When I’m trooping down the road to the sound of Nasik dhols during the pride march or attending a queer themed shindig, I often delude myself into believing that I am brave. Besides a freckled, ginger Disney lass, what does brave really imply? Despite the rollback of the Delhi High Court verdict, my life hasn’t really changed. I continue being intimate with my boyfriend in ‘unnatural’ ways, safe in the knowledge that if the laws don’t protect me, money will. What really gives me an implicit sanction to live and love as my heart tells me to, are the allies I see across society, media and polity. But what if you lived in a country where almost everyone was against you; where legislators spent an inordinate amount of time drafting laws that would make your very existence illegal and the media regularly bayed for you to be lynched. Being an openly gay activist in such a place – now that’s brave.
While we all know what’s happening in Uganda with its ‘Kill the gays law’, it’s easy to disconnect from the reality of what it means for the queer community in that country. Momentary sympathy for fleeting tweets; spasms of ire at news releases which disappear as quickly as the lines of text scrolling on your screen. In all of this, it’s easy to overlook the people who are at the receiving end of this legislated injustice. The stories of these brave individuals are the subject of Call Me Kuchu – an award-winning documentary directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, screened as a part of Kashish’s Rainbow Warriors event at the Films Division in Mumbai.
Kuchu in Ugandan street-talk means queer and the film’s initial scene where a same sex couple celebrate their ninth anniversary with friends in their backyard, lulls you into believing that things are not so bad. This is quickly dispelled as David Kato, one of the four queer activists chronicled in the documentary makes a chilling prediction, “They are going to begin killing us.” Kato, who works an advocacy officer for the cheekily named SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda), lived as an openly-gay man during a six year stay in South Africa. He then returned to Uganda with the avowed intention of liberating his people although much of his time goes in battling virulently homophobic lies published by Rolling Stone, a brazen local tabloid with no morals except those it cherry picks to fuel hatred in its subscriber base. Rolling Stone’s front page blazes with the headline “100 pictures of Uganda’s top homos leak” with the tag “Hang them” highlighted in post-it yellow. After a bombing in the capital by Somali rebels linked to Al Qaeda, the newspaper’s cover declares that “Homo Generals plotted Terror Kampala attack”.
In a follow-up feature titled “More Homos: Faces Exposed”, a woman named Stosh finds a picture of herself kissing her girlfriend. Overnight, she finds people who she considered friends and neighbours hurling stones at her home and she is forced to move into a safe house. A family member calls to ask whether she does it for money. She seems sage and tired when she turns to the camera and says “It’s one thing being outed, and another one being denied.” The article that turns her life upside down concludes with the request “If you know where Stosh lives, or her whereabouts, call this number or email us.” As we listen to a battery of sanctimonious religious nut-jobs blathering on about how homosexuals lure, force and rape, we learn that Stosh was subjected to corrective rape as a teenager – a crime that led to a pregnancy and an HIV infection. “People want to know our stories … that’s why I decided to come out no matter what” she says.
The perversity of the Ugandan anti-gay law is that not only does it make homosexual acts a crime but it also criminalizes anything remotely related to being LGBTI. It has a clause called aggravated homosexuality under which it defines penalties including life imprisonment and capital punishment for repeat offenders. Aiding and abetting the queer community including activities such as HIV testing are punishable by 7 years imprisonment. And in a scene out of homophobic Orwellian nightmare, any Ugandan who knows of a homosexual and does not report them within 24 hours will be subject to 3 years imprisonment.
David Bahati, the Ugandan Member of Parliament who proposed this wildly popular bill, doesn’t blink when he says “It’s no longer a debate whether homosexuality is right or not … It is not a human right.” But, it’s the managing editor of Rolling Stone with his sinister eyes who you feel like throttling when he gleefully mocks the daily misery faced by LGBTI individuals. “We will surely raid your house… We shall ignore the right of privacy in the interest of the public” because in his view gays “should be arrested, tried, sentenced and hanged.” His words sounds extreme to ears accustomed to political correctness but his tabloid appears to have the pulse of the masses. Anti-gay protestors march in the streets against gays who allegedly seduce and ‘violently’ rape minors; bearing bright pink placards proclaiming “Homosexuals repent” and “We denounce lesbianism”. Clergymen promise that the passing of the law would make the land one of milk and honey.
Call Me Kuchu made me terribly angry. It infuriated me to think that two white American missionaries filled with bigotry, hatred and self-righteousness could induce an entire nation to legalize discrimination, violence and murder; and that an entire nation is unable to critically examine the lies mouthed by its politicians and pastors.
Call Me Kuchu made me despondent. It saddened me to think of the fear and loneliness that must mark the lives of many queer Ugandans – to live in a country where your loved ones must report you or themselves face persecution. I have left out what happens towards the end of the film to David Kato. Suffice to say it’s heart-wrenching and painful to watch.
But most of all, Call Me Kuchu made me feel inspired. I can’t forget Stosh’s stoic face – to still have the courage to fight against what seem like insurmountable odds after all that she’s been through. I wish I could demonstrate a fraction of the mettle that Stosh, David Kato and the other two activists: Naome Ruzindana and Long Jones exemplify daily. Through it all, they laughed, supported each other and celebrated their sexuality, whether it was a drag show at a friend’s home or grabbing a drink at a kuchu bar with its rainbow back-lit sign (which also begs the question, how is it that there are gay bars in Kampala and not in Bombay?).
Call Me Kuchu is powerful, poignant commentary, not just on the situation in Uganda, but on what it means to be queer and brave. It’s also a cautionary tale for Gaysis about how quickly an anti-queer campaign can mould popular opinion and ruin lives. At the time of filming, the bill had not yet been passed. With nearly unanimous support in the Ugandan parliament, the bill is now law and mob-led persecution is transformed into legally sanctioned prosecution. The fight to secure fundamental human rights for queer folk in Uganda as in many other countries, is going to be long and challenging; a hard reality that’s concisely encapsulated in SMUG’s motto – a luta continua – the struggle continues.