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Under the new anti-LGBTQ+ law, I face 10 years in jail for being non-binary. For my art, I could be jailed for another 20 years. 

As a non-binary photographer and activist, DeLovie Kwagala documents the realities of queer life in their home country for more than seven years. Now the anti-homosexuality bill, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on May 2023, makes both their art and their existence punishable by jail, or even death. 

18 July 2024

A story by DeLovie KWAGALA

I’m heartbroken at my exile from Uganda. Don’t let them erase our queer community. 

Under the new anti-LGBTQ+ law, I face 10 years in jail for being non-binary. For my art, I could be jailed for another 20 years. 

I’m being exiled from Uganda. As a non-binary photographer and activist, I’ve documented the realities of queer life in my home country for more than seven years. Now the anti-homosexuality bill, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on May 2023, makes both my art and my existence punishable by jail, or even death. 

Since the bill was approved by MPs in March 2023, I’ve spent almost every waking hour crowdfunding and campaigning to support my community through this dark period in Uganda’s history. 

For the past months, I have been in South Africa trying to renew my visa to stay but it expired and I had to go home to apply again, carefully so I didn’t get caught. Here I can’t even visit my family home in fear of risking their safety. 

I’m being exiled from Uganda. As a non-binary photographer and activist, I’ve documented the realities of queer life in my home country for more than seven years. Now the anti-homosexuality bill, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on May 2023, makes both my art and my existence punishable by jail, or even death. 

Visibility without protection is a death sentence. Asylum is not an option for me because I can’t imagine subjecting my black trans child to a system that continuously fails, over and over again. I have documented horror stories of queer refugees all over the world who have spent years in the system waiting for a status that would allow them the freedom to live. I have fought so hard for my freedom that risking my life to go back to arrange proper paperwork seemed like the only feasible thing to do. 

Having to decide on leaving my child behind, in a country I can only access once my visa is sorted, which takes forever sometimes, or choosing to drag them with me into the abyss of uncertainty, risking their safety, stability and mental health has been one of the difficult decisions I have ever had to make in my life. 

The tension is hard. Everyone is scary and no one can be trusted. It feels like the ground can open up and swallow you any time. 

I’m not brave or strong. I just don’t have a choice, which is to fight, for my existence, my child, my career, and my people. 

Queer living in Uganda has long been difficult. When I was 15, singing bass in the church choir, I was forced to “pray the gay out of me”. I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers. I had no idea there was any kind of LGBTQ+ community. I thought that ebisiyaga – the Lugandan word for homosexuality – was something you ate. 

I eventually embraced my sexuality and gender identity and found my chosen family in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. I took pictures of the people around me, attempting to document their beauty and pain. 

I’m not brave or strong. I just don’t have a choice, which is to fight, for my existence, my child, my career, and my people. 

But at some point, I needed to breathe. I packed my bags and left for South Africa, where I won a fellowship to document queer stories and had been living for the past two years, along with my child, while still deeply connected to my community at home. 

In December 2022, I went back to my hometown with the intention of reclaiming my childhood memories, to remember little De as I was. I wanted to flaunt my queerness, my newfound balls – oh boy! – green hair and all. I expected the whispers and insults – it didn’t surprise me when my grandmother told my father he was a failure for this – but there was something else: the atmosphere had turned. 

The bill was foreshadowed by a mass-media disinformation campaign fuelled by religious fundamentalism that destroys life for LGBTQ+ people. It far surpasses the impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, and many Ugandans now believe that being queer is the same as being a pedophile. 

Behind this child-protection rhetoric, the harassment and intimidation of LGBTQ+ people is celebrated. When MPs passed the bill in March 2023, they cheered and nodded as they erased us. 

The new laws criminalise anyone perceived to be supporting an LGBTQ+ person, from landlords to journalists. My existence is enough to hand me a 10-year prison sentence. For my artwork, deemed to be a “promotion of homosexuality”, I face 20 years. 

Even before this draconian bill was signed into law, the damage was done. Families who were once supportive turned their backs, fearing for their own safety. After the bill’s first reading, my Ugandan siblings called me to say they had lost their jobs, and their homes and were being refused medical treatment. 

Mob violence has been escalating. Every day, I receive brutal images of black bodies, naked and bruised. We are being slaughtered in the streets. With nowhere to turn, others have committed suicide. I’m torn, broken, and heartbroken. 

Let’s heal each other in the softest of ways. We are not to be discarded. 

But I found hope in the community. In March 2023, together with other LGBTQ+ Ugandans (who remain anonymous for their own safety) and UK allies from the arts community, in just four days I crowdfunded almost £15,000 online, to directly support at-risk individuals at home. More than 2,500 people have followed my hashtagwhatnext campaign on Instagram. 

Money raised through our GoFundMe page and art events in South Africa, Europe and elsewhere will go straight to those who need it most. We’re sending funds to contribute towards costs such as bail for those imprisoned, emergency accommodation, legal and medical fees, visa and transportation costs for those leaving the country. 

Let’s heal each other in the softest of ways. We are not to be discarded. 

Update April 4, 2024.

Uganda’s Constitutional Court upheld an anti-gay law that allows the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” despite widespread condemnation from rights groups and others abroad. The ruling further entrenches discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and makes them prone to more violence.