Religion and Reckless Courage: Activist Val Kalende on the Fight for LGBT Rights in Uganda

by Matt B. on November 29, 2011

In October of 2009, MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan Parliament.  The bill – which proposed the death penalty for homosexuality – immediately became infamous around the world.

Val Kalende

Val Kalende

At that time, Val Kalende was a veteran activist in the struggle for LGBT rights in Uganda.

Kalende had come out in 2003 when, as a student at Makerere University in Kampala, she co-founded the country’s first lesbian activist organization, Freedom and Roam Uganda. “The idea was to come out and to be political,” she says, “and to actually start demanding rights from the government.” Two years later, in 2005, Kalende helped reestablish Sexual Minorities Uganda, which has since become a network of LGBT groups in Uganda.

* * *
In the weeks after the introduction of Bahati’s bill, Kalende agreed to be interviewed about her sexuality in a cover story for a national newsmagazine called The Daily Monitor
. In a country in which homosexuality is widely viewed with suspicion, misunderstanding, and outright enmity, the interview was an act of enormous courage. 

* * *

Today, Kalende is a second-year master of theological studies student at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA. In the interview that follows, Kalende and I discuss how her understanding of God has evolved as she has come to terms with both her sexuality and her calling as an activist.  We also discuss the various roles that religion has played in the homosexuality debate in Uganda. 

MATT BIEBER: When the bill was announced, a reporter called and asked you whether you knew anyone in LGBT activist circles who’d be willing to sit for an interview. You couldn’t find anyone, so you agreed to do it yourself.

What was your thought process like? And where did you turn for support as you followed through on that choice?

VAL KALENDE: I think it’s the values that I grew up with. I come from a background of evangelicals – my mother’s family – and that’s how I was raised. My mother was a mission evangelist. We had a home-based church called Trinity Christian Fellowship. My own struggles, fighting with religion and sexual orientation, my parents’ rules, and then the fact that my family wasn’t actually supportive – all those things are a part of my story. And they’re the reasons why I decided to come out – because I always believed that I had lived a lie for so many years.

I first came out to my guardian, and that decision was not something I even thought about. He had heard rumors, and he asked me. The first time, I denied it, and then I went to my room and I cried. I was like, “I can’t live a lie. If I’ve decided to team up with my friends and do this, I have to come out.”

So, the second time he asked, I told him, “Yes, I’m gay,” and the first thing he asked was, “Is it because of me?” (He had put me in a girls’ school, one of the best schools in Uganda, and he thought that maybe I had gotten into the practice through the school.) I told him no; I had actually felt this way for a long time. And it was hard for him to believe. He felt like I had no future, so we parted ways. He later disowned me and threatened to stop paying my tuition at the university. (Thankfully, he reconsidered, so I was lucky to finish my undergrad degree.)

So when this bill came out, I was already doing this work. I was already an activist, and I was already out. So one of the journalists from The Daily Monitor calls me up and tells me, “I need to talk to an LGBT couple about the anti-homosexuality bill.”

Initially, I didn’t trust him. Journalists in Uganda have a tendency of using gay stories just to have their bylines read; when they write a story on homosexuality, the paper sells out. There’s also been a lot of press homophobia. But I knew that that newspaper has been one of the liberal newspapers, so I agreed to talk to him.

I was scared to do it. I just didn’t want to put myself out there, especially because we had agreed in our meetings that we should step aside and let our allies lead the struggle for safety reasons. That was one of the roles of the coalition.

So I didn’t want to just put myself out there, and I tried to look for a gay couple that would do this. But I failed; everyone I talked to either didn’t want to do it or their partner didn’t. So I offered to do the story. I told the journalist, “I will do it, but I don’t want you to put my partner out there.”

So he came and talked to me. I gave him the story and pictures, but I think that was a mistake. He promised that he would cover up our faces, and they didn’t do that. So I exposed my partner.

MB: They just covered her eyes, not her whole face.

VK: Yeah. I exposed her. She wasn’t out to her family. It was really reckless courage on my part. (Looking back, I have no regrets about doing that, because she has told me I’m one of the reasons why she has managed to come out strong to her family.)

On the other hand, I think that story told our story very differently, because it was the first time any gay person in Uganda told a story that described her life. I was talking about love, what it means to be gay, to wake up every morning and go to work and be scared of going out there to the places that most Ugandans don’t even feel are threatening.

I can’t verify this, but I’ve been told that when the story came out, one of the anti-gay pastors in Uganda called the writer and said, “I didn’t know these people fall in love.” I think they have this impression of homosexuality that gay men have sex for money. And for lesbians, people just can’t imagine how we make love. They think it’s just a big joke. I have friends who still tease me; they wonder what we do.

And I think the last line of that story was me expressing how scared I was – very scared.

MB: How did your church receive you after the story broke?

VK: I’d been out for some time, but this was a very small church. We’re just about 50 people, sometimes even less, and the people don’t read newspapers. They hardly watch television, so most of them didn’t know about me.

The only thing they knew was they had a problem with the way I dressed. My pastor had a problem with that; he had actually asked me to at least try and wear skirts or dresses on Sundays, and I told him I couldn’t do that. So when the story came out, it got to him.

So my pastor reads it and he calls me. I wasn’t scared to meet him; I told him, “Yes, this is how I am and I don’t feel like changing.” I’ve always given my pastors a chance to pray for me when they offer it. So I told him, “You can pray. You never know. God might make a miracle, but this is how I feel.” So it got bad for us. Every Sunday I went to the church, it was a different sermon.

MB: His sermons were about you?

VK: Yes. Even before the sermons, two people left the church. They told him, “We cannot worship with a homosexual.” They had advised him to tell me to leave the church, and he said, “I can’t do that.” They saw him as conniving with me or being lenient with me.

And he called me again, and told me, “I can’t afford to lose my people just because you’ve refused to change.” He said, “I’m not going to tell you to leave the church, because as a pastor, that’s not my job to send you away. But if you’re not willing to change then I will talk to the elders.” Something like that.

Then he said he didn’t want my offerings, my tithes anymore, because he wasn’t sure where I was getting the money. It got bad, really, to the point that every time he would preach on Sunday, he preached about homosexuality. And I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore. It was an indirect way to send me away.

MB: Had you been there for long?

VK: No. I’ve been to different churches.

MB: Always Pentecostal?

VK: Yeah, always Pentecostal. I’d only been in that church for two years.

MB: Let’s go back a bit. When you realized that you were gay, did you try to square that reality with your church’s teachings on homosexuality?

VK: It was a big struggle for me, because I didn’t want to betray my own faith. And I’ve actually decided to remain Pentecostal, because I believe that the problem is not with my faith; the problem is with what people say about who I am.

So from that point of view, it was a process. I can’t really say when I reconciled my faith with my sexual orientation. I doubted so many things. I doubted the Bible, I doubted God, I denied Him. I was suicidal at some points.

MB: Did you doubt yourself? Were there points when you thought, “Maybe I’m doing something wrong?”

VK: I thought about that so many times – Maybe something is wrong with me. I said, “Maybe if my parents were here, things would be different.” Hearing all sorts of stuff from people who speak so badly about homosexuality, it gets into you to the point that you almost want to believe it. That’s why people tend to commit suicide, because they tend to hate themselves for what they hear.

So I almost wanted to believe that there was something wrong with me. But then I think because of the community of activists we have, knowing that I’m not the only one, that there are people like me – I was like, “All these people can’t be wrong.”

MB: You recognized something good in them.

VK: Exactly.

MB: Were any of them religious as well?

VK: Yeah. But, you know, most of them hate religion. They are very suspicious of the church. Sometimes, I would feel like telling them about my faith story, and most of them didn’t want to listen, because they feel like the church is very hypocritical.

MB: As you were going through this process, did you look to the Bible for strength or guidance?  Or were you at more of a distance from the Bible at that time?

VK: I didn’t understand anything. In the Bible, all those verses, Romans 1, they just didn’t make sense to me when I read them. I’d grown up being told not to question the Bible. I kind of looked to them for their fruits, or I would just ignore it and say, “If this is what really God is all about, then I think I have to let God be who He is and then move on with my life.”

So there were instances when I would spend several months without going to church then I would find myself going back. So there has always been something that was pulling me back to church, and I think that’s my place. I just love being in church, and so coming to EDS and reading the Bible in a whole different way has opened up my eyes to several truths that were hidden from me. This place has been part of my journey, to actually reconcile my faith with my sexual orientation.

MB: Say more about these truths you’ve encountered.

VK: Well, I’ve learned to question the Bible. Before that, I felt like it was a sin to question certain things. But here, I questioned so many things and I knew that the Bible is not… what can I say?

MB: Infallible? Perfect?

VK: Yeah – it has a human side to it, and because of that human side there are bound to be some mistakes, things like personal attitudes. For example, Paul might have been a man of God, but he had his own beliefs as a person. So we cannot claim that the Bible is entirely the Word of God. That has been my entry point to all this.

MB: Before you came to EDS, you spent some time on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of the U.S. Let’s talk about that. Where did you go, and whom did you speak to? Were you were able to build allies to support pro-LGBT work in Uganda?

VK: The American Embassy in Kampala nominated me for the International Visitor Leadership program. I think the way they structured my program was to help us make alliances in the U.S., to tell Americans what really was on the ground, and to see how they can help us. So that was my mission. They tried to get me in touch with people who are already doing this work and people who had shown interest in doing something for us.

The meetings I had with [Congressmen] John Lewis and Barney Frank were actually about that, because Barney Frank had already passed a resolution regarding that. So they wanted to know what we were doing, and how they could continue supporting us.

I also met an interfaith group in Louisville, Kentucky. They had expressed interest in how their faith community in the U.S. can be supportive of LGBT rights – not just in Uganda, but in Africa more generally.

The group included a Catholic priest, someone from the Anglican Church, someone from Metropolitan Community Church. There was a Jewish man too. Not all of them subscribed to the values that I have, but at least they knew that this is something that needs to be addressed, because it’s a human rights issue. So our conversations were around how we’d get the faith community in the U.S. to care about these issues beyond the United States.

I also had meetings in Utah; I had a meeting with the Mayor’s office in Salt Lake City. The story in Uganda is similar to stories in Utah – it’s religious homophobia, mostly. So they wanted me to compare the two places, to see how LGBT groups in Utah do their work and whether we can use a similar strategy in Uganda. It was about helping me gain advocacy skills, but also trying to help us form alliances.

MB: How have these insights proven useful back in Uganda?

VK: The first thing that I noticed was the influence and the power that women have in the United States. And in Uganda, even though women lead churches in several places in the country, they’re very silent on these issues. They’ve never come out to say anything; they have their little churches and they seem to mind their business.

So I asked, “Why are they so powerful in the U.S. and they are silent in Africa, even with all the money and influence they have?” I’m still questioning that. I don’t know why. And no one gave me a clear answer to that.

MB: Did any of your meetings result in longer-term relationships and alliances with religious organizations here in the U.S?

VK: There’s a very good relationship developing with the Metropolitan Community Church.

They have a parish in New York, and they have a parish in DC. I’ve met other elders, and they’re actually working with and supporting Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. [See below for more about Bishop Senyonjo.] They’re helping him fundraise, among other things.

This came about in part because of my meeting with the Rev. Darlene Garner in New York. She was the first woman to wed when Washington, D.C. legalized gay marriage. So she put me in touch with many of her colleagues. I actually call her my mum. She’s so sweet.

MB: That’s great.

VK: Since my first visit to the U.S., the MCC church has also invited other activists from Uganda. It’s part of their Global Justice Initiative.

MB: And where does the work in Uganda stand today? Have you been able to recruit religious allies?

VK: Today, there are about 33 civil society groups in the coalition.  Among them is St. Paul’s Equality and Reconciliation Center in Kampala.  It’s an Anglican organization managed by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. St. Paul’s is founded on religious values, but it’s also a community organization that provides services to people – not just LGBT people, but everyone – including counseling, HIV and AIDS services, stuff like that.

There’s also Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest who heads a parish outside Kampala. He and his organization have also been very involved with the coalition. [In 1992, Byamugisha became the African religious leader to publicly announce that he was HIV-positive. He later started a shelter for AIDS orphans and is a prominent voice in HIV/AIDS/international development circles.]

All in all, though, we don’t have many religious groups in the coalition. It’s been very difficult for us to find religious allies in Uganda, even when they think they should stand with us. I think they know that they would be excommunicated from their churches if they did so.

MB: What do you think sets Bishop Senyonjo apart? How do you think he found the courage to come out in support of your work? 

VK: That’s a good question. I asked myself the same question for many years, because I just couldn’t believe a bishop in Uganda – you know, at his age, it’s so much to give up. [Senyonjo is in his late 70s.]

But I’ve talked to the bishop and I asked him the same question, and he seems to believe that this has always been a part of his life, that he has never felt that anyone should be discriminated or oppressed on the basis of anything. He went to Union Theological Seminary [in the early 1960s], and he says that during that time, he met people who are gay and he talked to them. He engaged with them, and he learned that this is not a disease, it’s not a disorder. People are born that way and they want to be that way.

So I think that it’s those experiences that allowed him to get close to us and to stand up for our cause. Ultimately he was excommunicated from the Anglican Church of Uganda. That was when he came out and said, “We need to talk about these issues.” He was providing private counseling services for us, and when the church found out, he just couldn’t abandon us.

MB: And the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – it’s still being considered, isn’t that right?

VK: The bill is still alive. It’s actually being brought up again.

At first, we thought it was going to pass right away. And it could have passed, had it not been for the international community making noise and saying, “This has to stop.”

So I think that’s the best thing our coalition has done so far – we’ve managed to alert the whole world to what’s going on in Uganda. And in a way that has put pressure on our government, on Members of Parliament not to pass the bill, because they know it would be a very big mistake for them to do so.

MB: In terms of prestige and foreign aid?

VK: Yeah, foreign aid and all that.

MB: There has been a lot of attention in the American media on the role of conservative pastors in all of this, including Scott Lively and Rick Warren. Have you or anyone in your organization interacted with the Americans who came to Uganda and helped the government devise this bill?

VK: We haven’t. Our strategy was that it was best to have Americans interact with fellow Americans. So it’s mostly been our allies in the U.S. Rachel Maddow has talked about this extensively. The Advocate has written quite a lot. There’ve been several media stories about this, which has helped Americans see what’s going on in Uganda – that there’s a very direct relationship between U.S. evangelicals here and the funding that goes to anti-gay churches in Uganda.

I think because of that advocacy, the Ugandan anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa has lost out on some of his relationships with groups here. They don’t want to have a relationship with someone who is calling for the death of many people. Americans have said, “No, you cannot go to Africa and do this, when you can’t even do it in your own country.”

MB: Do you think the coalition’s activism is having an impact on the way religious communities in Uganda think about homosexuality and homophobia?

VK: I believe that the impact is going to be a slow and gradual process. What the coalition has done is to show Ugandan clergy that they can no longer get away with hate. What might ultimately dismantle religious homophobia in Uganda is when LGBT Ugandans begin to claim their religious freedom and to see the church as a potential ally.

MB: Does religious homophobia tend to come from any particular denomination?

VK: Pentecostals, mainly. Though Luke Orombi, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, and Cyprian Musoke, the Catholic Archbishop of Kampala, are also very vocal on these issues.

Initially it was a few pastors leading anti-gay campaigns. Now Pentecostal pastors across the country have joined the fray.

But for me, the number of prominent clergy speaking out does not tell me anything about religious homophobia in Uganda since I can’t tell if it’s religious homophobia or religious ignorance of scripture that’s driving the hate. I think one leads to the other.

I think that religious leaders are actually angry at the government that they’re not passing this bill. And they think that the president is bowing to international pressure. The religious leaders think that the bill should have passed by now.

MB: It sounds like you don’t think that outspoken anti-gay religious leaders in Uganda represent common sentiments – that there’s a separation between what these leaders are doing and what congregants think.  Have there been many stories of gay people being asked to leave churches?

VK: Not so many. Most of them don’t even go to church in the first place because of the way they have been treated. It’s just a few of us who have gone to church and then had problems with the churches. Still, the homophobia in Uganda is mainly led by religion. Even clergy who never spoke about homosexuality are now speaking out against it.

It’s just that it’s still hard to understand what drives religious homophobia in Uganda. Already there is infighting among evangelical pastors over wealth and allegations of sex abuse. I also tend to believe that some clergy are struggling with their sexuality so they vilify homosexuality to cover up their guilt. You wonder if they are using us to fight their own battles.

MB: How do you see things playing out over the next couple of years? Do you feel at all hopeful?

VK: I do. The bill has really changed so many things in Uganda. About ten years ago, when we began organizing our movement, there was nothing like public dialogue, there was no debate about these issues, and the bill has generated that kind of debate. I read opinion editorials from people who are writing about this, and they are saying the Parliament should not pass this bill for a variety reasons. Three newspapers – including The Daily Monitor, where my interview appeared – are slowly trying to change the discourse on homosexuality through fair, balanced, and unprejudiced reporting.

So in a way, I think that we’ve managed to change public opinion about LGBT issues. I see more leaders coming up; it’s no longer just a few of us. Even within the LGBT community, there’s this sense that we cannot fight this while struggling in the closet, so people are coming out every other day.

MB: Martin Luther King writes about how when a people’s appetite for justice begins to emerge, it can’t be put back in the bottle.

VK: Exactly. And I think the bill has done that. There are several allies who have come out now – individuals and organizations. Though there is still a fear that the government will revoke their registration certificates or something.

MB: Registration certificates?

VK: Yeah, because homosexuality’s illegal, and some NGOs have been threatened that the state will close them if they show any support for LGBT rights.

MB: You’ve been threatened yourself – so much so that you went into hiding at one point.

VK: Yeah, I was threatened by my neighbors. One day I was coming from a friend Kasha’s place – she’s also an activist. I came home late, around 11 pm. And in Uganda when it gets so late, you can’t find taxis anywhere. You have to use motorcycles.

And when I went to find a motorcycle, they refused to take me. They said, “We can’t take you.” I said, “Why? I’m going to pay you.” Then they said something in Ugandan vernacular about wanting to teach me how to be a woman.

I got so scared – I freaked out. I knew that those guys – they’re usually rowdy people, but I didn’t expect them to say that, and that really scared me. I don’t know if it was related to the story or if it was something they had heard about somehow.

So I decided to walk away, and in trying to walk away, one guy rides after me. And I said, “I’m not going to run. I’m just going to walk on.” The place was a bit dark, but as I continued walking to our house where there was light, he stopped and then went back.

From then on, I actually had to change the path that I used to go to find a taxi, because I wasn’t sure what these guys would do.

So I called my friends. I told them, “This happened last night.” They told me to go to police and report the case. I said, “I’m not going to police. I don’t trust police.” They said, “You need to get out of that place immediately.” So I was evacuated and taken somewhere else. And even there, I couldn’t give them my name. So I gave them a different name, and I thought, “If they ever recognize my face, then that would be a different story. But I am not giving them my name.” I lived there for less than a year; it was safe enough for me.

MB: I want to return to something you said earlier. You described how, as you came to terms with your sexuality, you also came to a new understanding of God: “If this is what really God is all about, then I think I have to let God be who He is and then move on with my life.” Do you think of yourself as in a relationship with God today?

VK: I feel closer to God now than I’ve ever been. Back then, I would pray and not even talk about how I feel, but now I can say, “This is how I feel, and I need you to keep us safe.” Before, I would even feel guilty saying that, because it sounded like I was asking God to do something He didn’t believe in. But now, everything has changed to the point that I wish every religious gay person in Uganda would come to this place of understanding – not to see God as against them but for them.

And for me, that has been part of my healing journey, and I think that so many out there need it, because when you don’t have the support of family and you don’t have the support of friends, sometimes you need a supernatural being to come to that place of self-acceptance. And I think, for me, that’s very important in one’s life.

 

Postscript, by Val Kalende

In a country where separation of church and state is almost non-existent, certain human rights are sacrificed at the altar of religion and power. The oppression of LGBT persons in Uganda is nothing but a hybrid of conservative beliefs that the church wants to protect and the selfish interests of politicians whose power rides on incriminating minorities. In a country where the President presides over Church functions and still donates money and cars to clergy so as to remain in power, it is unlikely that congregations will fail to protect his interests. This is why, when the President distances his government from the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, he is shifting blame to clergy – because he understands that he has already bought them into pushing his political interests.

The president does not care what happens to LGBT citizens. I don’t even think he is interested in criminalizing them. The only thing he cares about is power. As long as his power is threatened – either by way of donors cutting aid, or Hillary Clinton calling him and chiding him into halting passage of the bill – he will promise it won’t become law. But he will also make someone else take the blame and intentionally keep the bill in limbo.

At the end of the day, no one is going to blame him for anything. And without discrediting our campaign and the support of our international partners, I have reason to believe that it’s not entirely our campaign that killed the bill in the 8th Parliament. The politics around this bill killed it and led us praise ourselves as if we are the reason the bill failed. But with Members of Parliament rebelling against the President over the oil debate, I am not sure how much President Museveni can continue to arm-twist Parliament to serve his political interests.

It may be a long time before clergy come to understand that they are under the spell of state politics and that theirs should be an approach of love and acceptance. Not oppression.

 

  • Andrew

    I know Val personally and she just said it as it is. I wish her well in all she is doing. God bless you Val. lets keep praying for each other.

  • Mphoebie02

    I like!

  • Anonymous

    I had the privilege of being in a class with Val at EDS recently.   What a courageous person.

  • willy mboode

    it is realy so influencing and encouraging.KALENDE you carried our cross . this is our battle together although we carried it alone. am much happy that u opened  for us a platform of expression. i wish my university (k.i.u) understands our cry and sets  us free in this movement

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