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Xtra reports from Uganda: Finding Kampala's gay bar


Xtra reports from Uganda: Finding Kampala's gay bar

Kampala's queens dance under the stars
This is the second in a series of articles from Uganda by Xtra freelance reporter Kaj Hasselriis.


Every major city in the world has a gay hangout — a place for queers to meet, drink and cruise.

Even a city where homos are under attack, like Kampala, Uganda.

My search for a gay bar in Uganda's capital started on the internet. But it wasn't as easy as Googling "Kampala gay bar," getting a name and doing a map search.

First, I found a gay dating site where a few dozen guys in Uganda have profiles — none with photos. I created my own ad. An hour later, I got a text: "Hi dia am isaac."

We agreed to meet at Garden City, Kampala's only shopping mall. There, Isaac told me a chilling story: One night, one of his friends was making out with his boyfriend at home. Then the friend's parents walked in. The father beat his son's boyfriend to death, then told authorities it was a robber.

I asked Isaac if there was a safe place for Kampala's gay community to meet. He said the city had a lesbian-owned bar that, once a week, has a gay night. He described where it was but said he's never gone because one of his family members lives nearby.

Isaac lives in fear that someone might see him going in.

Fortunately, I don't have that problem. So, following Isaac's instructions, I hired one of Kampala's ubiquitous motorcycle taxis to take me to a school near the city's main university. When the boda driver dropped me off, I walked down a long, dark, lonely stretch of gravel road until I found a neon sign with the name of the bar.

Tingling with excitement, I passed an armed security guard and walked in. The bar was like a giant open-air beer tent, surrounded by a tall wooden fence. On one side was a stage, where a portly emcee was trying to coax people to sing karaoke. On the other side were pool tables. And at the very back was a small bar area with a DJ booth. There, about 20 men were gathered, laughing and putting their arms around each other.

But that kind of affection isn't unique to gay men in Kampala. It's not uncommon to see straight men walking down the street, hand in hand.

Was it really a gay night? There were no rainbow flags to ease my doubt.

I ordered a Moonberg beer and stood in the centre of it all, conspicuously. As I tried to fine-tune my Afro-gaydar, a group of guys beckoned me to sit with them on wooden stools.

"Is this a special night?" I asked.

"Yes," one of the men answered.

"Do you come here every week?" I asked.

"Yes," they all said.

It was pretty obvious we were skirting around the same issue, until one of the guys asked a question of his own: "Are you gay?"

"Yes," I responded.

They all smiled. Welcome to the club.

Under an enormous, yellow moon, I met a ton of new friends. The first was a tall, flamey travel agent who introduced himself as Long Jones. Then, I met a cute bulldyke with a shaved head named Stosh, a young guy in casual business clothes named Blessed and a short, nattily dressed boy in a sweater vest and cap who spells his name "Ryan" but prefers to go by "Ree-ann."

If it bothered them to be living in one of the world's most homophobic countries — facing what could be one of the world's most homophobic laws — they didn't show it.

Everyone I met seemed unbelievably happy.

Soon, the bar filled up. In total, about 75 homos mingled and danced to Justin Timberlake. And in the centre of it all was the bar's owner — a fierce-looking lesbian wearing a white track suit and the most beautiful pony-tailed mullet I've ever seen.

A couple of hours later, after I filled my cell phone with half a dozen new numbers, Ryan hugged me goodbye and I hopped on a boda to return to my hotel.

I'll be back next week. In the meantime, I have new friends to meet for coffee. Stay tuned for their harrowing tales of homosexuality in Uganda, in the days ahead.

Coming up:

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Not all African gays want to leave Africa
To the person who is inviting gay Ugandans to Canada. Having fled from persecution in Africa myself, I have first hand knowledge of what life is like for gay men and women in most of that continent. That said, I also know that there are many others who have had the opportunity, but have refused to leave their homeland just because people have a problem with their sexual orientation.

Africans are generally happier than people in the West. This is one of the reasons why many gay African people choose to remain there, despite having to endure the hostile attitudes of their fellow countrymen. Had I remained in Nigeria, I think I might have been a happier person than I am now living in England, regardless of the intolerance towards homosexuality in that country..
brave. come to Canada.
the folks in this story must be some of the bravest in the world at this moment.

i hope it becomes widely known that if this bill passes
1. anybody from the North with any sort of conscience should stay away from Uganda, and
2. gay Ugandans should apply for refugee status in Canada. I'd be happy to welcome them.
Dail 9-1-1
Let's not forget these men face a number of challenges from a corrupt government. Many countries in Africa have stigmatized not only homosexuality but same-sex couples especially. Recent legislation to that effect is dehumanizing they're ability to represent a marginalized community. It is my most sincere hope these conditions does not allow the mighty, once again, to prevail over justice, even in the midnight hour. The LGBT community must to come to terms with social equality globally. Yes, it begins both in our homes and in our hearts but it also remains speculative elsewhere in the world among those who have chosen oppression rather than establish prominence.
Just thought I'd toss in a tidbit about the censorship comment.
I run a site called gaytalkradio and I have had listeners from Uganda as well as China.
Here is a link to a map which shows geographic locations of visitors to my site: http://www.revolvermaps.com/?target=enlarge&i=0M9KMsEzUlP&color=ff8a00&m=0&ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.gaytalkradio.org%2F
While it is risky for these people to become widely known, they seem to be aware of the risk. This story cannot be anonymous. Let's be sure to place the blame for that risk where it belongs, in the people running Uganda, the US bible-thumpers stirring up hatred there, and the Commonwealth (including Canada) who have essentially done nothing about it.
R gay site censored in Uganda?
I was under the impression that any and all gay sights are already prevented from entering Uganda. China has similar censorship,doesn't it.

If that is so, and I believe it is, then there's not a chance that these young gay Ugandans will be identified, right.

Kaj, you sure know your way around; and the facility you have in making contact with gay Ugandans says as much about you as it does about them.

I don't know of any other journalist doing such an in-depth report at the moment, and I really appreciate it.
very brave indeed
That is very brave of them indeed to consent to have their photos published knowing the hostilities against them there and how much worse its likely to get. To be honest I doubt I'd be that brave myself, I'd be probably be more like Isaac who wouldn't go there because of nearby family that might see him, that reminded me of the very first time I went to a gay bar in Kitchener where I grew up and where all my family and extended family lives, I circled the area first to make sure no one I knew was around before working up the courage to approach the door and walk on in and that was in 1990, long after decriminalization in Canada. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the gay scene in Uganda.
RE: photos seem like bad idea
Hey Rich, the people pictured in this piece consented to have their photos used. It's a clearly risky decision, but I think it's brave of them to put a face to this story. As you'll see in the next update, Blessed (who is pictured with Kaj) is an activist who remains proudly defiant, despite anti-gay threats.
photos seem like bad idea
I'm enjoying this look at the life of gays and lesbians in Uganda but I would be very cautious about using any photos of the people you meet in your travels for their own safety and yours too. Keep in mind xtra.ca can be seen in Kampala just the same as in Toronto, if what I've heard about the situation in Uganda for queers is even half true I think it'd be safest for those you talk to to keep their images offline, being there I'd be very cautious about the writer showing his image online too, they may not have the really really draconian anti-gay law in place yet but they still have a draconian anti-gay law already. I'm sure you wouldn't want anything bad happening to your new friends, or to yourself.
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