ENTEBBE, UGANDA - Ugandans celebrating the repeal of the country's controversial anti-homosexuality act gathered on the shore of Lake Victoria Saturday for a gay pride parade and rally – in sharp contrast to a similar rally two years ago that was broken up by police, this year the country's LGBT community was promised protection.
Chartered buses packed with members and supporters of Uganda's LGBT community made their way to Entebbe's Botanical Gardens near Lake Victoria.
The atmosphere was one of celebration, thanks to this month's ruling by Uganda's Constitutional Court. The judges struck down a recent law imposing major penalties - up to life in prison - for so-called "proven homosexuals."
Many Ugandans still oppose homosexuality, but those at Saturday's rally said their message was simple: We refuse to be ashamed of who we are.
Parade organizers worked closely with police, who assured the organizers that marchers would be protected from harassment if they followed a designated route. Still, some marchers wore masks to conceal their faces.
Shawn Mugisha, one of the organizers, said he was both happy and relieved this year.
"Well, I think it’s really exciting, because this [rally] is happening after what happened in court. And security-wise, I think we’re very safe because police [are] aware we’re here,” Mugisha said.
Despite the court's action on Aug. 1, homosexuality is still illegal in Uganda, punishable by a jail sentence. But it is no longer illegal to promote homosexuality, and Ugandans are no longer required to report gays to the authorities.
The court ruling was based on a technicality, and government officials said they will make another attempt to crack down on homosexuality - not to victimize gay people, as they say, but "for the common good."
Activists in the crowd of several hundred people at the Botanical Garden said they were demonstrating for their common good.
They marched behind some of the best-known leaders in Uganda's gay community, including Pepe Julius Onzeima and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera.
"Next time we shall be marching on the streets of Kampala. … I’m wearing this mask not because I don’t want to show my face, but because of my comrades who, for obvious reasons, cannot show your faces,” Nabagesera said.
Emotional marchers screamed, cried, chanted and sang as they moved down the road. Park visitors stood nearby, staring.
Proud of activists, themselves
Two women who declined to give their names said they approved of the parade.
First woman: "We feel so proud that we are having this parade because we didn’t expect it. We are so proud of the activists and we thank them for standing up for us."
Second woman: "And we are also proud of ourselves."
First woman: "And we are so happy this is happening. Even if it's short-lived, we are happy today."
Some Ugandan lawmakers said they hope to re-introduce the anti-homosexuality bill later this year, without softening the harsh penalties it imposes on homosexual activity.
However, one of the signs carried by the marchers seemed to sum up their feelings: "We are here to stay, and won’t stop until you stop."