Heroes and zeroes in the fight for gay rights

Call Me Kuchu captures the bravery of Uganda’s gay-rights campaigners and the cynicism of ‘gay-friendly’ Western politicians.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

Today, gay rights has become the cause of choice for floundering, politically bereft Western leaders looking to dodge more pertinent political issues while appearing caring, purposeful and progressive.

Indeed, when the compromises and full-blown political inversions of US president Barack Obama’s first term began to take their toll on his approval rating, his decision to voice his support of gay marriage in May this year gave the figures a much-needed boost. While it may not have ingratiated him to the deeply religious and conservative elements of the electorate, it was an open goal for getting the disillusioned, cosmopolitan lefties back on side. I don’t doubt his convictions, but seeing that he has extended and rescinded his support for gay marriage several times during his political career, this announcement seemed primarily tactical. Similarly, despite previously decrying gay marriage, in July UK prime minister David Cameron pledged to legalise it by 2015. This proved to be an even more transparent stage in his ongoing, blundering campaign to present himself as progressive and amiable to liberal voters, that began with the now-infamous Gay Times interview.

For the sake of their moral grandstanding, Obama and Cameron like to make out that gay marriage is a clear-cut debate between the blinkered and tolerant, but, of course, it remains a far more complex issue. As a result, they have increasingly turned to wag their fingers at distinctly homophobic regimes in Africa, vowing to cut ties and aid agreements with nations who maintain punitive anti-gay laws. Call Me Kuchu, a documentary by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worral, follows a group of Ugandan gay-rights activists in their fight against the nation’s anti-gay laws and violently homophobic culture. Despite trying to posit Western sanctions as a necessary means to reform, the insight the film provides into the brave and unrelenting efforts of Uganda’s gay-rights movement shows how removed those Western poseurs really are from this valiant struggle for equality.

Filming began in early 2010, a few months after MP David Bahati had made world news by proposing the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ to the Ugandan parliament. While homosexuality was already an offence that carried a custodial sentence, the new legislation would make what it called ‘aggravated homosexuality’, defined as having gay sex with a vulnerable person (either under 18 or disabled) or while carrying HIV, punishable by death. In addition, those who failed to report such behaviour within 24 hours of them gaining knowledge of it would receive up to three years in prison.

Exacerbating this paranoia-fuelled hatred of homosexuals was the Kampala-based newspaper Rolling Stone, which in 2010 began printing names, photographs and addresses of suspected Ugandan homosexuals (or ‘kuchus’ as they are derisively termed), under the title ‘Hang them’. Alongside this, Rolling Stone printed crackpot theories about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community having links to al-Qaeda as well as Joseph Kony.

Among those exposed was David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay male and head of the lobby group Sexual Minorities Uganda, or SMUG. Over the course of the next year, the crew follow David and his LGBT fellow activists in their tireless attempts to challenge the judicial underpinnings of homophobia in Uganda. Observing that ‘if we keep on hiding, they will say we’re not here’, David and his friends put themselves in the line of fire, unashamedly fronting the movement as they fight to pass an injunction on Rolling Stone. In doing so, they hope to establish a legal precedent stating that the human rights of homosexuals should be defended, which would in turn strengthen their case against Bahati’s Anti-Homosexual Bill.

Along the way, many of them share their stories illuminating the hellish reality facing Ugandan homosexuals, while also paying testament to their incredible resilience and pride in the face of adversity. Among them is Stosh, a lesbian and activist whose resolve only strengthens after she is outed by Rolling Stone and begins to receive threats of violence. Another is Bishop Senyonjo whose work to bridge the gap between the Anglican Church of Uganda and the LGBT community leads to him being publicly disgraced and expelled from the clergy.

Tragically, having just won his case against Rolling Stone, Kato was bludgeoned to death in his home, in what the Ugandan police claimed was a burglary gone wrong. Sending reverberations around the world, Kato’s murder led to a slew of Western leaders calling on Uganda to do away with Bahati’s proposals as well as to repeal its existing anti-gay laws. In a dramatic, emotive montage, we are shown a string of news clips with the likes of Obama and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaking out against the Ugandan government. As such, the moment in which the international community finally took notice and waded in on Uganda’s struggle for complete human rights, is presented as the sum of all Kato’s valiant efforts.

This is not only deeply patronising but also wildly misleading. While, yes, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was soon knocked back by parliament, this was more the product of SMUG’s systematic and impassioned assault on it than Uganda’s leaders buckling under international pressure. Indeed, the anti-gay lobby in Uganda sees homosexuality as a sinful Western import and attempts by America and Europe to preach equality to Uganda have traditionally only been taken as proof of the of their dastardly sodomite plot.

Furthermore, the West’s persistent failure to act on their initial convictions suggests that any strides being made in Uganda are solely down to the activists on the ground. In the months after Kato’s death, David Cameron pledged to cut aid to countries that still criminalised homosexuality. Yet after the media storm had passed, Cameron failed to come through on his promises. Homosexuality remains a criminal offence in Uganda and many are still subject to violence and murder at the hands of police as well as the public, yet, due to the UK’s ongoing partnership with the Ugandan government to fight terrorism in the region, these abuses have gone unchecked. Similarly, the terms of the defence partnership Cameron established with the United Arab Emirates earlier this week failed to address the nation’s various breaches of human rights, which include use of capital punishment on homosexuals. To date, the only country in Africa that has felt drastic cuts in aid or involvement for its treatment of homosexuals is Malawi, where the West has far less pronounced economic and military interests.

In the final few minutes of the film, we see Kato’s disciples begin to put their grief behind them and move on, refusing to let the Ugandan gay-rights movement die with their late leader. It is the bravery and resolve of these proud men and women that makes Call Me Kuchu truly inspiring and highlights how opportunistic, inconsistent and ineffective the West’s moral posturing really is by comparison.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Call Me Kuchu here:

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Topics Culture


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