Persecuted Ugandan swimmers compete in international LGBT championship in Edmonton
'I don’t want to enjoy the freedom too much. I know I have to leave it behind,' says Ugandan lesbian swimmer
Just last week, Clare Byarugaba and Adebayo Katiiti were sitting in a Ugandan jail cell. They were arrested when police raided a gay pride event they were attending in their home country.
Today, they're at the Kinsmen Sports Centre in Edmonton competing in the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championship, representing Uganda, a country that treats them with hostility and violence.
All five members of the Uganda Kuchus Aquatic Team, some of whom wish not to be identified for fear of retribution back home, were celebrating Pride week in Uganda last Thursday when police raided the Mr. and Miss Pride Pageant with guns in hand.
Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law that prohibits sex acts "against the order of nature."
Katiiti, a transgender man who was voted Mr. Pride Uganda, said police officers grabbed him and fondled him before taking him into custody.
"They undressed me, checked whether I was a man or a woman. It was really so embarrassing," he said.
To be in a cell days ago, and to be in a country where I don't have to be afraid to express who I am ... is just amazing.- Clare Byarugaba
Nearly 300 people were at the event and 20 were arrested, including Katiiti and Byarugaba. The two knew they were set to compete in Edmonton just a few days later, but weren't sure the government would let them attend.
"To be in a cell days ago, and to be in a country where I don't have to be afraid to express who I am ... is just amazing," Byarugaba said.
Both athletes say they live their lives in fear of persecution and mob violence. Byarugaba said she's so happy to leave that fear behind while she's in Canada, but it's bittersweet.
"I don't want to enjoy the freedom too much," she said. "I know I have to leave it behind, so I don't want to get too used to it because it's hard for me to adjust when I get back home."
The IGLA Championship welcomes gay and lesbian aquatic athletes from all over the world to compete in the inclusive event. This is the first time Uganda has been represented.
Byarugaba said she feels conflicted about representing her country, given how much she's had to overcome to get here. But the event also gives her hope.
"Just to see the Ugandan flag and the LGBT flag … there's a sense of pride that those two flags are flying at the same level," she said. "I want to be able to bring the freedom that I see out of my country back home, and enjoy it with the LGBT community."
Katiiti said members of his family have asked him not to return since he arrived in Edmonton, and warned him that he could be killed. Since the police raid on the pride event, he said he's not sure how he'll move forward once he goes home to Uganda.
He hopes to learn from other athletes at the IGLA who have overcome the challenges of being LGBTQ.
"It's not changing anything," he said. "It's not going to make me stop being who I am."