brace and all that kind of stuff — she was not able to speak to her daughter but what she did was to push the copy of the magazine to her daughter's bedroom. So she thinks that when her daughter reads the book, she will see that she's not alone. And she said all along she didn't know that LGBT persons, they're human, they are born that way. And she said she was really, really sorry."
Meanwhile, for most openly or suspected LGBT people in Uganda, safety remains a constant concern.
"You check who's calling you, you try to record their phone call, and then you make it short," Vincent told VICE News.
"I don't know who will attack me next," he added. "And if I'm attacked, I have nowhere to run to because if I run to the police they will look at me and say, What are you doing, you are not a human being—in that dehumanizing way. So basically the only way we survive, the only way gay men and women survive in Uganda, we have one phrase: 'Security first.' If you see anything threatening because you know what threatening is. If you're in a taxi with someone you don't know. Let me tell you and I always say, You can't run away from your country. If I run today, who will fight for that person who can't stand up and speak for himself?"
"Because you've been here for long you try to read the signs. You think to yourself today, maybe I won't go outside. Today, maybe I'll turn off my phone." He had recently turned off his phone for a full week and remained indoors over fears that his whereabouts could be traced.
Vincent says that shortly after the magazine was released a senior government minister called him. "You know we're hearing about this Bombastic thing," Vincent recounted his saying. Vincent immediately asked the minister if he would like a copy sent over, but purposefully didn't stay on the phone long after the politician acquiesced.
The Ugandan LGBT community is a close one, according to Vincent, who says that he has no plan to leave the country anytime soon. "You keep fighting on though, because at the end of the day even if I run away from Uganda, if you run away you can't solve the problem. So I have to stay and fight and hope that our voices are heard out there," he said.
"We might not live to see people getting married or people getting all this stuff but maybe people who see the magazine will not kill [LGBT] people."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd