“Can you imagine that the worst place in the world to be gay is having Gay Pride?” Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera asked a crowd of cheering gay men, lesbians, transgendered men and women, and queers somewhere in between. It was Saturday afternoon, and we were on the shores of the giant, cloudy Lake Victoria in the Ugandan city of Entebbe, where L.G.B.T. activists had decided to stage the country’s first Pride Parade. Nabagesera, a lesbian activist covered, for the occasion, in glitter and neon spray paint, with homemade angel wings, was being half-sarcastic.
A barrage of media coverage has painted the country as a hell for gays—a place where they are suffering and being attacked constantly—and, despite the need to combat such threats, L.G.B.T. Ugandans were tired of hearing a story that ignored their nuanced experiences of both joy and hardship. But Nabagesera was also sincerely pleased: a crowd of nearly a hundred people had come out, fears of arrest notwithstanding, to celebrate their existence. The air was thick with confetti, paint fumes, and anticipation.
I’ve spent a couple of months this year working on a story about gay rights here, as an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, and was surprised to see that the narrative had made yet another unexpected turn. Though activists are in the middle of a lawsuit they filed against ethics and integrity minister Simon Lokodo, who has been on a zealous effort to shut down all gay-advocacy workshops and non-profits allied with L.G.B.T. activists, spirits were high to the point that a Pride event was not just wanted, but needed. Uganda’s Pride was a weekend-long event, made up of film screenings, a fashion show in drag, and all-night (and into the morning) parties. Two hundred and fifty tickets had been sold, though, as a vivacious trans woman named Cleo told me, fifty-some people showed up on Thursday and Friday, because many were still wary about gathering in large groups. “We couldn’t have done this kind of thing two years ago, and for those that were here back then, they almost can’t believe things are safer and better now,” Cleo said. The first two days went off without a hitch, and more people, predictably, showed up for the evening bacchanals.
I took a bus from Kampala, the capital, to Entebbe on Saturday morning with a number of the participants. A trans woman named Bad Black showed me glamour photos taken of her at an L.G.B.T.-friendly studio in town: in them she is wearing a wig, dresses, and lingerie. Bad Black, who helps run a foundation that helps H.I.V.-positive L.G.B.T. Ugandans, was wearing typical male attire for the bus ride, but wore gold earrings and had short, fluffy curls. She can’t dress as a woman on a daily basis, but planned to change once we got to the lake. Nature, a cheerful trans woman sitting in front of us, plucked a photo to admire it and remarked, “Hmm, photos do lie.” The bus erupted into laughter. Several people, adorned in rainbow-patterned scarves and armbands, pulled out makeup compacts and started to apply bright eye shadow and lipstick. We made noisy stops along the highway to pick up more attendees, and passersby, curious about the laughter and music, peered inside.
The botanical grounds around the lake are a languid picnic destination for families and couples, but relatively secluded: an ideal location for a parade that was still on shaky ground, safety-wise. At the area reserved for the festival, participants wore yellow wristbands to identify themselves to each other and let loose. People swam, drank, and danced as a D.J. played loud music. I met people like Akram, who operates a “gay-video library.” Activist Frank Mugisha, who appeared dressed in a sailor’s costume with a rainbow sash and called himself Captain Pride, told me, “I just wish I had a switch to turn on that would make everyone who’s gay say they are gay. Then everyone who is homophobic can realize their brothers, their sisters, and their aunts are gay.” He confessed that he was shocked to see so many people in attendance.
As the parade began, in a convoy of marchers and cars blasting more music, people held up signs like “African and Gay. Not a Choice.” Children who lived nearby flocked to the parade, and adults stared, clearly stunned, and, in some cases, amused. The marchers chanted, “We are here” (a reference to those who say that there are no gays in Africa), and danced and sang in a chorus that was at once moving and exciting under a rainstorm of ribbons and flags. Nabagesera’s German shepherd trotted around in a rainbow-colored handkerchief. A woman named Claire said, “Even if Lokodo came today, he could not stop us.”
But Lokodo did come, or at least the police did. Hours after the parade ended, police raided the gathering, supposedly because they had heard a gay wedding was taking place, and arrested three participants, detained a photographer, and demanded statements from others, reminding all of the threats that gays still face. The station police chief eventually released them, and celebrations continued in Kampala. On Sunday, closing events went as planned. One participant, Ambrose, who was in charge of selling Pride-themed T-shirts, explained that the dynamics of being gay in Uganda have changed: “This is who we are. We are here to stay. And we are not going anywhere.”