April 7, 2016 at 10:30 am EST | by Kevin Majoros
Out and proud in Uganda
Uganda Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

From left are Apako Williams, Jay Mulucha and Mr. Pride 2015 at Uganda Pride. (Photo by Katie G. Nelson, used with permission)

Last year, the Washington Blade spotlighted United States lawyer Nate Freeman on his journey across Africa to raise awareness for LGBT rights through his Out in Africa Ride foundation.

Freeman is back in Africa to continue the work that was started on that ride. The obstacles for social change in the LGBT community in Africa are great, but Freeman has encountered a number of organizations fostering change on a grass-roots level.

Last year, he rode his bike from Cairo to Cape Town to meet with LGBT activists in 10 different countries. He now works in Kampala, Uganda for Human Rights Awareness and Promotions Forum, an organization that provides free legal aid services for LGBT people.

Those services include assisting LGBT people who have been arrested and training paralegals to represent LGBT people in their communities. Money raised from the Out in Africa Ride (outinafricaride.org) has funded a project to help LGBT non-profits comply with all the necessary legalities, such as registering the organization and instituting a proper board of directors.

Uganda criminalizes same-sex relationships and the environment for LGBT people there is difficult. A number of committed Ugandan activists are involved in important work to create a better environment for the future.

After Freeman settled into his work in Kamapala and began networking, he was pleasantly surprised to find a fledgling LGBT sports community in the area.

Organizations such as the Uganda Network for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Persons, FEM Alliance, Freedom and Roam Uganda and Sexual Minorities Uganda all have members and staff who are LGBT athletes. So far, Freeman has encountered LGBT athletes in the sports of rugby, basketball, soccer and swimming.

Warry Ssenfuka, executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, is also captain of the national Uganda women’s rugby team. She is openly lesbian and says that while many remain in the closet for fear of discrimination, the rugby world has become a safer place for the LGBT community. Although Ssenfuka has been attacked verbally, she usually ends up as friends with those who have criticized her.

“Our efforts are all about benefitting the communities and sports offer a huge opportunity for camaraderie,” Freeman says. “Gaining acceptance for LGBT people requires a multi-pronged approach and it will focus on the arts, business and sports in addition to the legal and health issues that the communities face.”

Often times, it is just the “whisperings” of their sexual orientation or gender identities that set up the obstacles for the LGBT athletes and results in their teams being disbanded.

The soccer team has been shut down for a year though members are still playing pick-up and are looking to compete again. The Magic Stormers basketball team is now experiencing the same problems and the lack of sponsors has led to loss of court time, jerseys and good players.

Two members of the Magic Stormers, Apako Williams and Jay Mulucha, are trans men. Williams, executive director of the Uganda Network, and Mulucha, executive director of FEM Alliance, were victims of a hate crime several months ago perpetrated in a sports bar by fellow athletes.

Despite the attacks, Williams and Mulucha hope they can take a basketball team to compete in the 2018 Gay Games in Paris.

“If we come out and show that we are strong,” Mulucha says, “we can encourage even those people in the LGBT community who have lost it all to have hope.”

As a test case to pave the road to the Gay Games, Freeman is looking for an opportunity to send six swimmers to Edmonton, Canada for the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics Championships in August.

He is being assisted by Williams and Mulucha, as well as by Diane Bakuraira, an administrator at Sexual Minorities Uganda who trained on the national Uganda swim team. Because she was gender non-conforming, she was never asked to compete in international competitions. For her, the world championships are an opportunity to increase visibility.

“The world has low perceptions of LGBT people and of Africans,” she says. “We want to show that we can compete.”

The idea for sending the swimmers is a long shot for two reasons: visas and funding.

LGBT Ugandans have had a difficult time getting visas to Canada in the past including a contingent of Ugandans who were invited to Toronto Pride in 2015. Freeman is hoping the Justin Trudeau government will be more open to granting visas and that the Ugandans can allay any fears about those who may seek asylum.

“’We have identified a team of swimmers who we believe pose an extremely low risk of seeking asylum,” Freeman says. “These swimmers are all employed and well-connected members of the community who want to remain in Uganda with their families to fight for greater equality.”

As for funding, Freeman has been in contact with a network of high-end donors in several U.S. cities who are interested in global LGBT issues. The problem facing the request for sports funding is that human rights organizations and health organizations are where donors usually offer their support.

“Obviously I am advocating for all LGBT issues, but the law isn’t going to change here in the near future,” Freeman says. “A big push for all of the issues would result from economic assistance and more visibility of the athletes.”

He says the desire for visibility and openness is the same thing driving LGBT athlete all over the world.

“In some ways, this is the reclamation of their own body by saying they can still use it to play athletics,” says Freeman. “The government and society can’t dictate what they do with their own bodies.”

Uganda Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Top (l-r) Nate Freeman and Apako Williams; bottom (l-r) Jay Mulucha and Diane Bakuraira (Photo courtesy Freeman)

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