Nash is sitting on a sofa at an LGBTQ shelter in Kampala. Last month, the 28-year-old transgender man was outed on social media, as part of an attempt to discredit his father by his political opponents.
Prior to this, Nash had been living a happy life with his girlfriend, though most of their friends did not know he was trans. Since being outed, he has been physically attacked outside of his home, lost his job and received so much online abuse he says he has considered suicide. As a result of photos of him and his girlfriend being circulated, she too is facing difficult questions at her workplace. Like other LGBTQ people quoted in this article, we are publishing Nash’s first name only to protect him from reprisals.
They fled their home, and he was arrested and beaten by police when he was found sleeping outside the office of an LGBTQ organisation after the evening curfew that was instituted to tackle COVID-19.
Uganda’s presidential election this week will see 38-year-old dancehall musician-turned-MP Bobi Wine challenge President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for nearly 35 years.
Homophobia has been weaponised by politicians across the board throughout the election campaign, particularly by Museveni and his party the National Resistance Movement (NRM). When unrest broke out in November following the arrest of Wine, killing more than 50 people, Museveni said that some protest groups “are being used by outsiders; the homosexuals and other groups outside there who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda.”
But Wine also has a homophobic past. LGBTQ campaigners have previously accused him of inciting attacks on gay people in his song lyrics, and in 2014 he was denied a UK visa because of this. When questioned on the topic today, he says he believes in tolerance, and that “all human beings are human beings and all rights are rights,” though he has not explicitly come out in support of LGBTQ rights.
For some queer people, Wine represents an exciting opportunity for change from a regime which has attacked them for so long. For others, it’s unclear if the musician has changed his ways, or whether he just knows how to say the right things, particularly on the international stage. His increased fame outside Uganda has played into the hands of Museveni and the NRM, who portray Wine and his People Power movement as being funded by foreigners and so-called “gay money.”
Nash was a victim of homophobic attacks from both Museveni and Wine supporters. His father, who disowned him when he came out as trans at just 9 years old, is a local government leader and Museveni supporter. When his father started labelling Wine as gay and funded by gay people on social media, People Power supporters investigated him, discovering that he had a transgender son. They began a campaign to discredit his father, posting photographs of Nash and his girlfriend on social media and even putting up posters of them in his hometown alongside photos of his estranged father.
“The abuse was driven by a political force,” Nash told VICE World News, adding that the smear campaign didn’t stop his dad from continuing to claim Wine is gay. “I know my dad is capable of it. But I didn’t expect it to come from People Power supporters.” His father even joined his opponents on a local radio show in shaming his son. Nash remembers his father telling listeners to murder him: “I’ve given you the authority.”
Nash isn’t going to vote because he feels unsafe going outside. He also doesn’t have a national ID card; as is the case for most trans people around the world, issues of identification and gender identity are complex. But in spite of what People Power supporters did to him, he still backs Wine: “Yes, supporting him has become hard, but some of the members of his team are human rights defenders who don’t want to see us die, so I’m telling my friends to vote for him.”
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act made international headlines in 2014 in the run-up to the 2016 election. “The law was passed as kind of a distraction, and many LGBTI+ Ugandans suffered as a result,” says Opheila Kemigisha, a queer feminist and human rights lawyer based in Kampala. “In the same way today when these allegations are made, LGBTI+ people become even more apprehensive and scared for their lives as they were then,” says Kemigisha, adding that the narrative often leads to attacks on LGBTQ individuals and civil society organisations which support them.
A considerable amount of aid to Uganda was suspended when the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced – the US imposed sanctions and the World Bank postponed a £54 million loan – while funding to support the LGBTQ community flooded in. Over the years, this has contributed to a conspiracy in Uganda that so-called “gay money” from overseas is funding LGBTQ people, making them powerful and a threat to the country’s conservative values.
This false concept is used by the leading party to discredit Wine and scapegoat LGBTQ people. A falsified letter and zoom call screenshot of his team’s correspondence with foreign LGBTQ groups has been circulated on social media, and Nicolas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer known for representing LGBTQ people, was recently detained by authorities on allegations of money laundering.
“LGBTI persons are labelled as foreigners and as synonymous with imperialist interests, which is entirely untrue and harmful,” says Kemigisha. “I think the “homosexuals” accusation is directed towards foreigners in general, because it’s a sore point between Museveni and the international community,” she says, adding that she doesn’t trust Wine and his supporters on the issue of LGBTQ rights either.
Still, Wine does have international support, including from the LGBTQ Ugandan diaspora. Jona, a 29-year-old gay man, has been living as an asylum seeker in the Netherlands since 2019. Though he is unable to vote, he says he has donated to Wine’s campaign and has dedicated his Facebook page to “spreading the message of change,” sharing content from Wine’s rallies and speeches, and encouraging LGBTQ people to vote for him.
“I inbox them and call to remind them why their vote is important to the future of Uganda and the safety of LGBTQ people in Uganda,” says Jona. “They assure me they are ready to vote, because they know their vote guarantees them freedom and liberty, medicine in hospitals, jobs, quality education, and hopefully a new president who will decriminalise homosexuality,” he adds. While he can’t know for sure, Jona says he is confident Wine has changed his homophobic views, and believes that five more years of Museveni will be more dangerous for LGBTQ people.
Mabel, a 29-year-old bisexual woman, sees Museveni’s homophobic comments as a purely political tool – she doesn’t even think he cares about the issue. “When they say homosexuals are an issue now, it’s a lie,” Mabel says. “A lot of the foreign funding the government gets also relies on them not being homophobic.”
Mabel got inspired to vote for the first time in this election after Wine was successfully nominated. She hopes that things would get better for LGBTQ people under Wine, but admits he might just uphold the status quo. “I think his silence on the topic is very intentional,” she says.
“My main reason for voting for Bobi is that I like that he has a lot of support. And I feel the support. It’s more a feeling than a belief really,” says Mabel, who loves watching online videos of Wine and the crowds he draws. Still, she adds that while she is unsure whether her vote will count, she wants to do her part by showing up and “making it harder for them to cheat.”
But Museveni has LGBTQ supporters, too. Jabel, a 34-year-old bisexual man, was among the queer people imprisoned and tortured last year on trumped-up coronavirus social distancing charges. Still, he told VICE World News that he will be voting for Museveni because “he’s a good leader who brought peace to this country.” For many Ugandans, particularly older generations, Museveni is seen as a symbol of stability after he installed relative peace following the tumultuous regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
Jabel says he isn’t voting for Wine because he’s concerned the musician doesn’t have the experience to lead, and hasn’t delivered for his constituents in his time as an MP.
Mabel, meanwhile, is excited about the prospect of change which Bobi Wine’s campaign has ignited in the minds of so many Ugandans, including her own. But she doesn’t believe any political leader can change the plight of LGBTQ Ugandans.
“Bobi isn’t going to do it, Museveni isn’t going to do it. Unfortunately, it’s work that we’re going to have to do ourselves.”