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John Wambere, a prominent gay activist in Uganda, had hoped against hope that President Yoweri Museveni would not sign into law a bill codifying harsh penalties for being LGBTI. So he was caught by surprise when, on February 24, 2014, that was exactly what the president did.
Not only was John surprised, he was far from home, in the United States on a trip to do some speaking about the escalating political, public, and physical attacks on LGBTI people in his country.
As a co-founder of the LGBTI rights group Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, John knew he was in danger. His photo and name had been plastered on the front page of Ugandan newspapers, outing him as gay under headlines like “Men of Shame Exposed”. Clients had been fleeing his travel agency till his business dropped off to nothing. He had been questioned by relatives and shunned by neighbors. He endured the murder of his friend David Kato. He had been evicted, repeatedly arrested, harassed on the street by strangers, and received threatening anonymous phone calls.
This law imposed harsher penalties for same-sex relationships, including life imprisonment. It also imposed new penalties for any activities that are viewed as “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and “promoting homosexuality.” The law is broad in its reach and criminalizes even activism and public health education work related to LGBTI individuals, including those living with HIV.”
[Photo: John Wambere speaking at an AIDS Information Centre Uganda meeting]
So John Wambere has made the difficult decision to seek asylum in the United States.
For John, the father of a sixteen-year-old girl, the head of his extended family since his parents’ death, a business owner and a central person in the struggle for LGBTI rights, the prospect of not being able to go home is extremely painful. He continues to financially support his daughter, who lives with a relative, but he leaves behind responsibilities, a community in crisis, and friends who are undoubtedly in danger.
“I am keeping up with people at home and with the situation there,” he said. “If I were to go back to Uganda, I am certain something bad would happen to me.”
Indeed, after the bill was signed, 30,000 people rallied in a stadium to thank the president for signing the bill and to celebrate by listening to speakers who called LGBTI people “criminals,” “animals,” and “devils.” An HIV prevention organization was infiltrated and then raided by police. There have been arrests, kidnappings, and many people have gone into hiding.
Said John, who is living in Cambridge with friends, “This is a safe place for me, a place where I can speak out and continue to help people at home.”