WorldPride 2014: A gay rights activist on being outed in Uganda

Ugandan Richard Lusimbo still lives in fear nearly four months after a local tabloid outed the gay rights activist. Lusimbo is currently in Toronto to speak at the WorldPride Human Rights conference, part of WorldPride 2014 that officially kicked off today.

Uganda's anti-gay law leads to firings, physical attacks by mobs

Richard Lusimbo, a gay rights activist in Uganda, is currently in Toronto to speak at the WorldPride Human Rights Conference, part of WorldPride 2014. (Courtesy of Richard Lusimbo)

Ugandan Richard Lusimbo still lives in fear nearly four months after a local tabloid put a picture of his face on its front page accompanied by the headline "How I Became Homo."

"You never know what will happen to you," said the 27-year-old gay rights activist, who is currently in Toronto to speak at the WorldPride Human Rights Conference, part of WorldPride 2014 that officially kicks off today.

"Because I was outed, it becomes very difficult to live a normal life," he said. "You live a life of fear. And some of the simple liberties as human beings, as citizens, are actually taken away from you."

The story that targeted Lusimbo, one of a series the tabloid Red Pepper had run that week, was published just days after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a controversial anti-gay bill that punishes gay sex with up to life in prison.

Outed people fired, attacked on street

"It was a terrible time. People now started to feel that they actually had the right to attack LGBTI persons," said Lusimbo, who works for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an advocacy group for gay rights in Uganda. 

And the tabloid stories made things worse, he said. The first story the paper published, titled "Exposed: Uganda's 200 Top Homos Named," wrought much damage against the Ugandan gay community.

"This was really heartbreaking, because some of the people weren't out," Lusimbo said. "And this created a lot of trouble because people were fired from their workplaces, people attacked from the street."

"Some people were attacked by mob, people [were] pulled off from public transport. I have spoken to people who have been beaten off the road, and all this kind of hate because they were outed in the media."

Red Pepper outed Lusimbo in what he said was a misleading story, as it suggested he had given the paper an interview.

"I got so many hate messages from my friends, people who were calling me all sorts of names, some of them threatening to kill me if they saw me," he said.

Lusimbo said some of his family knew he was gay, and some did not. But none could understand why he would go public about his sexuality.

"I couldn't speak to anyone in my family or my friends. I was shut out, I just couldn't move in public, because I didn't know who would attack me on the street. I couldn't go for grocery shopping."

"Being gay and if you're known, you lose your life in terms of your privacy, but also in terms of your freedom, because it's very difficult for me to just go out and hang with my friends in a pub or in a club."

Canada a reprieve from threats

Being in Canada is a reprieve from the threats and discrimination he faces at home. And his visit also coincides with the election of Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's first gay premier, whose sexual orientation was not made an issue during the campaign.

"Her victory in the election, it was a great win, because in Uganda this is not something that I would dream of right now, but seeing there are [regions] in the world that are getting to look beyond someone's sexuality and look at the capability of someone, to me that was really inspiring."

Lusimbo praised the Canadian government's condemnation of Uganda's anti-gay bill, but he said a call from Prime Minister Stephen Harper directly to the Ugandan president about the issue "would really go a long way."

But he said there are times when criticism can make things worse. He suggested Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird should have been more diplomatic when he spoke out against Uganda's position on gay rights in 2012 during an international meeting in Quebec City that was attended by Uganda's Speaker of parliament.

Lusimbo said the Speaker was able to spin Baird's criticisms into an anti-colonial screed against the West, and helped create a backlash against the gay community in Uganda.

"I think some of the comments, if they're not well thought through, they can put the people on the ground in jeopardy," he said.

Despite the discrimination he faces in Uganda — just working for SMUG could lead to his arrest — Lusimbo said he has no plans to leave Uganda. He said he believes he has a responsibility to work toward the development of his country and fight for the freedom of those in the gay community.

"The best way I can contribute to that is for me to be actually there. I'm very sure there are so many young people in Uganda who are gay and who are lesbian, who are bisexual, who are tran, who cannot come out and speak about their plight," he said. "But what would happen if we're all out of the country? It would be a victory to people who actually discriminate [against] us. Because all they want to do is silence us."