In Call me Kuchu, filmmaker Katherine Fairfax Wright and journalist Malika Zouhali-Worrall document the lives of LGBT activists in Uganda, a country where homosexuality is against the law and ruling party members have proposed death by hanging for HIV-positive gay men. Called “kuchus” by locals, the queer community in Kampala is battling a highly oppressive, aggressive, and pervasive homophobia. Kuchu follows Ugandans who were recently defended by their local judiciary—one that seeks to protect the rights of individuals but may have little influence over political or popular opinion. Covering the rise of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the landmark lawsuit surrounding a tabloid outing homosexuals, and the 2011 murder of activist David Kato—one of the country’s first publicly gay men—Call Me Kuchu weaves stories of courage and tragedy, portraying the empowerment and persecution that persist side by side in present-day Uganda. Malika and Katy shed some light on why they’re making this film and what we will learn through their lens.
We didn’t get a chance to meet you two in your video. How’d you come together to make this film, and what propelled you to travel to Uganda?
Our answer is pretty boring: we met in a bar. In the East Village, while waiting for a mutual friend to turn up for her own birthday drinks, to be precise! We got to talking about our various experiences working in Central and Eastern Africa and hit it off from there. Katy had worked on a number of documentaries and had just finished working as an associate producer on LUMO, a film about a rape survivor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Malika had come to the U.S. soon after finishing her masters in Paris and had recently written a feature story for CNN.com about discrimination against transgender employees in the U.S. A year after we met, Malika called Katy to ask if she wanted to make a film about the LGBT activist community in Uganda. We booked our flights a few days later.
We’d been closely following the increasing incidents of homophobia in East Africa. But we were particularly focused on Uganda, which seemed to have become a hub of anti-gay fervor, in part a reaction to a police discrimination lawsuit won by Victor Mukasa, a transman, only months before. Then Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in October 2009, which made it blindingly obvious to us both that there was an important and dramatic story to be documented. So we got on a plane to Kampala as soon as we could.
As your film follows, tell us about the Ugandan paper that publicly exposed the local queer community.
While we were in Uganda late last year, the local tabloid newspaper The Rolling Stone, started to expose and attack the LGBT community on a regular basis. It began with a front-page article under the headline “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak,” which made some outrageous claims, including the warning that homosexuals were literally raiding schools to recruit children into homosexuality. The article was illustrated with photographs of 100 members of the LGBT community and their straight allies, alongside a yellow banner that read: “Hang Them.”
It was a pretty horrific moment for the whole kuchu community, and we did our best to document it. Stosh, one of the main characters in our film, was forced to move after her house was pelted with stones by her neighbors. Within a month, The Rolling Stone came out with another “gay exposé,” printing the pictures and names of 20 men. By that point, David and his fellow activists at Sexual Minorities Uganda had had enough, so they filed a complaint against The Rolling Stone in Uganda’s high court. Two months later, in early January, the high court judge issued a permanent injunction that prevented the newspaper from publishing the identities or addresses of “homosexuals,” and awarded damages to the plaintiffs, based on the conclusions that everyone, even homosexuals, had a constitutional right to privacy. As the judge put it so quaintly in his ruling: “Clearly the call to hang gays in dozens tends to tremendously threaten their right to human dignity.” It was a landmark verdict because it established a precedent that will hopefully prevent any other newspapers from outing members of the LGBT community, as they have in the past. It was a major achievement for David and the rest of the community, which made it all the more tragic that David was so brutally murdered just three weeks later.
As the main subject of your film and no doubt a friend as well, can you tell us about David and what he meant to the community?
We’ve known David since late 2009, when we first contacted him to research the film and learn about the kuchu community. He was the first openly gay man in Uganda and is known to many as the Grandfather of the “kuchus.” With his wicked sense of humor and rather foul mouth, we warmed to him immediately, and we were astounded by the commitment and determination he brought to his mission to liberate his fellow kuchus and put an end to Uganda’s harsh sodomy laws. Soon afterwards, David was the first person we met when we arrived in Kampala for our initial research shoot, and he was the one who introduced us to the whole community. Over time, he also became one of the main advocates of our film among the kuchus, doing anything he could to help us document their stories — but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that his was one of the most intriguing.
Over the next year and a half, we followed David and his idiosyncratic clan through a pretty crazy period as they worked to change the dominant attitude towards kuchus in Uganda. We were with David the night he appeared on Ugandan TV news to explain his views opposite a pastor who insisted that homosexuality is a mortal sin. We were with David for his numerous court appearances, documenting his determination to use the Ugandan legal system to combat the country’s institutionalized persecution. We were with him during the moments of brief respite, at a drag queen show or a gay couple’s ninth anniversary party. And we were there when David and two other activists won that landmark lawsuit in Uganda’s High Court.
But by far our fondest memories of David are those of him at his most relaxed: visiting his mother whom he loved very much, or seeking brief respite among the crops of his small farm, where he daydreamed of building a gay village. Alternately scowling and smiling, often with a warm beer in his hand, he always had a mischievous glint in his eye. It’s also worth adding that for a man who often lived hand to mouth, always piecing together the little money he could raise, David was also very generous. When we first visited him at home in early 2010, for example, he was in the process of connecting not only his half-built house, but also the whole village to the electrical grid.
So we were absolutely devastated when we got a text message from one of David’s close friends saying she heard rumors he had been killed. We didn’t want to believe it at first, but it was soon confirmed. Things had been bad in Uganda, but no-one expected anything like that to happen. We spent the next six weeks documenting the devastating impact of his violent murder on the kuchu community, which as you can imagine, wasn’t an easy time for either of us. Understandably, David’s death has made some activists more wary of their actions, while others, including one of our film’s main subjects Long John, seem to have become more active and determined to carry on with what David started.
What about others in the community? Do kuchus have any allies? Do you follow any of the opposition? How have you attempted to access and engage the “other side”?
It really varies. Some kuchus have been disowned by their families, others hide it whenever they go home, but there are a few whose families accept them (although those families often “accept” their LGBT relatives by ignoring what they know to be true.) The activist community does, however, have various straight allies in civil society, and, perhaps most notably, a religious ally in Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who you see in our work-in-progress trailer. Sadly, the Bishop, who holds a PhD in human sexuality, was more or less thrown out of the Anglican Church for his support of the LGBT community, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing his work. He now provides counseling and small prayer services to various marginalized groups in Uganda, including kuchus. We’ve spent quite a bit of time filming with him, and he’s really the most astoundingly kind and smart person.
We’ve also spent time with the editor of The Rolling Stone and David Bahati, the member of parliament who wrote the bill, and we’ve filmed the church services and prayer rallies of Ugandan and American evangelical leaders in Kampala. Initially, we expected that the folks opposing the LGBT movement wouldn’t be keen to talk to us, but we soon discovered that most of them are very proud of their beliefs. They’re more than willing to tell us that they believe David is currently burning in hell.