BOSTON — In the majority of African countries, homosexuality is illegal. A month ago, Uganda signed a particularly harsh anti-gay law. The very next day, a national newspaper printed the names and whereabouts of 200 gay citizens. Among them: John Abdallah Wambere.
But his whereabouts have changed. He is no longer in the capital city of Kampala. He is now based in the Boston area.
‘We’ve Become Criminals’
Wambere is often called “Long Johns” because he’s so tall. He has dreadlocks and a little gray in his beard. He’s staying in a third-floor apartment in Cambridge. But he says his journey began in Uganda.
Over the past five years, his home country has been galvanized by an anti-homosexual movement. Wambere believes the campaign is politically driven and based on a religious agenda.
“First and foremost, we saw it became a unifying factor between the Christians and the Muslims,” he said. “Even Christians went to mosques. The Muslims went to the churches. All to preach about hate speeches on homosexuals.”
He says the rhetoric among religious leaders conflates gay people with pedophiles, even though the law does not.
“They claim that homosexuals are going into schools to recruit children by giving them gifts,” he said.
Under the new law, homosexual men and women can be sentenced to prison, in some cases for life. And anyone who does not report a gay person can also be locked up.
“It was a big blow, and now we’ve become criminals to the state,” Wambere said.
In response, the World Bank suspended $90 million in funding to Uganda. Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands redirected their aid.
But Wambere, who is 40 years old, says the law capped several intensely difficult years. He works for a gay rights health NGO in Kampala named Spectrum Uganda and has become a leader in Uganda’s gay community. That image was solidified when he was featured in “Call Me Kuchu,” an international award-winning documentary.
Publicly, Wambere has been bold. But privately he developed safety strategies. Stay indoors after media exposure. Never be alone: he needs a witness in case anything happens. Destroy evidence of advocacy work.
Helping From Afar
These strategies worked, but as friends and colleagues were arrested, even before the law, Wambere began to break.
“I would sit and imagine someone coming and stands at my house door and points a finger and says, ‘That’s him,’” he said. “I was, like, getting these illusions. And I couldn’t stop crying most of the time. And I felt my head was getting hot each other time. I just got tired and sick of everything. It was so traumatizing.”
It was then that a musician and DJ from the Boston area, Nathanael Bluhm, reached out over Facebook. Bluhm organized a benefit concert to raise money for Wambere to come here. The next thing Wambere knew, he was on a flight to the United States.
The U.S. has a complicated role in all of this. On one hand, American evangelical Christians helped spur Uganda’s anti-gay movement during a visit there in 2009. On the other hand, members of the Obama administration have spoken out strongly against the new Ugandan law.
Wambere hoped the U.S. would offer him some respite, but the reality has been different.
“It’s good because I’m safe. I can sleep without worrying that I will be arrested and charged with homosexual acts,” he said. “But I am still worried, and I feel helpless.”
He added, even though he’s no longer fearful, “I spend the whole day indoors on emails.”
From Cambridge, Wambere is strategizing with fellow advocates back home in Kampala. How can they keep the gay movement alive, even if it’s underground? How can they support those fleeing to neighboring countries? Should Africans take the lead in this fight?
Wambere is resisting seeking asylum in the U.S. He feels that would be failing his family and community.
“The thing is, failures in life can never know how far they have come and give up at the last minute,” Wambere said he tells himself. “That’s why you see, even if it’s hard, it’s tough, I still know I need to do what I should be doing.”
He’s focusing his efforts on the Ugandan courts. Gay rights advocates have petitioned for the new law to be struck down.
“I’m very optimistic, because from the past, the judiciary has been very, very fair, and the judiciary has always examined these cases, and we’ve always won them,” Wambere said.
But personally, he’s cautious.
“I’m gay. I’m proud to be gay, but I wouldn’t even wish someone to be gay,” he said. “The stress, the stigma, the discrimination. Gone are the days where we felt excited about being who I am. Gone are those days.”
For Wambere, these are days for action.
Wambere hopes to return to Uganda soon. But he worries that, given his public profile, he will be arrested at the border. Even if he does get through, he says the work has only just begun.