Introduction

My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators (Fredrick Douglass, The Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass 1881/2003)

This article analyzes data from a research project that sought to explore whether fiction’s subtle and nuanced depiction of homosexuals contributed significantly to the notion and practice of peacebuilding. It specifically examined how fiction’s ability to create awareness encourages empathy towards ostracized homosexuals in a country like Uganda. The suggested research agenda was informed by the introduction of biopolitics1See Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1990. In Judith Butler, “Legal Violence: An Ethical and Political Critique.” Tanner Lectures on Human Values- Interpreting Non-Violence. Yale @www.youtube.com. in the Ugandan society by the infamous 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act.2 See, Government of Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014. Entebbe: Uganda Gazette, 2014 This act constructed homosexuals as a people without societal, social, and state protections and Uganda as a “gay-bashing” society. The portrayal of Uganda as gay bashing society is illustrated by the homophobic vitriol that circulates in public discourses.3Stephen Fry, Out There. (Episode 1), BBC Two, 14 October 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v1⁄4HCp_5-CsYuM (last visited 15 November 2021). Mills, Scot. “The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay?” BBC Three, 13 May 2011, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v1⁄4fV0tS6G8NNU (last visited 15 November 2021). Simon Kaggwa Njala. “Why are you Gay?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4n4rBrs5-LY. These discourses characterize Uganda as “a contemporary gay heart of darkness”4See, Rahul Rao, “The Location of Homophobia.”  London Review of International Law 2.2 (2014): 169-199. as documented by two important LGBT advocacy groups in the country,5See, Richard Lusimbo and Austin Bryan. “Kuchu Resilience and Resistance in Uganda:  A History.” in, Nicol Nancy et al (eds.), Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights: (Neo)colonialism, Neoliberalism, Resistance and Hope. University of London Press (2018): 323-45. which have reported an increase in arrests, “corrective” rapes, threats of violence/death, and unlawful raids on real and suspected homosexuals in the last 15 years.6Richard Lusimbo and Austin Bryan (2018). This underlines the vulnerability of queer Ugandans whose wellbeing demands a humanized peacebuilding agenda.

Simon Kaggwa Njala’s interview of a leading LGBT activist named Pepe3 illustrates the palpable homophobia-inspired violence that is the lived reality of many Ugandan gay people in two interesting ways. First, Njala uncharacteristically ditches his professional ethics by harassing his guest with the question: “Why are you gay?” Second, he ambushes his guest with Uganda’s most ferocious anti-homosexuality activist: Pastor Martin Ssempa, who, armed with an assortment of vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, and bananas, launches into a tirade of sensationalized inaccuracies and exaggerations about gay sexual intercourse and queer life. The obvious discomfort of the interviewee underlines the vulnerable lives of many Ugandan homosexuals in the country. It also underscores the normalization of homophobic rhetoric in public discourses. This is supported by an international survey that claims 90 percent of Ugandans are against homosexuality.7See Pew Research Centre, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality: Greater Acceptance in More Secular and Affluent Countries.” 4 June 2013, available at http://www.pewglobal.org/2013/06/04/the-global-divide-on-homosexuality/ (last visited 15 November 2022).

It is such data that instrumentalize the abuse of Ugandan gays, as the case of Stosh Mugisha aptly illustrates. Raped, impregnated, and infected with AIDS at 14 years, Mugisha’s experience humanizes the violence that many queer Ugandans suffer. What accentuates her pain is that her abusers justify her violation as a way of curing her of homosexuality.8See, Stephen Fry (2013). Mugisha’s violation is comparable to a case of a young teacher who was denied employment because he was suspected of being queer. Such an existential decision is casually based on his “effeminate” character and rumors about his sexual orientation.9See, Focus Group Discussion 2012. While Mugisha’s violation is corporeal, the unnamed teacher from my interviews was violated psychologically and economically. His case is comparable to Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera who took a Ugandan tabloid magazine named Rolling Stone to the High Court when it branded her a lesbian, a label that made it hard for her to find a place to rent.10See, Stephen Fry (2013).

The insidious impact of societal prejudices against gay people illustrated by the examples cited above is reinforced by the reflections of one university student who identifies as gay during a recent interview. This student confessed: “I was chased from home by my father because of rumors about my sexuality. I have not been home for a year and a half, and I depend on the little money that my mother and sister send me. I also know that they (the mother and sister) go to Prayer Mount and Bukalango on alternative weekends to pray for my healing.”11See, Interview 2021. The case of this young man, who has been disowned by his father and whose mother and sister are praying for his “recovery” underscores the suffering that homosexuals face in Uganda.12See, Stephen Fry (2013). The estrangement from the family that the unnamed interviewee reports is as traumatizing as any form of physical or psychological abuse cited above. His suffering is accentuated by the secondary trauma of a son witnessing the suffering of a mother and sister praying for him to get “cured” from who he is.

The anecdotes listed above substantiate the vulnerability of Ugandan homosexuals and the issues that animate their experiences in Uganda. Invoking a recent anti-racist discursive trope encapsulated in the statement “Black Lives Matter,” I seek to interrogate how a genre of Ugandan public discourse — Ugandan queer fiction — can enact a peacebuilding platform to address the vulnerability of Ugandan gay people. I argue that some Ugandan writers embody Frederick Douglass’ discursive philosophy of telling the story of the oppressed because that of the oppressors has “never wanted for narrators.”13Fredrick Douglass, “The Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass,” 1881, https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/lobb-the-life-and-times-of-frederick-douglass-from-1817-1882. Douglass’ proposition underscores the political, ethical, and moral obligation of speaking on behalf of the oppressed. Douglass’ discursive obligation dovetails neatly into the literary intentions of Ugandan queer storytellers. Granted, it is important to be mindful of the epistemic and other discursive violence(s) that inhere in the task of speaking for others.14See, Linda Alcoff, ―The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique 20 (1991-2): 5- 32. Nonetheless, speaking on behalf of the oppressed and violated Ugandan homosexuals has the discursive potential of contributing to the conceptualization of a peacebuilding agenda.

That fiction ensures that Ugandan Queer Lives Matter is undergirded by centering ordinary stories of love, joy, and heartbreak of Ugandan gay people in a manner that is comparable to heterosexual love stories. This representation challenges the demonization of members of the gay community in tabloid newspapers, political speeches, and religious sermons. Fiction is an example of what Sylvia Tamale calls a rational discursive approach that provides a sober and rational discussion of queer sexuality.15See, Sylvia Tamale, “Confronting the Politics of Nonconforming Sexualities in Africa.” African Studies Review 56 (2013): 31-34. Ugandan queer writers have reconfigured three sub-genres of Ugandan fiction—the historical novel, verisimilitude short fiction, and science fiction—to humanize homosexuals as eloquently underlined by their literary intentions. For example, Dilman Dila claims in an interview that he wrote “Two Weddings for Amoit,”16Dilman Dila, “Two Weddings for Amoit.” In Farah Ahamed and Sisonke Msimang (eds.), Pride and Prejudice: The Gerald Kraak Anthology: African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality, Sunnyside: Jacana, (2017): 52-74. as a protest against the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill [… that] required that everyone must report gay people they know.”17Otosirieze Obi-Young, “On Homophobic Bills and Expected Invisibility from Queer People,” Interview with Dilman Dila, 2017 Gerald Kraak Award Finalist, brittle paper, August 2, 2017, https://brittlepaper.com/2017/08/interview-dilman-dila-2017-gerald-kraak-award-finalist/ This stance is echoed in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books interview. She states that she wanted to use Kintu to contest the idea that “homosexuality came with colonialization, and that before that, Africans never engaged with homosexuality. I thought, let us go back to the past and see. It wasn’t homosexuality that Europe brought, it was homophobia.”18Alexia Underwood, “So Many Ways of Knowing: An Interview with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Author of Kintu.” Los Angeles Review of Book, August 31, 2017. At https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/so-many-ways-of-knowing-an-interview-with-jennifer-nansubuga-makumbi-author-of-kintu/ (Last visited January 5, 2022) Makumbi underlines an explicitly political and activist peacebuilding commitment to speaking truth to the Ugandan heteropatriarchal establishment.

Speaking truth to the Ugandan patriarchal establishment is also a form of soul searching as underlined by one of the writers I interviewed during my fieldwork. She stated that having grown up in a very strong Christian family, she held the view that homosexuality was a sin. She explained that this view changed when she went for graduate studies in South Africa and interacted with gay people. She explained that she had “discovered that [gays] were ordinary people like me. Reflecting on my gay friends made me wonder if I could condemn them to death and hell because of simply who they were. Therefore, writing this short story was my way of saying, wait a minute! Should we punish someone just because of who they are? How can a gay person harm society for being who they are?”19Interview 2021. This writer’s soul-searching underlines the political and advocacy role of Ugandan queer fiction. Granted, the power of literary depictions to inform policy or bring about action that can translate into the eradication or reduction of socio-political and cultural ills is limited and unquantifiable. Nonetheless, I posit that Ugandan queer fiction’s humanizing depiction of queerness contributes to the construction of a peacebuilding framework in three ways. First, it can move readers to care for and concern themselves with the violation and oppression of a sexual minority. Second, it shows that oppression and violation of homosexuals in the country require urgent peacebuilding attention from all stakeholders. Third, it reclaims the lives, identities, and humanity of homosexuals in a way that makes their lives matter.

I invoke the power of fiction as articulated by Wale Adebanwi,20Wale Adebanwi, “The Writer as Social Thinker.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies. 32.4 (2014): 405-420. Michael Hanne,21Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change. Berghahn Books, 1994. and Chinua Achebe22Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987. Heinemann: London, 1988. to underscore how a humanized depiction of homosexuality is a robust peacebuilding intervention. This is because Ugandan queer fiction writers are Adebanwian social thinkers and Achebean teachers who use their fiction to theorize, teach, explain, and persuade Ugandans to rethink their ostracization of a minority group.23Michael Hanne, Michael (1994). It also employs innovative registers that sidestep the convoluted Ugandan sexualities discussions that are often characterized with sensational and voyeuristic depictions of queerness. For example, the historical novels of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Nakisanze Segawa imagine a pre-colonial Uganda where queerness flourished. Kintu and The Triangle de-politicize the character of a historical figure who has been demonized because of his sexual orientation to underscore the banality of same-sex loving. For example, Segawa’s Mwanga in The Triangle is not the sexual monster that public discourses have attempted to paint him. His indifference to his lovers Kalinda and Nantongo unveils him as a banal and flawed lover. The motif of a flawed but human lover dovetails perfectly into Makumbi’s Ssentalo in Kintu. Ssentalo’s candid declamation of his sexual orientation suggests that homosexuality was, if not accepted, at least tolerated in the world of Kintu. Makumbi and Segawa re-imagine and humanize queer characters in pre-colonial Uganda to contest the mantra that homosexuality is “unUgandan.”

While Makumbi and Segawa use historical fiction to disabuse Ugandans of their ignorance of the fact that their illustrious past did not ostracize homosexuals, Dilman Dila experiments with science fiction to imagine a homophobia-free Uganda. Dila’s fiction delineates how catastrophic events breed totalitarianism, namely religious fanaticism in “Two Weddings for Amoit” and racial chauvinism in “A Wife and a Slave.” In these contexts, sexuality is weaponized or scapegoated to control society. Dila’s contribution to Ugandan queer futurity is through his interrogation of dictatorship by setting his short stories in a context that is incompatible with the present reality of the ostracization of queerness. He showcases how science fiction empowers his queer personages to sidestep surveillance and policing of the dictatorial state in order to claim inclusion in the social collective.

Ugandan fiction’s imagination of an alternative Ugandan queer subjecthood is also curated in activist-inclined realistic short fiction. Writers like Monica Arac de Nyeko and Beatrice Lamwaka deploy short fiction’s innovative registers and the political activism of the short story to weave intricate tales of queerness in a country where a sexual minority is deemed sinful, dangerous, and unUgandan. They use characterization and plotting in their texts to suggest that queerness is a banal sexuality comparable to heterosexuality. The childish register that distills the innocence of love in “Jambula Tree” coheres with the foregrounding of heterosexual metaphors in “Pillar of Love” to underscore the banality of homosexual love. The depiction of innocent love in the two short stories deconstructs the assumed existential catastrophic threat that homosexuality poses to the Ugandan polity.

Conclusion

The three sub-genres of Ugandan fictional representation of queerness teach us, in Achebean formulation, the simple truth that Ugandan homosexuals are Ugandans and not the societal pariahs they have been made out to be. Fiction’s deconstruction of a polarized and stereotyped subjectivity not only affirms the agency of a sexual minority in a society that seeks to erase their subjectivity, but it also enacts a peacebuilding platform to consider how to protect this group from oppression and violation. Although the power of fiction to change public opinion towards same-sex sexuality is limited, Ugandan queer fiction provokes readers to reconsider their heteropatriarchal-colored notions of love, marriage, and family. The imaginative power of Ugandan queer fiction teaches us that homosexuals are ordinary Ugandans and not monsters as politicians and religious people want us to believe. This makes fiction a useful peacebuilding forum in Ugandan sexuality discussions.

 

Acknowledgment 

This research was made possible through the financial support of the SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) 2021 individual research fellowship award.

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