Pepe Julian Onziema: Sexual Minorities Uganda
Pepe Julian Onziema: Sexual Minorities Uganda
The year is 2004, and young activists from the newly formed Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) are repeatedly met with a cold reception when they approach organisations for support.
“Having sagging jeans was kind of fashionable,” says Pepe Julian Onziema, Programme Director and Advocacy Officer at SMUG. “Just our appearance made civil society organisations close their doors.”
SMUG was formed as an umbrella organisation to address human rights issues arising from sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Prejudice against Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people had been growing in the country, stoked by evangelical Christianity.
Rebuffed by so many potential allies, the activists changed out of their jeans and smartened themselves up. But still nobody would listen. So they went back to the drawing board and thought hard about what exactly they wanted to achieve.
“Our vision is to have all civil liberties enjoyed by all,” Pepe explains. “Acknowledging that, we had to weigh what our strengths were and ask who would complement those strengths. And what our weaknesses were, and who could hold our hand through those weaknesses.”
Then followed a period of reading and research, and examining the Constitution to see how it could protect the rights of Uganda’s LGBTI citizens. By finding common ground, SMUG was able to form alliances with other groups.
When it comes to persuading and influencing, Pepe says “Being knowledgeable is very important. Read, consult, document on the areas you want to influence and always be open to learning from others, even from your adversary.”
Partnerships were to prove vital, if not fragile, over the years to come. In 2009, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced to the Ugandan Parliament.
“When the law was proposed, and we could evidently see that it was about silencing voices and prohibiting advocacy, we decided we could not [oppose it] alone.”
SMUG persuaded other organisations to support the campaign against the bill by pointing out that, if it became law, it would affect their freedoms and activities too.
Partners like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo – who founded St Paul's Reconciliation and Equality Centre – were vocal in their support, calling for solidarity in the fight for human rights.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act
Sadly however, according to figures from SMUG, 96% of Ugandans believe homosexuality is not an acceptable way of life. And in February 2014, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act became law.
The act made living as a couple in a same-sex relationship a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment for life, and included other offences such as the “promotion of homosexuality” and “aiding and abetting homosexuality”.
Pepe recalls the moment when the law was passed.
“My heart sunk and my head spiralled with names and faces of community members that I knew were at a higher risk than I. I was angered and disgusted by the public display of arrogance by my government.”
At SMUG, activists phoned round to check on colleagues and friends. Pepe describes the mood as “that of fear” (his italics). People were panicking.
“Some were simply staying in their homes anticipating arrest. Some dashed out quickly and picked up groceries for the ‘last time’, then locked themselves in their homes.”
Those who could, jumped on a bus to Kenya, or if they had the means, fled to Europe or America. Those who stayed in Uganda had to adapt. “Our sense of safety became sharp,” says Pepe, “being super conscious when you leave home or return home.”
Activist, Dennis Wamala tells Pepe why allies are important to him.
Amnesty International has reported a sharp rise in homophobic attacks from when the law came into effect, including increased police abuse and extortion, loss of employment, evictions and homelessness. Human Rights Watch has documented the withdrawal of health services for LGBTI people, who suddenly risked harassment and arrest when seeking healthcare.
Pepe is still “super conscious” of his safety. “I have to think fast and think rationally round the clock because people – especially the anti-LGBTI people – are on the constant prowl to see us locked up.”
And of course the new law affected the campaigning activities of SMUG and other LGBTI activists. “We worked one day at a time knowing we could be shut down any minute, or arrested and jailed,” says Pepe.
The strategy also had to adapt. SMUG used every means possible – social media, radio, television, even texts – to broadcast what was happening and call for solidarity from families, diplomats and supporters abroad.
Only 10 years previously, SMUG had gone to such lengths – by changing their appearance and reading up on the Constitution – to win round civil organisations. Now however, they found partnerships were fragile. Some organisations no longer wanted to work with them. Others didn’t feel able to publicly proclaim their support, which made it easier for the homophobes to dismiss the LGBTI community as “story-tellers” and “traitors”.
So how does Pepe get people to listen when they may feel endangered by association with SMUG?
“I share real life stories in order to win allies. When one hears your truth, it’s hard to ignore you.” He explains the gravity of the situation, that it’s a “life and death struggle and that with their assistance it will get better”.
Although this approach gets “mixed reactions”, SMUG still works closely with established organisations and individuals “to legitimise our contribution to promote and protect human rights”. And in March 2014, a month after the new law was signed by Uganda's president, SMUG and its allies filed a constitutional challenge to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. This proved successful when in August, Uganda's Constitutional Court declared the legislation "null and void".
The Ugandan government is currently preparing new legislation to criminalise "promoting homosexuality".
Patriotism as motivation
In the face of such hostility, how is it possible to stay motivated and motivate others?
Pepe is very patriotic and clearly loves Uganda. He’s adamant that he has a lot to offer his country and that this – along with the love of family and friends across the globe – keeps him going. And, he says, “I’m an optimist. Due to the hostility, I’ve personally adapted to positive thinking in a crisis.”
In the long struggle to liberate LGBTI people in Uganda, Pepe says it’s important to stay in the country and continue to speak out.
“The fact that people see experienced and exposed leaders like myself, Frank Mugisha, Kasha Jacqueline and others are still in the country gives our community hope – hope to stay in the country and contribute to the movement the best they can. Not everyone is at the same level of courage and bravery at the same time. As leaders in the community we know this.”