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4 July 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 10:24am

Meet the man turning t-shirts into support for LGBT+ refugees

After starting the Say It Loud Club in support of gay rights in Uganda, Aloysius Sali was forced to flee his home country for the UK. 

By Billie Esplen

In 2010, a British Supreme Court ruling changed the direction of Aloysius Sali’s life. More than a decade and a half earlier, while at college in Uganda, he had founded the Say It Loud Club to support gay rights, which had been illegal in the country since British colonial rule.

The Club took the form of an underground social movement which, by 2004, had managed to accrue around 500 members. Aloysius explains how, as people began to get more excited about their rights, the movement grew, making it harder to avoid attention. Finally, the authorities discovered it was a gay organisation. Members were arrested by police, and Aloysius himself fled to the UK. 

In 2005, he returned to Uganda. For three months, he managed to meet up with old members of Say It Loud and discuss gay rights before being discovered by the police and arrested. He was taken to a safe house for four or five days, until he was able to bribe his way out of police custody and escape the country. He still does not know how the police found out about his communication with the old members. Police corruption in Uganda is, Aloysius emphasises to the New Statesman, inextricably linked to homophobia. Arresting and imprisoning homosexuals is a “business” for the police, who squeeze bribes of money, possessions and land from vulnerable LGBT people.

He escaped back to the UK, but after imprisonment was “no longer the person” he had once been. Lonely, isolated and suffering from mental illness, Aloysius experienced what he describes as “trauma within myself”. Going through the intensity of that persecution made him feel as if he was “no longer…a person of value”.

His mental health problems were exacerbated by the fact that he had no legal right to stay in the UK, which only added to his isolation. 2010 signified an important year of change for Aloysius. He realised that his “life was perishing”, and decided to seek help. Yet he found that none of the charities and organisations supporting refugees were equipped to deal with the acute issues faced by LGBT refugees.

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It was also in 2010 that the Supreme Court accepted the right of two gay asylum seekers to seek refuge rather than hide their sexuality in their home countries. Aloysius was able to seek asylum. After doing so, he was placed in a detention centre for a week, where he was dominated by the implacable fear of not knowing what was coming. He shared a small cell with a man called Akim who had fled Pakistan. Akim was very old and very ill, and would be sick every night on the floor. Aloysius tried to help him and informed the guards that he needed to be taken to hospital, but the guards would always tell him to “shut up”, refusing to take him seriously.

After one week, at the end of August 2010, Aloysius was released. But despite trying to find out what happened to Akim, he never saw him again. Aloysius felt compelled to campaign, to help asylum seekers such as himself avoid loss and powerlessness wherever possible. 

Eight years later, Aloysius is beaming, as he moves calmly round a  a pop-up shop in St Martin’s Courtyard, Covent Garden, London, filled with rainbow-themed t-shirts declaring “Choose Love”. The shop is a collaboration between the charity Help Refugees, Pride in London, and Aloysius’s reconvened Say It Loud Club, which offers personal support to LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. 

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At the launch, Aloysius tells the New Statesman how proud he is of the collaboration. Up to this point, he has run the Club on his own income. When asked over the phone about the importance of Say It Loud, Aloysius describes it as “like a home” for the many refugees. It has allowed them to do nothing less than “get their lives back”. 

While seeking asylum is difficult for any person, LGBT applicants face additional hurdles, due to stigma and shame. The violent and oppressive persecution they face in their home countries means that many refugees feel uncomfortable talking about their sexualities. Indeed, one of Aloysius’s most important pieces of work are his Coming Out programs, aimed to help refugees feel comfortable with embracing their identities. Aloysius represents a positive example of how an LGBT person can both live openly and thrive in the UK – something many of those he helps are convinced isn’t possible.

This reflects the principles on which Aloysius refounded the Say it Loud Club in the UK in 2011. This time it would be “a support group without hiding, without concealing who we are”. He set up a Facebook page, ultimately connecting with people he had known in Uganda who were now living illegally in the UK, waiting to try and claim asylum. The aim initially was to give asylum seekers a space to discuss their sexuality in smaller groups. Their meetings were held in Finsbury Park, where Aloysius would give speeches or hold group sessions. For most members, it was the “first time [they] were able to talk about sexuality”. 

At Pride in 2013, Aloysius connected with London Friend, an LGBT health and wellness organisation which helped him find a permanent space in which for the group to come together. This in turn helped its capacity and popularity grow. Working as a nursing assistant at the NHS, Aloysius used his own salary to fund the group. In 2016, he received a one year grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery, which gave him £500 a month for Club projects. With the money, Aloysius visited people in detention and developed projects outside of London. There are ten Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in the UK, two of which are in London. 

Meanwhile, since 2014, persecution of sexual minorities in Uganda has become even more severe, with deeply homophobic underground movements making their way into the public sphere. In 2009, MP David Bahati introduced the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act. Originally, the Bill included a specific definition of “aggravated homosexuality”, for which offenders could face the death penalty. In 2014, following mass international outrage, and many countries threatening to withdraw aid from Uganda, the Bill was signed into law without the threat of death penalty.

Despite being somewhat watered down, the law sparked a more violent wave of homophobia, creating “increased excitement” amongst anti-gay groups. Bahati’s bill was supported by some white Christian groups in the US. According to Aloysius, some of the major perpetrators in this wave of hatred have been recently established born-again Christian churches, which, he says, exist solely as “anti-gay platforms”. 

The increasingly hostile environment for LGBT Ugandans makes Aloysius’s work at Say It Loud all the more crucial. The fact that, as Aloysius says, in certain African countries, it is “not guaranteed that you were going to be accepted” after coming out, leaves many with a legacy of toxic fear. The Say It Loud Club, as much as it is a charity, is also simply a community and a safe haven, where people can finally feel able to accept and embrace their identities. Freedom can be hard to get used to, and, without the help of grassroots and community activists such as Aloysius, even harder to access.

The Choose Love X Pride in London pop-up shop is open at St Martin’s Courtyard and Mercer Street in Covent Garden until Saturday 7 July 2018. You can donate to Aloysius’ cause at Help Refugees here.