The rapid progression of LGBT rights and support for the LGBT sports movement in the United States over the past few years has ignited a hope in many of us that the same progression will happen in other countries around the world.
When I arrived at the pool two weeks ago in Edmonton, Canada for the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics world championships (IGLA), I was excited to meet the five members of the Uganda Kuchus Aquatic Team who would be competing with us over five days of competition. Kuchu is Ugandan slang for “gay.”
I was greeted with hugs and shy smiles at our meeting which evolved into a kinship over the week through the commonality of sports.
The IGLA Board, led by co-presidents Kris Pritchard and Elisabeth Turnbull-Brown, stepped forward with funding along with the host team, Edmonton’s Making Waves Swim Club providing free meet registration and housing. Several of the swim teams under the IGLA umbrella also donated money to the cause.
Uganda is one of the countries that criminalizes same-sex sexual acts and just a few days before the meet, two of the swimmers were sitting in a Ugandan jail cell after being arrested at a Pride event.
One thing that probably surprised many people at the swim meet was that the presence of the Ugandan swimmers changed the atmosphere of the entire event.
“Having the Uganda Kuchus at IGLA this year was inspiring for many of us at the meet. The very existence of teams like the Kuchus is an act of bravery that deserves our support,” says Evan Cobb of Team New York Aquatics. “One of the best outcomes of their participation was how it changed the conversation at the meet itself. To me it seemed like more than ever before, IGLA participants were talking about how sports play a role in the struggle for LGBT rights and dignity around the world and that we as athletes have a big role to play.”
It’s hard to say why any of us get involved in particular causes, but I like to point to the “Popcorn Theory” that was presented in the book, “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving” by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy of “Blind Side” fame.
“It’s about noticing others and assigning that person value and potential,” they write. “You can’t help everyone, but you can try to help the hot ones who pop up in front of you. It requires that you perceive the person standing right in front of you and extend a hand in kindness.”
That speaks to what one of the Ugandan swimmers stated during a discussion panel when the moderator asked what people in the West could do to help the Ugandan cause. She replied, “We don’t need your help, we need your solidarity.”
One person who embodied that solidarity was swimmer Shoshanna Ehrlich of Liquid Assets New England Swimming in Boston. Not only did she spearhead the drive to raise $3,000 with her teammates, she was also seen poolside on a daily basis encouraging the Ugandan swimmers and offering tips on their swimming techniques.
“We have a lot of privilege here in the United States and we have a moral responsibility to contribute to the human rights of others,” Ehrlich says. “I wanted to offer as much swimming and emotional support as I could. They have risked so much just being here.”
Indeed. One Ugandan swimmer said that members of his family had asked him not to return and warned that he could be killed if he did. His future remains unclear.
As the week progressed, I bristled as the Ugandan swimmers were inundated with daily interviews from Canadian news outlets, often about deep topics and often right before they were stepping up on the blocks to compete.
I also smiled as I watched swimmers from all over the world engage with them on a human level. The week was filled with a mix of emotions as we enjoyed what we were experiencing, but also knew that it would be coming to an end. The Ugandans would be returning to an environment of persecution.
On night three of the competition, 20 members of the D.C. Aquatics Club hosted the Ugandan delegation for dinner and the two teams spent time enjoying a meal and watching the Olympic swimming together. I smiled again as my teammates engaged the Ugandans in typical swimmer conversations.
“Their presence at the meet really made me think about the human rights I have been afforded in the United States,” says D.C. Aquatics swimmer Kevin Muehleman. “Our conversation was light and I asked how their swims were going and what they would be swimming the next day. It was important not to make a spectacle of them.”
While it was clear that everyone was affected by the presence of the Ugandan swimmers, it really hit home on the final day when we were joined at the pool by M.P. Randy Boissonnault and his caseworker, Nathalie Gahimbare. They had been instrumental in obtaining the visas to allow the swimmers to travel to Canada.
At the end of the competition, the Uganda Kuchus Aquatic Team had won the world title in the small-team category. After they received their victory plaque, they performed a rap to the song “I Know Who I Am” that left the audience in tears.
Saying goodbye is never easy but we will remain connected in solidarity through social media. My heart is heavy, but it is filled with hope.