A taxi driver reads the news of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law in Kampala. Photo: Getty
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“If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda I’ll be on the next flight home”

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee from Uganda, now living in South London. Here, he describes how he left behind everything he knew and loved so he could live in freedom and safety.

It was around 1992 when I realised I was gay. There was a lot of confusion. I loved life in Uganda before then.

Mum reacted very bad. Very bad. I didn’t expect it. I’d “let the family down” she said. As time passes, I wonder whether I made the right decision telling her. But you have to. At one point in life, you have to. And in Uganda, if you do, you suffer the consequences.

I’ve hardly spoken to mum since. My father died a few years ago but mum still lives in Uganda. I think she’s in her sixties. In Africa it’s not in our culture to ask how old a parent is. You will get told off.

I had one brief relationship in Uganda, which lasted two months. It wasn’t one of those relationships where you can tell a friend or your family, it was very, very secret because it’s something you’re not allowed to do. The consequences would have been fatal.  There would have been tears.

A beating maybe. But when they punch you in Uganda, it’s a real punching.

My relationship with Charles was not something I could be proud of. The love was there. But when you lack that kind of openness of expressing your love, there’s something missing. The fear of the consequence was always there. It was like a sitting time-bomb. It ended when I left Uganda and I haven’t heard from Charles since. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

In Africa neighbours don’t complain if you play loud music, they enjoy it. In Africa you don’t have to make an appointment to see someone, you just drop in. In Africa cooking is in the open; I could tell if somebody was roasting chicken or pork because I could smell it.

In the evening I would hear the birds from my homestead. I would hear the stray dogs bark and the music from South Africa and the Congo. I would rest in the courtyard with relatives in the dry summer heat.

At the Ginga Kalori boys’ school I would play football with my Muslim best friend, Isma. We would put two sticks in a car tyre and wheel them, racing home. He died not long after I left. I never had the chance to tell him.

I left behind the things I grew up with, the things I was used too: the people, the environment and the Ugandan culture. You know you’re used to an environment when you close your eyes and you still know how to navigate. I lost all of that. But I was free and safe.

I had been an activist for a while. There was a political campaign and I was involved in the LGBT opposition group. On the radio I heard stories of gay couples being beaten and killed by police. We got caught up. Beaten up. I was always on the other side as a young boy, trying to fight against Museveni’s government.

I was lucky because I survived. Being submitted to cover up what I am was the saddest thing.

I arrived in the UK in 1995.

The accent was difficult: I knew they were speaking English but it was different. The way we speak English back home is quite different. It’s not “What’s your name”, it’s “What.is.your.name”. I remember one day I said “Good morning, sir” to a gentlemen and he gave me a strange look. In Uganda every grown-up is a sir or madam. Here it is different.

The other thing: I met a black guy on the bus and spoke to him in my native tongue. I thought everyone that was black spoke my language. I was wrong…

But here I am in heaven. You can do whatever you want with your partner. You can kiss in the street and hold hands. You don’t have to look over your shoulder to see who’s watching you. You can be what you are here. You can go to Gay Pride. Whatever you can think of doing you can do it here. No complaint.

Actually one complaint. Matoke (a Ugandan national dish). You can get matoke here but it’s not the same. In Uganda everything is fresh. When you order fish, it’s been caught at seven in the morning and it’s on your plate by one. You see chicken running and somebody cuts it and puts it on the fire. But here, everything is frozen.

There is freedom to campaign here. If there’s something I do not like, I can protest and demand answers. A few weeks ago with Peter Tatchell, we went into the Ugandan embassy in London and submitted a letter. It demanded the repeal of the anti-homosexuality bill. Homophobia in Uganda is an import. Homophobia came from the west.

If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda, I’ll be on the next flight home.

East or west, home is best.

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee living in South London. He moved from Uganda as a teenager. He is now the director of the African LGBTI Out & Proud Diamond Group. This week the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a controversial law allowing those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Ugandan politicians celebrated.

Interview by Ashley Cowburn

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What does the end of the one-child policy mean for China's disabled population?

Even after the policy was abolished last year, cultural prejudices against disabled people have proven hard to shake.

In a small shop hidden in the shadows of the gleaming, golden arches of the two-storey McDonald’s next door, Liu Wenzheng has been developing photographs since 1995. Business in his north Beijing neighbourhood is slow but steady. Every now and then, a Western couple will come in to have a photograph taken of their newly adopted Chinese child. The child is nearly always “imperfect” in some way, whether it’s something as minor as a cleft palate, or a more challenging disability.

“Westerners have higher morals. They will adopt disabled children,” Liu tells me over a glass of baijiu, the distilled Chinese rice spirit, at a nearby restaurant. His disappointment in his own people is personal: Liu has been disabled for all of his adult life, since a run-in with Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution left him so badly beaten that his left leg had to be amputated. He was 22 and had been arrested for reading banned American literature.

He spent six months in hospital. After being discharged with a rudimentary wooden limb, he returned to his old job on a Beijing factory floor. “I was tough and people were scared of me,” Liu says, his brusque manner and burly frame illustrating his point. “Not every disabled person would have been allowed back to work with a full salary, to stand there and not do much.” Throughout our conversation, he emphasises the rarity of his situation compared to that of other disabled people. He has worked all his life, is happily married and has an adult son. Most disabled people in China are not so lucky.

A few miles north of Liu’s shop, on the outskirts of an eerily quiet retail park, Alenah’s Home is a warm hub of activity. This private centre for disabled orphans has been looking after children since 2004. The children come from orphanages all around China, which don’t have the funds or the facilities to provide disabled care. Many children, such as Furui, a one-year-old who was abandoned after a premature delivery, arrive with muscular atrophy – a result of months of neglect.

Alenah’s Home is one of the few private centres of its kind in China that look after disabled orphans. They don’t receive any government funding. Chris Hu, a full-time volunteer, tells me that children who are abandoned in China are nearly always female, disabled or both. This is in part a result of China’s one-child policy, which made China’s disabled population fall to 6 per cent of the country as a whole (the global average is 15 per cent) and also produced a gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls.

China’s one-child policy was officially abolished in January 2016. But Hu agrees with experts who predict that this won’t necessarily redress demographic imbalances. Cultural prejudices against disabled people are hard to shake. Confucian ideology emphasises the idea of the body as a point along an ancestral continuum. Thus, any defect is attributed to a spiritual flaw in the family, even for disabilities, such as Liu’s, which are caused by injury. It is easy to dismiss this kind of abstraction as stereotyping, but when Yuan Xiaolu, a retired journalist who has been blind in one eye since birth, repeatedly tells me, “I don’t blame my mother,” it suggests a genuine anxiety about the perception of her family’s morals.

In wealthy cities, and especially in popular tourist areas, public facilities are becoming more accessible to disabled people. The Chinese government claimed to have invested 500 million yuan in the construction and renovation of 25,000 public toilets in 2015, most of them wheelchair-friendly. This follows changes in the law to encourage greater inclusivity: employers are required to reserve 1.5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities, or pay a fee to the Disabled Persons’ Employment Security Fund, which is managed by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government body.

However, meaningful social change lags behind. Disabled children are more likely to be found – and often abandoned – in poorer rural areas, where women can’t afford abortions and facilities don’t exist to support disabled people. Liu describes the government’s measures as “barely a cup of water when you need the sea”, saying that most companies would rather pay the fine than employ a disabled person.

Even then, John Giszczak, a former China programmes manager for Save the Children, has said that the fees paid to the CDPF often end up being spent on overpriced “pseudoscientific ‘therapeutic’ equipment”.

The CDPF was founded in 1988 by Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Like Liu, Deng Pufang was paralysed – left paraplegic after an assault by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Having such a high-profile disabled person in Chinese public life contributed to a more open attitude towards physical disabilities, but this didn’t necessarily spread to all aspects of life.

Similarly, when the Hubei-based farmer Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy, published her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”, which went viral on Chinese social media, she illustrated that her situation was an exception to the opportunities for disabled people, rather than the norm. Like most disabled people in China, Yu was unable to finish school and has spoken about how she has felt “undermined . . . [and] hated” by her body. Still, she insists, “My disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.”

“It’s not the government that’s the problem. It’s the people,” Liu says. China is often characterised as a country where the official Communist Party line is the only one that matters. But most Chinese people I speak to see their culture as running far deeper than political diktats. Policies may change behaviour or improve facilities for disabled people, but social rehabilitation seems a long way off.

Still, I suggest to Liu, he seems to have done quite well for himself. His family and his photography business aren’t the future he foresaw when he first became disabled. “Not really,” he says glumly. “Digital ruined everything.”

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge