Friday, November 18, 2011

Sappho Islands

Sappho Islands (October 2011)
Sappho Islands

Location: Kampala, Uganda

Opened: August 2010

Closed: October 2, 2011

Uganda is a very conservative country with a horrifying record of human rights violations. Whenever human rights are under siege, attacks against women, lesbians, and anyone else identified as kuchu (a Swahili word that roughly translates as "queer" or "LGBTI") are sure to follow.

And so they have. This is a country where even the prime minister has called homosexuality "unnatural" and has demanded that if gay people be found, "the homosexuals should be arrested and taken to relevant authorities." This is a country where a tabloid newspaper published the names of gay people under the headline "Hang Them." This is a country where American evangelicals, in a cahoots with local politicians and clergy, tried to pass a "kill the gays" bill that would have criminalized gay and lesbian existence (not just "acts") with penalties that would have included capital punishment. 

But this is also a country of very brave resistance. One of those who spoke out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 (the "kill the gays" bill) was lesbian activist Val Kalende. Kalende delivered an extraordinary and courageous speech against the bill called "Challenging Christian Supremacist Homophobia." And this speech wasn't delivered in the most supportive of settings either. It was given at the Human Rights and Sexual Orientation forum in Kampala in February 2010--the same forum where a member of Parliament claimed he would kill his son if he discovered he was gay. You can read her speech in full here.

Within this social and cultural context, starting up a bar that openly served kuchu people wasn't just a business decision: It was a profound act of political daring. So when Sappho Islands opened, Kalende devoted her very first blog entry to commemorating the event. (Kalende's blog is by invitation only, but her remarks are recorded at African Activist.)

I still get excited thinking about it. Sappho Islands. Yes, the great lesbian Greek poet has come to town. I last took a beer during the October of 2008. This is probably when I last went out to a bar to drink. Most of my friends are socialites and I respect that. Being a Born-Again Christian has made me look at my life differently but I am not the kind of conservative Christian who thinks what I do not do automatically becomes evil if other people are doing it. This is why I still hung out at bars with my friends if I have to. My reason for quitting beer was basically because I have never liked drinking. I don’t like the taste and I have never had a genuine reason to take alcohol.

The opening of Sappho Islands is to me a political statement. Looking how far we have come, I cannot ignore the fact that the Stonewall revolution in the U.S.A sparked off from a bar. When I first heard about Sappho Islands, I saw progress. I celebrated change.

Sappho was a Greek poet whose poems talked about emotions and love between women. She lived on an Island called Lesbos and it is said this is where the word Lesbian came from. Multitudes of lesbians visit Lesbos Island every year in celebration of their identity. Sappho Islands, the bar, may not attract hundreds of lesbians from all over the world but the decision to name it after Sappho gives us a reason to celebrate our identity.

I have lived among LGBT communities for the past eight years and I know how much having a social life means to LGBT folks. I have learned from listening to people’s stories that sometimes anti-gay laws are not what LGBT persons are most concerned with. They are concerned about being able to meet people like themselves, laughing and forgetting their daily struggles even for a single time. I have been to LGBT social evenings and seen how folks do not want to go back home after the party is over. They value the only time they can be happy and have a good time.

It is a beautiful way to end 2010. Three cheers to Sappho Islands.

Has a watering hole ever been honored with such eloquence before? But in this case the eloquence was totally deserved.

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera
Sappho Islands was started by lesbian activist Jacqueline Kasha (also known as Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera), the founder and director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a Uganda LGBT rights organization.

Here are a few selections from a recent interview with Radio Netherlands, where Kasha discusses what being a lesbian is like in Uganda, her early life, and how and why she founded FARUG:

What's it like being a lesbian in Uganda?

In Uganda people are often ignorant about homosexuality. When you go to Kampala and ask about gays they’ll say: ‘Kill them!’ And when you ask why, their answer is ‘Because my preacher in church says that it’s a sin against God. Because politicians say it’s a crime. So we should kill them.’
Being gay here means living in fear. You face a lot of problems. In Uganda, acts of homosexuality are illegal, but being gay is not a crime. But now that the gay community has raised its voice, politicians and religious people say we take advantage of the current law. That’s why they propose a tougher bill, so that being gay can be classified as a criminal offence.

How was life for you as a student?

I’ve been expelled from about five schools. Once it was just because I wrote some nice letters to fellow women. It’s strange, but it’s real. People can be expelled here for being dressed differently. At the last university I attended I almost got expelled because I didn’t dress ‘as a proper woman’.
They told me I had to show myself every evening to the school administration in skirts and not wearing baseball caps and sneakers. I refused, so I got suspended. It was my last year, and my mother really wanted me to finish school, so she told the board of my university I had a disease and there was no cure for it.

Was it then that you became an activist?

Yes. I thought: why is this following me from school to school? I did not undertand why me being a lesbian caused so many problems. So I went to an internet café and gathered information about homosexuality and Uganda. I saved up a lot of money because I spent days and days in the internet café. The internet was new and very expensive at that time.
So that’s when I found out it was illegal to be gay. I turned to my gay friends and told them we had a big problem. Everyone was in shock, because they didn’t know! I was openly living a gay life, and people thought I did that out of stubbornness. But actually, it was because I was naïve, I had no idea.
I contacted a South-African LGBT-organisation and started the organisation FARUG (Freedom and Roam Uganda) and later fused with LGBT-organisation SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda). Our strategy was simple: to raise awareness in our own community. We gave workshops, held meetings and tried to analyse the penal code and constitution.

"Raising awareness" sounds harmless enough in the west, but not so in Uganda. When it was announced in May 2011 that Kasha had been awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, we find out that Kasha's life is far from ordinary or routine:

In issuing the announcement, the award organization noted that Nabagesera has had the courage to appear on national television and radio stations in Uganda and has issued news statements on behalf of the gay community. In 2007 she was harassed at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, and on many occasions afterward, was hackled, threatened, and even attacked. Since then she has moved from house to house, afraid to stay long in the same place. Her name was on a "gay list" published by the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone on January 26, after which, another colleague on the list, David Kato, was murdered.

So how does somebody get a bar established when your life has basically been forced underground? I can't even begin to wrap my head around that kind of spirit.

And yet according to Anna Kavel, writing for the BBC, both Kasha and Sappho Islands managed to play a prominent public role in murdered gay activist David Kato's funeral, a proceeding which itself was marred by homophobic violence. This was in January 2011:

In August last year, the first openly gay bar, Sappho Islands, arrived in the capital.

It provides a focal point for the community and it was here that the eventual victory over Rolling Stone was celebrated.

This was also where David Kato's funeral party set out from. It is a place, I was told, where gay people feel safe, where they can be themselves.

As Kavel goes on to observe,

Friends and colleagues say otherwise, but no-one denies that homosexuals here are at risk of physical attack.

Talking to the media after the victory over Rolling Stone, Kasha, the owner of the Sappho Islands bar and herself a courageous activist said, "I'd like to thank all those who continue to walk the journey of freedom with us. You are the true heroes."

That is grace in action, ladies and gentlemen.

Under such horrific circumstances, Sappho Islands was essentially doomed. And so her life did come to a close just after her first birthday--with a padlock on her door. The best account is from Beyond the Mask, an African LGBTI blog:

Uganda’s first openly gay bar, Sappho Islands closed down last Sunday after just over a year in operation.

Jacqueline Kasha the Ugandan LGBTI activist who was instrumental in setting up Sappho Islands told behind the Mask in Kampala that she is determined to open another one soon.

The bar was reportedly closed down because the landlady complained about the appearance of revellers who frequented the venue. The seemingly spooked landlady was quoted as saying, “The bar brings people who look strange.”

The closure of the bar continues to highlight Uganda’s homophobic tendencies. Many people are denied rental accommodation because of their suspected or actual sexual orientation.

Kasha, the leader of human rights group Freedom and Roam Uganda, said on Wednesday in Kampala that the closure of Sappho Island arising from complaints by the landlady would not stop gays from having a social life in Uganda and promised a new bar would be opened.

Kasha said “The closure of Sappho doesn’t mean it’s the end of us having a social space. The way I managed to open Sappho in the first place is the way I will open it up elsewhere.”

She said she was not giving up on her dream of creating a social space for the LGBTI community.

A defiant Kasha said, “More than ever I am very determined. The next one will be bigger and even better. It’s one way of intimidating us but we shall overcome.”

Sappho Island was situated in Ntinda, a middle class Kampala neighbourhood. When BTM visited the place on Wednesday afternoon, there were sign posts advertising for new tenants to come and occupy the premises.

Once a lively and cordial welcoming hide out with immense ambience, Sappho now rests in ruins. The grass thatched hut has been pulled down to make way for new tenants. The entrance gate is closed.

But the Sappho Island rainbow coloured signpost continued to mark the entrance.

Until last Sunday the bar was one of the best known hang out spots for Uganda’s gay community and provided a focal point for the community. It was here for example murdered LGBTI activist David Kato’s funeral party set out from. According to a BBC report filed last year it was “where gay people feel safe, where they can be themselves.”

The closure of Sappho Island also highlights the fear among some Ugandans created by the Anti Homosexuality Bill 2009 in which every person is meant to report a suspected gay person within 24 hours.

Although the bill has stalled in Uganda’s Parliament, many Ugandans who are not keenly following the development of the bill, think the proposed bill is already law and enhances their earlier homophobic tendencies.

Addition 12/2/2011: Read this wonderful essay on the founding of FARUG by Jacqueline Kasha.  

Photo: Sappho Islands

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