BALTIMORE, MARYLAND —
Homosexuality is a crime in 38 African countries and new laws in Nigeria and Uganda have increased potential punishments for engaging in gay sex. These strictures have driven some gay and transgender Ugandans to seek asylum in the United States.
"I can tell you that it’s so bad in Uganda. People just don’t know what is happening in Uganda," said Niki Mawanda, who recently fled his African homeland. "I’m worried about what is happening to my people. But I’m also scared that when I go back, I don’t know what will happen to me."
Mawanda is one of more than 60 Ugandans who have applied for asylum in the U.S. so far this year.
"They staged a big prayer next to my mom’s house praying for me to leave the village, saying that I’m bringing homosexuality on the village," he said. "I don’t want to leave my people, but this time around, I became so scared, so I left."
Gay and transgender asylum seekers from Africa turn to people like Jocelyn Dyer, a lawyer with the group Human Rights First
"The stakes are much higher," Dyer said. "We’re very concerned that now, with these really repressive laws, a bad situation is going to be made even worse."
Homosexuality is now punishable by death in four African countries and African politics professor Steven Taylor says the penalty for homosexuals in Uganda can be life in prison.
"Which is just as bad as the death penalty, particularly considering the conditions in some prisons," he said.
Death threats and police brutality were among the horrors transgender Ugandan, Victor Mukasa, faced before gaining asylum in the United States less than a year ago.
"I have had people lay their hands, men lay their hands on my genitals, chasing the spirit of homosexuality out of me," Mukasa said. "When you hear the story of the Holocaust and the Jews and that isolation, and people waging war against a particular group of people, this is no different."
That war, as Mukasa calls it, has had its casualties. Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in 2011. Mukasa, who attened the funeral, says his mourning quickly turned to fear when anti-gay mobs crashed the service.
A friend helped him get a visa and he fled with only a suitcase. But they could not get a visa for his adopted daughter, so he had to leave her with a relative.
“That’s the biggest part of me that I left behind," Mukasa said. "It is always alive. It is a big gap inside me.”
Mukasa and Mawanda keep pushing toward a day when they can reunite with loved ones back home.
“We’re still alive and still passionate about this struggle," Mukasa said, "and so we shall keep fighting, in whichever capacities and where ever we are in the world.”
Mawanda said, “For me, my hope lies in the people of Uganda realizing that we are all Ugandans. I’m hopeful, but my hope is not much.”
For now, Mawanda has months of waiting ahead before he’ll know if he can remain safe on American soil.