Day 6

Ugandan LGBT activist says threats and violence won't stop the fight for civil rights

Ugandan LGBT activist Pepe Julian Onziema helped shut down a 2014 law that called for the death penalty for homosexual acts. But despite that victory, he says anti-gay violence persists.

In 2014, Pepe Julian Onziema helped shut down Uganda's harsh anti-gay law

Pepe Julian Onziema visited Toronto during a speaking tour sponsored by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. (Jason Vermes/CBC)

by Brent Bambury

Pepe Julian Onziema came out in the 1990s and living in Uganda meant there was a constant threat of violence.

"I did not know that I was going to be safe," he said on Day 6

But that hasn't stopped him.

Since then, Onziema, a front line activist for LGBT rights in Uganda, has defied the government and the evangelicals, and organized gay pride celebrations that were violently disrupted by police.

In 2014, he also led a successful challenge of Uganda's infamous law that made homosexuality a crime punishable by death.

Onziema told Day 6 host Brent Bambury about his experiences fighting for LGBT rights as the Ugandan government attempted to pass anti-gay legislation in 2014. (Jason Vermes/CBC)

His activism has put him squarely in the line of fire.

"There was always that threat. It was always there. And I knew there was that threat, but I never saw myself like, behind bars," Onziema said. 

Ugandan authorities saw things differently.

Onziema has been arrested or detained seven times and as a trans man in detention, he is extra vulnerable.

"I was stripped by police in 2008 in police detention where the officers wanted to ascertain my gender through my genitalia," he said. 

A policewoman plunged her hands into his pants, he says. "I was devastated." He'd never imagined he'd be detained and humiliated. 

"And when it happened I think that is when the reality hit all of us in the movement that, you know, this is actually life and death for us."

Punishable by death

Uganda is one of the worst places in the world to be LGBT. In 2014, the country's government passed an anti-homosexuality law that made gay sex punishable by death.

"The bill was introduced in 2009 with the help of American evangelicals," Onziema said. "So we stood up. We spoke out."

"We reached to the hearts of parents, reached the hearts of teachers, healthcare givers. There were about 55 civil society organizations that came together to form a coalition to fight the law."

Six months after the bill was passed, Onziema's coalition scored a court victory, striking the law down on a technicality.

People waving Ugandan and rainbow flags take part in the Gay Pride parade in Entebbe on Aug. 8, 2015. Ugandan activists gathered for a gay pride rally, celebrating one year since the overturning of a strict anti-homosexuality law. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, Uganda's Minister of Ethics Simon Lokodo wants to bring it back

Onziema is not fazed. He thinks it's a political move by a government facing re-election.

"Obviously it's threatening us," Onziema said. "We're going to elections in 2021, so next year is just going to be politicking all over the place."

A stand-off with police

After the anti-gay law was struck down, persecution of LGBT Ugandans continued or intensified.

When Onziema was arrested in 2016, police threw him in a cell and invited the other detainees to assault him. The violence swiftly became sexual.

"I was stripped, beaten to the point of losing hearing in my left ear," he says. 

He'd been detained for being at a gay pride celebration, and was released without charges.

The fact that there's a community that still needs me, that lend me their voices, that also gives me courage.- Pepe Julian Onziema, Ugandan LGBT activist

This year though, there are indications the LGBT community will not be intimidated by Ugandan police. In May, as the community marked the International Day Against Homophobia, police assembled and surrounded the venue.

"Any guest who was coming — apart from those who were already inside, who came earlier — were not allowed to go in," Onziema said. 

"They sat outside. They did not move," Onziema says.

Onziema says the authorities were unsettled by the defiance and disagreed on how to handle it. 

"There was a section of the police that was saying, 'Do not touch them.' Then there was another section that was saying, 'Round them up, take them to prison,'" he said. "I think they were a bit confused."

"But something amazing happened that day. When the police were there with their guns ... LGBTQ persons who were coming for the event, did not flee."

Source of strength

The community Onziema has helped empower is one of his main inspirations. 

"You can't be a leader without people that you're leading. So the fact that there's a community that still needs me, that lend me their voices, that also gives me courage," he said.

The other source of strength for him is his family. While many Ugandan LGBT people are rejected by their parents and relatives, Onziema's mother remained supportive. 

"Even when I'm released from police custody I have somewhere to go," he said.

Despite the official violence Uganda has directed at LGBT people, Onziema is proud of his country. 

"I love this country to bits. And my work is to make it the kind of place that it really is. It's beautiful. It has beautiful people. And I'm just doing my ounce of something to preserve it for people who will come after me."