“Yes, there are many times I’ve been afraid. There are times when we are told that we are going to be arrested. Those are times you can really be afraid. You cannot be out and open as a gay Ugandan.”
Physician, gay rights advocate Paul Semugoma, 2012, International AIDS Conference, interview
On the eve of the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, Ugandan physician Paul Semugoma spoke at a lunch organized by the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, on the obstacles in his country standing between its gay citizens and life-saving information that could help turn the tide of the HIV epidemic. He could back his words with his experiences, not only as a physician, but as a gay man, a fact he would announce publicly for the first time as a plenary speaker at the conference. He was asked at lunch that day if he was afraid.
Yes, he said, and so he wouldn’t be going home to Uganda “for a while.” He would be in exile. “You cannot be out and open as a gay Ugandan,” he said. After he gave his talk at the plenary session of the conference on a Thursday that week, he was out and open. Instead of going home, he went to South Africa, where he has spent most of his time since, but where, returning from a trip to Zimbabwe Monday, he was detained by immigration officials.
Now facing deportation to Uganda, Semugoma is confronting a forced return to a country more threatening than the one he left, in the wake of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s announcement that he would sign the country’s long-pending anti-homosexuality bill into law. Although a copy of the latest version of the legislation is yet to be made public, it is said to have been altered from an earlier version only by the substitution of life in prison for the death penalty as punishment for “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill also criminalizes support given to gay people. It is a bill that, in both forms, Semugoma has led opposition to, highlighting the damage it would do to HIV prevention and treatment outreach, as well as to human rights.
A statement released today by six South African HIV treatment advocacy groups points out that Semugoma’s work to draw attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in his country have made him a “wanted” man in Uganda and calls for his release.
Semugoma himself spelled out the dangers gay people faced in Uganda in 2012, in a taped interview during the International AIDS Conference.
“Yes, there are many times I’ve been afraid,” he told an interviewer, “There have been instances when there are demonstrations against homosexuality, demonstrations when you see a whole town turning out to follow a preacher who is having a march against homosexuality. Those are times you can be really afraid. There are times when we are told that we are going to be arrested. Those are times when you can really be afraid.”
Asked if he could walk down a street in Uganda holding hands with his boyfriend, he laughed — men holding hands is culturally acceptable there, he explained — before continuing somberly, to answer the essence of the question: “Showing you are gay,” he said, “you risk being killed.”
In the taped interview, which is 15 minutes long, Semugoma also discusses what he would expect of leaders around the world. He expected two things he said, that they remind the government of Uganda that it has obligations to its people, and that they remind the government they have a responsibility to do its part in ending the HIV epidemic.
Yes, he is optimistic that will happen some day, he said.
“I like the quote from Nelson Mandela — everyone thinks it is impossible, and here it is done.”