By Florence Kyohangirwe and Kim Koeven
Pride events are not a common occurrence in Uganda, not with the constant interruptions by the authorities every time there is word of LGBTQIA+ people coming together for any reason. Life in Uganda as a queer person is tricky. There is no freedom of expression amongst queer people and when it comes to relationships, many are involved with more than one partner, usually with the sex orientation that the society has designated acceptable. For example, if a lesbian is lucky enough to find a woman that they want to date in the small dating pool, and this woman has the same interest, they may go on to date but each have a male partner on the side, a partner that society knows and accepts, and the lesbian relationship is sort of a “dark secret” known only to them.
Transgender people are repeatedly arrested by the police with accusations of impersonation once their former or ‘real’ identities are uncovered. Gay men are beaten, alienated and harassed once their sexuality is exposed. People who identify as non-binary or gender-queer are often viewed as confused, they face the challenge of not being understood.
In 2018, an international festival, Nyege Nyege was nearly cancelled when the Ethics And Integrity Minister, Father Simon Lokodo heard word that a lot of queer people attend the festival. After coming under threat for allegations of ‘sexual deviance’, Nyege Nyege continued on.
With all these challenges, a group of queer and ally friends with different experiences, from different corners of the world, but with a common idea, coincidentally found each other on social media and put together a camp to celebrate Pride 2019 in the month of June.
Lillian Thando Naluyima, a Ugandan student in Utah first got the idea to do an LGBTQIA+ camp in Uganda after spending her summer holiday in the +256 and dating a girl for the first time. She came to realize that queer people often times undergo extreme trauma while trying to be themselves. These experiences are manifested by all the times a queer person has to hide or hate their identity for their own safety and societal acceptance. In simple terms, it is devastating not to live your authentic self.
The people mentioned helped a lot to see to it that this idea was birthed into a reality through provision of a lot of resources such as swag from the Utah Pride Center, proposal editing and review, printing manuals and resources, monetary funds, ideas for impactful sessions, emotional/motivational support, and confidence instilled.
This drove the thought for her to create a Google document that she shared amongst her friends and allies both in Uganda and the United States. Kimberly Koeven, an environmentalist and human rights activist, Florence Kyohangirwe (Kakatshozi) , a writer and social activist in Uganda, Judith Oki, a technical advisor, Sarah Reale, a professor in Utah, and Laura Klinginstein, a student advisor, all who highly helped in the editing and making of the idea into a reality. They would soon work to put together the Pink Triangle Camp.
Lillian decided to call the camp “Pink Triangle” partly because only those that know the background of the reference would understand it and the built-in provision of a safe symbol (1). The Pink Triangle Camp 2019 coincidentally took place the year of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, a landmark of protest for equality.
It was after Lillian had chosen the symbol that she realizes the historical context and deep connection the camp has with the history of the Pink Triangle used as a marker to identify gay men in Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s. The symbol was made larger than other symbols placed on the Jews and various other persecuted groups.
It has been found that the gays were treated with the least amount of common dignity at the camps in fact many of the survivors have lived to tell us that they were: treated as the lowest class of people in the camps, they were castrated, sexually assaulted and raped by guards, used as test subjects for medical experiments with typhus fever, and injected with testosterone to try and make them straight (1,2). On top of this, they were systematically killed.
Doing a camp in Uganda can be extremely risky considering the government almost passed/continues to threaten to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would allow police to jail queer people just for existing as themselves. For first time offenders the sentence is fourteen years in jail and the second offense is life imprisonment (1,2). Under the bill even if you are an acquaintance of a queer person you can also face jail time. The Bill creates an environment of stewing hatred and lack of safety in which LGBTQIA+ people do not have basic human rights and within which multiple articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated (4).
Despite this, the Pink Triangle Camp’s founder Lillian Thando Naluyima said of the situation, “Although we all knew the risks we were taking by committing to working on the camp we knew that we had to do the right thing.”
The Pink Triangle Camp was formulated by six continuous months of WhatsApp chats and emails back and forth between the group of friends and allies, some of whom had never met in real life. It was within these forums where they addressed which activities and sessions would best suit the goals and purpose of the camp. The three main agreed upon goals of the camp were: 1) create space for free self-expression 2) inspire, motivate, and educate LBTQ young adults about their rights 3) strengthen bonds between members of the community by bringing them together to discuss their challenges and life experiences.
Above all, the main purpose of the camp was to give LBTQ people a voice and allow for dialogue and questions to be asked on key issues facing the community.
After planning the camp and outlining a plan, the team found partners
in both the U.S. and Uganda to help with funding and resources. In the U.S., the Utah Pride Center provided lots of great resources in addition to many individuals that provided support or funding: June Hiatt, Hilary McDaniel, Chelsie Acosta, Judith Oki, Ari Lee, Laura Klingstein, Sarah Reale, and anonymous donors. In Uganda, SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda), Rella, HolaAfrica and some individuals that prefer to stay anonymous provided resources. Social Activists like Diane Bakuraira, Pepe Onziema, and Nia Chung gave input that came in handy towards planning.
The camp was made available to young adult applicants ages (18-35). A well formulated application was compiled to screen out individuals that would benefit most from attending the camp. After carefully selecting the attendees we sent out a list of expectations and a packing guide.
There was, however a great deal of tension ahead of the actual event; we were so concerned for the safety of the campers that we took precautions to an extreme level in order to protect information about the location of the event. The 30 campers were only notified of the location of the camp upon arrival. Fortunately the journey to the venue was uninterrupted, everyone settled in, and the organizers met the attendees, gave brief introductions and went over rules and expectations. The next day the workshop began with sessions including: reproductive health, mental health, sex education, human rights, LGBTQIA+ history in Uganda, social media and online expression, safety online,creative writing, creative expression through crafts, games, sport, and swimming.
In the sessions, people shared personal stories about being bullied online, feeling unsafe and how their sexuality is used against them in places of school, work, and online. Some people shared that they hoped to one day be their full true selves without apology, they expressed the desire to be in a loving relationship in a society that appreciates and respects them for who they are, and create a safe space for discussions. Each night was summarized with sessions around a campfire where people felt free to speak their truth in a space free of judgment. There was also a screening of “Rafiki”, a Kenyan movie about a lesbian couple maneuvering love in a homophobic Nairobi setting.
In the beginning the Pink Triangle was organized to be a one time happening, however due to the positive feedback and requests by other communities the team has come to realize the need for more camps like this to inspire and unite people in the LGBTQIA+ community.
The camp started from an idea and is sprouting into a movement. All people can help and give support to the queer community worldwide by holding and sponsoring future camps, defending queer people online and in everyday life, hosting queer events, and standing with queer people as an ally. As for the Pink Triangle Camp organizers, the camp has been a platform used to impact change and give support to the community.
This need can best be encapsulated by one of the attendees, who shared a story of how, because of her sexuality, she has been rejected by her parents the camp was the only opportunity for her to express her struggle and share her experience with others saying that, “the camp was the highlight of her year.” The camp took people out of their often times isolated lives and helped them to see their worth and importance in the world as there are others out their just like them going through similar experiences. More had stories to share and to grow from.
To close off the camp, attendees got together for a cocktail mixer event where they were awarded certificates for completion of the camp and later cut cake to crown the evening.
After seeing the impact, the organizers are considering doing more camps, get-togethers, and creating more platforms for queer people to express themselves. Although the camp is no Pride Parade, the impacts are immediate, necessary, and lasting. Even if at the end of the day it is one person’s life that changes or they are inspired or uplifted makes a huge difference in the life of someone who may just need a friend during a dark patch of life.
To educate yourself more about the history of LGBTQIA+ people in Uganda please
watch the following documentaries:
God Loves Uganda
Call Me Kuchu
The Pearl of Africa Documentary
Also check out queer friendly sites like www.theeascene.com and www.kuchutimes.com