In a balmy suburb of Kampala, gay couples gather in a nightclub to escape the tensions of their everyday lives. They laugh, they hold hands, they embrace, they kiss, they dance under flashing, multicolored strobe lights, they dig into plates of fatty fried chicken.
It?s like any other club?except that the patrons are with partners who are of the same sex.
On recent night VOA visited the venue, the DJ played a reggae song, followed by a techno beat and then a hip hop favorite. ?Everyone is mixed up here, just like the music!? Owen Murangira joked, clutching a bottle of ice-cold Nile lager.
This ?mixing up? is taking place in the capital city of a nation that international gay rights activists have labeled ?the most homophobic country in the world,? a place where a number of homosexuals have been brutally murdered in recent times, a place where parliament is considering making a law under which, in certain circumstances, gays could be executed.
?It?s ironic,? says Denis Nzioka of the African Gay Activists Alliance, ?that in the middle of this cooking pot of hatred and bigotry, you get this oasis of friendliness, acceptance and love.?
Gay people of various ethnicities and religions gather at the club ? ?Even Muslims!? says Murangira. He adds, ?Most of them don?t drink alcohol, but they come here to socialize. Besides, this place?s coffee is very good!?
?100 TOP HOMOS?
Nzioka says, ?In terrible times like this, clubs like these are havens for gay people, the only places we can come to be ourselves.?
The ?terrible times? he?s referring to include the grisly killing of Ugandan gay advocate Paskikali Kashusbe. The young man disappeared in June last year. About a month later, his torso ? minus genitals ? was found on a farm in Kibiri district. Police found his head in a pit latrine in the same area a few days later. The murder remains unsolved.
And in an incident that sparked international outrage recently, outspoken Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was beaten to death with a hammer. The police are investigating the motive behind the murder. But Ugandan human rights activists blamed Kato?s death on US evangelicals they say are stoking anti-gay sentiment in Uganda, and the Ugandan government.
Last year, under a headline ?100 PICTURES OF UGANDA?S TOP HOMOS,? Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone [no relation to US music magazine with same name] published the names and addresses of people it said were gay. It called for them to be hanged. The newspaper?s editor said the story was done to protect Ugandans from people trying to ?recruit children to homosexuality.? A gay rights group, Sexual Minorities Uganda ? SMUG ? says since the piece was published, there?ve been increasing attacks on Ugandan homosexuals.
Nzioka says anti-gay sentiment has been building in Uganda ever since 2005, when President Yoweri Museveni changed the constitution to introduce a ban on same-sex marriage. A radio station that invited three activists to comment on this was fined almost two million Ugandan shillings ? about 85,000 US dollars.
Even at the club, the good times haven?t always rolled for Kampala?s gay community. Murangira explains, ?We had times in the past when the managers have chased gay people away from this place and told bouncers, ?No more gay people allowed.? But then after a week, we get a call from management saying, ?Hey, you guys, please come back; business is bad!
For the best part of a decade, says Natasha Vally of the South Africa-based Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, Christian evangelical groups from all over the world have been visiting Uganda to emphasize that homosexuality is an ?abomination in the eyes of God? and ?whipping up prejudice? against gays.
Last year, MP David Bahati began to push for his Anti-Homosexuality Bill to become law. If passed, the bill will impose the death penalty for some homosexual acts and life in prison for others. People found to be ?encouraging? homosexuality ? such as the owners of the Kampala nightclub ? could also be jailed.
Since the bill?s introduction, says SMUG?s chairman, Frank Mugisha, more than 20 gays have been attacked and 17 imprisoned. In contrast, says Mugisha, in 2009 only 10 homosexuals were assaulted and ?five or six? jailed.
In Uganda, homosexuals already face imprisonment of up to 14 years for ?immoral activities.? According to Murangira, ?When a law like that exists, it causes citizens to treat gay people like criminals. They then feel it is their right to abuse us and even kill us,? he says, caressing his partner?s hand on the nightclub balcony.
Bahati denies that his bill?s ?sole purpose is to kill all gays.? He points out that it merely calls for the execution of people found to have had gay sex with minors.
In an earlier interview with VOA?s Jackson Mvunganyi, the MP said, ?We are not engaged in a hate campaign; we are engaged in love ? love for our children and love for our family (unit). We in fact love gays but we don?t agree with the sin in them.?
Nevertheless, Bahati?s bill continues to cause an international uproar, with many rights groups condemning Uganda?s ?homophobic? lawmakers?leaving Bahati to ask, ?Why are people making noise to defend homosexuals who defile children
Influence of foreign gays
Bahati insists the purpose of his bill is to protect Ugandans from certain foreign gay organizations.
?What they do is unbelievable. I want the world to understand this. They use money; they go into schools to recruit (children), to indoctrinate them into believing this (homosexual) behavior,? he says, continuing, ?You find young people turning (into) gays. I have so many messages on my phones ? people who brought me these problems they are going through; parents who visit me. That?s the reason why in this bill we have a proposal to care and to rehabilitate and to counsel the victims of homosexuality.?
Bahati says, ?The problem is?massive, and something must happen (to stop it)?. We can?t just sit and watch our children?s futures being demolished.? He maintains that even gay rights organizations in Uganda support him.
But Nzioka doubts this, saying it?s ?too ridiculous? to suggest there?s any ?foreign gay conspiracy? against Uganda. The activist comments, ?To suggest that any gay organization would spend money to go into Uganda to indoctrinate people into homosexuality is beyond reason. Why only Uganda? And who are these mysterious, evil, gay organizations Mr. Bahati is talking about? Why doesn?t he name them, so that the Ugandan government can ban them, or the police can arrest them
The MP, though, says he has ?video evidence? of his claims and he?ll release it soon. But Nzioka scoffs at this, saying Bahati is using a ?phantom occurrence? to ?demonize? gays so that his bill will become law. This, he insists, will open the door for the ?total persecution? of gay Ugandans.
?They will then be targeted, jailed and maybe even executed. Mr. Bahati wants open season on gays!,? Nzioka says.
For some gay Ugandans who?ve been attacked in recent months, that season has already started. But for Owen Murangira and his friends, jiving to the reggae beat in the Kampala nightclub, the party continues?for now.
?Who knows what the future holds he asks, light flashing off his skin from an overhanging mirrorball. ?I just hope some common sense prevails. I just hope some humanity prevails.?