How much are people willing to risk for equality? In the case of Ugandan lesbian activist Val Kalende, she's risking her life as well as her loved ones for a simple wish: to be able to love freely.
In a profile in the Daily Monitor earlier this week, Kalende is portrayed as a kind, church-going woman. However, her style of dress (simple jeans and teeshirts) provoke harassment from motorcyclists and other men who seize upon her wardrobe as proof of her sexuality. Kalende faces daily judgment from her church as well as men on the street, but nothing made her as fearful as a recent change in politics:
"In October, Ndorwa West MP Bahati brought an anti-gay law to the House, proposing in his document a new felony called "aggravated homosexuality", committed when the offender has sex with a person who is disabled or underage, or when there is HIV transmission. The crime should attract the death penalty, he proposed, while consenting homosexuals should be imprisoned for life."
The proposed law, which has the tacit approval of President Museveni, would also penalise a third party for failing to report homosexual activity, as well as criminalise the actions of a reporter who, for example, interviews a gay couple.
Kalende has identified as a lesbian since 2002, and has been at work with other gay rights organizations like Freedom and Roam Uganda since approximately 2005. Though she's actively in a committed partnership, safety concerns forced her partner to flee the country and Kalende is determined to bring her girlfriend home. How? By refusing to hide sexuality any longer. She made the huge step of allowing her picture to be published in the newspaper, knowing full well that may lead to even more harassment.
Katie Paul, writing for Newsweek, reached out to interview Kalende after the Monitor story broke.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook since Saturday," she said. "Some are telling me it was a brave thing to do. Others have been negative, saying they are going to start campaigning for the bill, that kind of thing." Her family told her the decision to talk about her personal life was too extreme. One member of her partner's family asked her to tell everyone the story was blackmail. Her pastor encouraged her to give another interview to the Monitor proclaiming a sudden miraculous transformation into a heterosexual. Failing that, he offered to counsel her to help her drop the habit.
I asked Kalende whether she'd received any threats. Not yet, she said, but she's been staying home every evening to protect herself. "I've noticed that everywhere I go, people recognize me now," she said. She remains convinced the bill is going to pass, even if some of the headline-grabbing punishments are dropped.
The anonymous blogger at GayUganda alternately salutes Kalende and despairs for her. His excited posting flips back and forth, as if he was just releasing all of his personal hopes and fears about being outed into the world for someone, anyone, to hear:
Anyway, the bill is making us get recklessly courageous. Val comes out, full face photo. With her partner. And the partner is disguised. Nothing is more poignant. They both are risking their very lives, grabbing the headlines like this, when they can. For, when the bill is passed, this kind of article will not be possible. But, she dared to do it. And, she grabbed the headline. [...]
I know what is driving them. A reckless courage. This bill is so terrible, that, even now, if we cant speak out now, we shall forever be damned. So, they are speaking out. Getting out of the closets, making sure that the world out there in Uganda does know that they are Gay, and that they are Ugandan, and that they are threatened by death and life time imprisonment for being gay and Ugandan. [...]
Dont know what your lives will be worth once it becomes law. Dont know. Dont want to know. Hope I will not know. But, the very risks that you are exposing yourself to at this particular moment just makes me shiver with fear. I am a coward. But, I thank your reckless courage.
Meanwhile, the lawmakers and pastors closely aligned with the Christian Right (including the infamous Rick Warren) have been scrambling to distance themselves from the Ugandan Parliament's bill. Why? Because they are affiliated with a fundamentalist organization (read: Christian version of the Illuminati) called "The Family" whose members initially showed support for the legislation. Senator Charles Grassley, from Iowa, is feeling the heat and Republican Senators like Ensign, Inhofe, and Brownback are scrambling to settle on a position. The White House is "strongly" against the bill and said so in a statement to The Advocate.
The story of a young Ugandan gay couple [Daily Monitor]
Out of the Uganda Anti-Gay Debate, a Hero Emerges: Valerie Kalende on Life Under Fire [Newsweek]
Reckless Courage [GayUganda]
"This Terrible Bill" [The Daily Dish]
Iowans call on Sen. Grassley to oppose Uganda hate bill [Gay Politics]
White House issues statement ‘strongly' condemning Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. [Think Progress]