A taxi driver reads the news of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law in Kampala. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“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

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
Show Hide image

Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496