An American Gay in Uganda: Visiting Earth's Most Homophobic Place
Out writer and adventurer Clark Harding has always wanted to see gorillas in the mist, so a few years back he decided to visit the world's best place for primate sighting: Uganda. What he didn't realize until right before he departed was the African nation was becoming engulfed in antigay hysteria, much of it stoked by American evangelical leaders; the parliament has long considered legislation that could include a death sentence for some homosexual acts. Clark recalls his African adventure below and tells us how he managed to realize his dreams and stay safe.
“Did you hear the news?” My friend Kristin’s voice was aflutter. I put my vintage iPhone 3G on speaker and closed my office door.
“War?” I asked nervously sitting back at my desk.
“Worse,” she responded.
“Genocide?” I bit my nails.
“Wrong country dumbass,” She snarked. “Uganda just announced its plans to pass a bill…executing homosexuals.”
“Well that’s clever,” I said after a moment, “Seeing as we’re going there, like, tomorrow.”
“Should we cancel?” Kristin asked.
“Hell no,” I stated nobly. “Nothing will stop me from having my Sigourney moment.”
The chimp in the tree had a massive erection. He made serious eye contact as he started to stroke it. I blushed, put my binoculars down and turned away. I was looking to have a nature nerd’s wet dream, but this was ridiculous. I mean, I’ve had dogs hump my legs before, but I was certainly caught off guard, standing at the bottom of Uganda’s Kyambura Gorge; the site of such evolutionary significance. A bagillion years ago these playful primates crawled out of this ravine, stood up, and moseyed their way through geologic time in to chatty homo-sapiens like me. “Oh, that is definitely your closest ancestor,” said Kristin with a smirk. “I bet all the boys back home approach you that way.” We shared a giggle.
“Are you married?” Asked our Tracker from behind us. Kristin and I stopped dead and turned to face him. We both realized we weren’t wearing wedding rings and Kristin totally just cracked a gay joke, loudly. Oops. Our Tracker was a tall African man in a Park uniform…with a gun (Because, when searching for chimps in the wild it’s important to carry an automatic weapon, obviously). “Um…we’re good friends,” said Kristin playing up her Catholic School Girl innocence. The Tracker nodded politely but the concept of a man and woman traveling together, unmarried, seemed confusing to him. We both let out a sigh of relief when he decided not to push the topic further. He plodded farther down the gorge. Before following, I caught one last glimpse of my pervy little wanker in the tree, and wondered how far we’ve evolved at all…
Uganda is not alone.
In June of this year, Amnesty International released a report on the facts and figures regarding Homosexuality in Sub Saharan Africa. Although strangely, “historically woman-woman marriages have been documented in more than 40 ethnic groups;” as well as numerous accounts of ancient homosexual tribal activity, to date, 38 countries still hold homosexuality to be a crime. Southern Somalia, Northern Nigeria, Sudan and Mauritania; homosexuality is punishable by death. More importantly, while places like the U.S. and Europe are experiencing a massive change in mentality towards equality, parts of Africa appear to be regressing.
What does that mean for tourists like me?
“UGANDA?” All my gay friends clutched their pearls, “Why on Earth would you want to go Uganda?” (And one was like “P.S., where is Uganda exactly?”). It was a loaded question I had a hard time answering because the truth was we were hitting a bunch of birds with one stone. Ten years before, Kristin and I became besties as exchange students in Ireland, where we founded the Wrong Side of The Road club. We vowed that every ten years we’d meet up in some British Colony where they drove on the left.
“Okay so why not a more civilized lefty place like, Australia?” But see, the year before, I had traveled to Antarctica, marking my sixth continent. I only had Africa left. If I could make it to all seven before the age of 30, that would mark some kind of record.
“Um…okay so, like, why not Cape Town where there are hot soccer players?” That’s when a guilty smile crept across my face.
“Oh God,” they rolled their eyes, “you and your Sigourney fetish.”
Uganda is known in tourists circles as having the best Primate tracking in the world. Better than Rwanda, and certainly cheaper. Although there’s decent game to be spotted, as well as the famous tree-climbing lions, classic big game safaris are recommended for the Serengeti. And dang it, I was determined to have my Gorillas in the Mist experience.
“This has got to be some kind of joke,” I said to Kristin as we drove through Kampala and in to the back country. Our jet lag was pretty killer. “All the men here hold hands.” Kristin looked out the window and sure enough: dudes were hand-in-hand, hand-in-butt-pocket, pinky-to-pinky. It’s actually kind of an adorable and completely straight (ish) cultural trait that Ugandan officials (and the American evangelical rejects who manipulate them) overlooked in their effort to eradicate gay activity. It never occurred to them that there’s possibly a gray area between homosexual and homo-social. And while they fear gays to the point of needing to execute them, little do they realize their male constituents are acting gayer than Westerners.
It makes the whole situation laughable. I could have easily traveled here with a boyfriend, and held his hand all over the place and everyone would have thought we were straight “travel buddies.”
“Are we being paranoid?” I asked. “Dudes are holding hands, nobody is wearing shoes, people are burning trash, and there are fully chickens and pigs running around downtown... if you can even call it a downtown.” Just then a man passed us on a motorbike, with a coffin precariously strapped/cantilevered to the back. We were like “Seriously?”
Although the death penalty should be taken seriously, it is difficult to envision the Ugandan justice system (or any Ugandan system for that matter) operating with any level of sophistication. The country for the most part, consists of extraordinarily rural and classically (if not stereotypically) African landscapes: naked children running up to the jeep yelling “Muzungu,” thatch roofed huts, robed herders, women in bright colors balancing baskets on their heads and “Oh, look a random elephant.” If anything, the landscape reflects how easily a vulnerable population could be manipulated and swayed.
“I doubt, it’s prosecution you should be worried about,” Kristin said, laptop open, catching a brief glimpse of WiFi from our safari tent, somewhere in the rainforest that night. “I’m guessing it would be more of a flash mob type situation. Like in a relatively lawless place people take the law in to their own hands.” I zipped up the tent and was loudly like “G’nite honey booboo love muffin! I’m so happy you’re my GIRLFRIEND! I’m going to fuck you really hard now!” for all the jungle to hear.
“Luckily the cultural cues here are so different,” Kristin said, crawling beneath her mosquito netting. “Because you sounded so gay just then.”
Of course, for years, there’s been a whole ton of drama surrounding the “Kill The Gays” bill. I often wonder if evangelical Christians suffer from narcissistic personality disorder: any publicity is good publicity. In 2011, Ugandan gay activist David Kato was murdered, and his funeral protested. In 2012, The Pope blessed Ugandan parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who promised to pass the “Kill The Gays Bill” as a “Christmas Gift.” But even after all the ruckus, as of this summer the bill has yet to be passed and still remains “pending.”
Perhaps outside pressure is finally working? At least for the rest of Africa? South Africa has seen a number of positive legal developments over the past decade, including allowing joint adoption by same-sex couples in 2002, introducing a law on legal gender recognition in 2004, and equal marriage for same-sex couples in 2006. This past June, with the striking down of Prop. 8 and DOMA, President Obama openly disagreed with the president of Senegal who was hosting him at the time, stating that he “wants to send a message to Africans that while he respects differing personal and religious views on the matter, it's important to have nondiscrimination under the law.”
“Clark, don’t move,” Kristin whispered, just as a young and robust Blackback Gorilla emerged from the brush, coming right at me. I looked to the ground, because unlike the chimp, making eye contact with these bad boys could be deadly. The Blackback circled me, huffing and chest beating. I felt like Tim Curry in the movie Congo, about to get my head squished.
Tracking Gorillas in Bwidni National Park was not the well-lit, Dianne Fosse biopic I had envisioned. Luckily I came prepared with my hiking boots, gators and gloves. Following another Tracker with a machete, we climbed in to the rainforest for the trek of our lives. After hours of fondling our way through thickets, completely drenched in our own shvitz, our Tracker stopped silent. “Shhhh,” he said. We all put our ears to the forest. “WOOONK,” we heard.
“Kristin! Did you just let one?” I asked.
“Shut up! Whoever smelt it dealt it douchebag!” She blushed.
“MUUUURNK!” We heard another one.
“Yes, Dat iz dem,” our Tracker said with his thick accent. You can hear the gorillas before you see them because they are possibly the gassiest animals in the kingdom. We marched a few more paces and there they were “Group Number 4.” It was your typical Silverback, surrounded by his bitches, lazing about in the jungle, scratching himself, eating leaves…and farting.
Kristin and I could not stop giggling. “Omigod you’re such a nerd,” I cackled, trying to keep it together, “I’m not a nerd, you’re a nerd!” Kristin and I did our best to commune with this habituated family but it ended up being more of an episode of “Beavis and Butthead go to Uganda.” I moved in a little closer to get a picture, and to get away from Kristin.
That’s when the young Blackback came at me.
He circled for a moment, sniffing. I could feel his breath on my neck. I kept my eyes to the ground. “Just don’t move,” Kristin insisted. I winced, thinking my life was over, and that’s when I felt a slight poke on my hand. I opened one eye to sneak a peak, and the Blackback was gone. “Awww,” Kristin cooed. She showed me the LCD screen on her camera: there was a photo of the Blackback, reaching out and touching my hand. “You totally just got your Sigourney moment!”
See more pictures of Clark, Kristin, and Uganda on the following pages.