In East Africa, politics and the church propagate the idea that homosexuality is "un-African". In order to maintain their own power. However, queer life and love has always existed in Uganda. Homophobia, on the contrary, can be called a colonial import. We spoke with Ssenfuka Joanita Warry about queer activism in Uganda and why she takes every opportunity, she can to speak out and fight misconceptions about homosexuality.
The interview was conducted by Claudia Simons, Senior Programme Manager in the Africa Division at Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.
Claudia: What does queer feminism mean to you?
Joanita: I define queer feminism as inclusive of all women, regardless of gender identity or body politics, and also including queer people. That is what I am and that’s what I believe feminism should be.
Claudia: What does activism mean to you, or what does it add to feminism?
Joanita: Activism is an engine that drives me each and every day of my life. Every time I speak about oppression, when I name disrespectful behaviour, when I challenge anything that is unfair, it’s activism. Activism is also reflected in every aspect of my life. Even my eating reflects activism, because I need to be fast, I need to be considerate, I need to eat healthy in order to go on fighting oppression (laughing).
Claudia: Who or what is inspiring you in your everyday activism? What makes you wake up in the morning, get up? Do you have any role models, idols?
Joanita: I have so many idols. But what really inspires me every day are my grandparents. They inspire me because they accepted me regardless. Many people in my family never accepted me up to now. But this old man and old woman showed me that I am their favourite and told me and others that they accepted me the way I am. That gives me joy and encourages me each and every day of my life – to support the people who are like me, who can’t even tell anyone that they are queer, who don’t even have an opportunity to be accepted by their own parents or grandfathers and grandmothers, or aunties and sisters.
Claudia: Tell me a little bit about the political context in which you are situated.
Joanita: The political context and environment through which we operate is a society that is uninformed around or operating on misconceptions about who I am. There is also a lot of misconception in Uganda and East Africa around homosexuality. There is this notion that homosexuality is un-African, yet it is actually very African. What has been imported is homophobia. When Christian missionaries came in, they found people loving each other and created a law that forbids love between people of the same sex. That makes homophobia un-African, but homosexuality is African.
There is also misconception about homosexuality and religion. People, including the president of Uganda, demean me in the name of Christianity. As if I don’t believe in God myself. I’m a staunch Catholic, a Catholic and a lesbian. So how can you use Christianity to demean me as if I don’t know the bible, the same bible that says we are all created in the image of God? They make laws that compare us to animals and accuse us of being paedophiles and all that. It is painful. And I cannot pass this message to people in authority, that people like me are normal and have always been around, that homosexuality is normal, it’s African, it’s not in conflict with religion. That is the political environment we exist in.
Claudia: Uganda can be a dangerous place for queer people, yet you and many others are very outspoken and visible. Where do you take the strength from, to be out and loud in a repressive society?
Joanita: You know, when you’re oppressed, you reach a point where you get used to the pain. It’s like tattoos. When they are starting to make the tattoo on you, it is that painful. But the continuous process makes the body a bit numb to the pain. Because I’ve been oppressed to that extent and I said, “Enough is enough.”
I’m a rugby player. At the rugby club, everyone knows I am a lesbian. Some people will discriminate against me because they think I’m evil. I don’t care. I’ll still play. When I get on the pitch, I make sure that I am one of the best – best disciplined, one of the best ball-carriers, and one of the best defenders. So that the team will feel my absence just in case I am off the pitch. I assert myself because of what I went through. I got tired of the discrimination. I know there are people who will never like me. Even my family, my sister may not like me because I know she’s homophobic, but I really don’t care. I am me and I am her sister. I’ll always be because we share the same blood.
I grab every opportunity I get in a space, to speak out, and to get misconceptions right. That is what drives me. At the rugby club there was a trans* brother who had not yet started transitioning. People were concerned and confused, so they called me to explain the situation. I explained to them what trans* means, what hormones will change and stood up for him to be able to still play with the girls until he would become more physically masculine, yet already use the male toilet. And they accepted him. Even now that he’s started transitioning, he still goes to the rugby club and he associates with the former teammates.
If I wasn’t able to speak to that, then we wouldn’t have a space where people are accepted. It’s just a matter of giving me an opportunity to talk about those things. Let me destabilise what is traumatising you of me. Maybe you’re not getting it right. Maybe I’m not that animal that people talk about. The only way you will understand is if you give me an opportunity to speak to you, or if you ask a question and I answer it. So, for me, that is it. That’s what pushes me each and every day.
Claudia: What about physical safety…?
Joanita: I know it’s a very, very unsafe environment. And I first of all know that safety begins with me as an individual. I won’t be able to speak to anyone if I am dead. So I have to be very conscious of my safety. And I always remind the people I work with to be security-conscious. Safety starts with you. By the time you call us, we may find you dead. But if you try and protect yourself, then at least we can find ways of working closely or helping each other, one way or another. So, for me, I know very well safety is very important. But then I know that can’t stop me from saying or doing the work that I am doing.
Claudia: What are your strategies as a community to organise safety networks and deal with oppression?
Joanita: For every situation, we have different strategies. We have a security procedure if you want to come to the FARUG [Freedom and Roam Uganda] office. You need to inform us beforehand. We have security cameras everywhere, etc. We have reminders and trainings about security. For every event taking place at our office, there is a particular security plan to protect us and the people that take part.
Claudia: What is your preferred form of mobilisation and activism?
Joanita: I really think the best is just speaking to people about yourself and the work you do. Mostly with people who have never seen a lesbian. This is when I feel: Here I come, a lesbian, an Ugandan lesbian – oh my god! – a Catholic lesbian – oh my god! – telling people about her life.
Physical meetings are convenient – this is how we mobilise with community members. But I believe social media are really helpful – they can reach even those who don’t want to come to meetings. Also, even those who disagree with me will get the message, whichever message I send out. They will engage, even if they engage derogatorily or in an abusive way, but at least they have seen my message. So for me social media is a very powerful tool to mobilise.
Claudia: You are a role model and leader for many young queer people. What are you teaching them?
Joanita: For the period I’ve been in activism, as I took on the responsibility of leading, becoming the director of Freedom and Roam, my journey now is embarking on young activists. That’s the powerful tool that I have now. Attracting young lesbians, young queer feminists, young LBQs, to attract them to the work that we do and also nurturing them to become better. They may learn from me, but I always tell them to look at what we do, emulate, take the positives out of the work that I do, leave the negatives, and also polish what I can’t do better. Bring in ideas! It was very encouraging for me, when I was still a young activist, to bring out an idea that later on becomes a project for the organisation. That brought so much joy to me, so today I always give young people an opportunity to come up with ideas. I encourage them. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind. But I also teach young people to be mindful. We encourage them to stay in school, we mentor them. But we also mentor the ones that did not get an education. We give them an opportunity to come and learn on the job, through internships. I learnt on the job myself because I had a passion, I’m an engineer by profession, but I did finance and now I’m a director.
Claudia: You also teach young people to be very mindful of their own situation and the dangers that come with it.
Joanita: Yes. I tell them: Don’t rush into coming out. If it’s unsafe, if you’re still in school, first finish school. Most of us have missed out on an opportunity to finish an education, because parents learn that you’re gay and school fees are not provided to you. If you still have an opportunity for your parents to pay for your school fees, hold on. Fighting with your parents may not help. It’s just a few years. And once you’re out of school, you’re free like a bird. Get your education so that you come out and you serve the community very well. I did that. I stayed in school. I gave myself time. We need our community educated. We need you educated so that you work with our organisations. We need you educated so that you can speak and you’re able to do things that we need. Because the future begins with you. You need to protect yourself. You need to finish education before you jump out of the closet. Don’t be intimidated but be mindful of your environment. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Claudia: You encourage young people to become strong and resilient before coming out – to be prepared for the hostile environment, the attacks that they will inevitably be confronted with…
Joanita: We weren’t prepared for that, we were there, boom, in the front line. We appeared in the papers, and then we got back into the closet, scared of what was going to happen. We didn’t have the opportunity to have guidance, so it’s our mandate to prepare the young activists for whichever environment they’re coming into. We always remind them not to rush coming out. There’s that period of time when you’ll say, “Enough is enough,” regardless of what is there. But you first need to prepare yourself to face such kinds of attacks. I really want to leave a legacy of activists that will do what I’m doing better than me. And therefore, I want to prepare them. Regardless of what you have – education or no education – prepare them.