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.
Dressed in knee-length shorts and a loose light blue polo, Javan is tall and has a face that’s hard to read, punctuated by a small stud on the left side of her nose. She moves her elbows and shoulders like most men but her hips like most women. When the DJ plays “What’s Luv,” I start singing the Ashanti part of the chorus, and Javan sings the Fat Joe part. When I ask her how she knows the lyrics, she replies, “My dad loves old school.”
Javan is just 20 years old—young enough to think of Fat Joe as old school. She belongs to a generation of queer Ugandans barely old enough to remember when the antigay fever first erupted here, in 2009. Earlier in the week when I’d suggested we go to Arrival Lounge, a popular gay bar in town, she rolled her eyes. “Arrival? It’s fake. The vibes aren’t good.” She told me to meet her at Cayenne instead.
To be queer in Uganda today is to experience a jarring dissonance. By night you may feel safe dancing in a bar with your friends, but by day you may be attacked by a mob, as Javan was last year. It was shortly after that attack, in February 2016, that she joined hundreds of other LGBTQ Ugandans fleeing across the border to Kenya to escape their neighbors, their families and the police.
But just six months after arriving in Kenya, Javan made an unlikely decision: She chose to come back. No matter that her father had all but disowned her, ceasing to pay her university fees and refusing to see her. Javan returned to prove herself as a woman to her fellow Ugandans, her family and above all her father.