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​A Group of Ugandans Are Shattering Stigma with the Country’s First LGBTI Zine

"This is a battlefield. Some fight on, some flee, some die. We are fighting for a free country. For the future."

by Johnny Magdaleno
22 March 2015, 6:10am

Every day for nearly a week straight at the start of last December, Vincent and a group of volunteers traveled to a friend's printing shop in Kampala, Uganda right before it closed at 6:00 PM. They'd wait from a close distance as the last group of customers trickled out and disappeared down the street. Once clear, they'd file in. The shopkeeper would hand off the keys and leave. The shutters would be drawn, and for the next 12 hours they'd work to print thousands of copies of what is now one of the most important pieces of literature in Uganda's LGBTI* history.

"The friend who runs that shop risked his business to help us," said Vincent, who did not give his last name. "But it was important that we did it at night, because no one could see us. We didn't want anything to happen."

It's called Bombastic magazine, and within its pages are dozens of stories from Uganda's socially, legally, and often violently oppressed sexual minority communities. In one story, a woman recalled concerns that surfaced in her office that she might be a lesbian because she declined sexual advances from her boss. Shortly after she saw her name printed in an anti-gay tabloid, she was fired. On another page, a transgender lesbian describes the onset of a deep depression when her body started to grow breasts.

But while Bombastic showcases a fair number of dark stories, it is mostly a document of resilience. Sexual revelations, news reports on LGBTI issues, and editorials against Uganda's infamous anti-homosexual culture give the zine a communiqué-meets-confessional feel. Vincent says this is because the publication is meant to educate those outside of the gay community.

We wanted to create something in print for the farmer at work in his field near Kampala, or the taxi driver who doesn't have a radio.

"We wanted to reclaim our media space, as there is not a platform for us on TV or the radio," he said. "There is also little access to internet across Africa, so we wanted to create something in print for the farmer at work in his field near Kampala, or the taxi driver who doesn't have a radio."

"Homophobia is created from a distance. But we are the people you live with," he continued. "We are the people you work with. We are the people you go out at night with. These stories show that."

While same sex relations are discriminated against by law in more than 70 countries worldwide, Uganda's push to make them punishable by death in 2009 became a lightning rod for international attention, particularly after it was revealed that three American Evangelical Christians may have influenced its drafting.

In March of that year, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer, outspoken pastors who contended that same-sex attraction is curable and that the "gay movement" is evil, traveled to Kampala to lead a three-day conference on societal threats posed by "the gay agenda." According to the New York Times, these talks were a highlight event, attracting the country's political figures along with thousands of civilians.

Months later, the Anti Homosexuality Bill debuted in Uganda's parliament. While two of the pastors denounced the bill's capital punishment clause as excessive, it eventually came to light that the third, Scott Lively, had consulted lawmakers on its formulation behind closed doors. Three years after the conference, Lively was sued by a Ugandan NGO for crimes against humanity.

An iteration of the bill passed in 2013 but was annulled by a constitutional court in 2014 due to a lack of quorum when the law was passed. But Ambrose, who helped organize Uganda's first pride parade and acted as a volunteer coordinator during Bombastic's production, said that while the law only existed for a few months, the years around it have been marked by high anti-gay sentiment in the nation.

"There have been a lot of outings since the law was introduced," Ambrose said, referring to a common practice where national tabloids print the names and faces of suspected LGBTI community members, sometimes as cover stories, and sometimes with demands of violence. He says he's had his name printed a few times.

But when he spoke about his community's struggle, his voice was remarkably at ease. Ambrose shrugged off my question of whether he and others have sought political asylum. "Maybe some people leave because they can't handle the pressure," he said, before breaking into a belly laugh. "This is a battlefield. Some fight on, some flee, some die. We are fighting for a free country. For the future."

One of the biggest indications of Bombastic's impact is the flood of emails Vincent and others receive every day at their primary media site, Kuchu Times. Since printing and distributing all 15,000 copies of the magazine's first run ("Even I don't have a copy, the demand is so high," Ambrose noted), international support has continued to pour in, overwhelming their small editorial troupe with expressions of gratitude, donation offers, and media requests.

This is a battlefield. Some fight on, some flee, some die. We are fighting for a free country. For the future.

"People need this publication," Vincent told me. He noted how Ugandan parents make up a significant portion of that incoming correspondence. Largely educated on gay or transgender issues by the country's demonizing media campaigns, many parents reached out to Bombastic to thank them for broadcasting stories that felt similar to what their sons and daughters had gone through, and which they would have struggled to understand without reading Bombastic's accounts.

"They read these stories and see that this is happening in their house, and then they reach out because they want to know how to talk to their children," he said.

Another measure of impact came when Bombastic's editor and human rights activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera was called for a visit by Uganda's Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo. Lokodo is often considered a staunch enemy of the LGBTI community, due to national crusades like his 2012 campaign to ban 38 non-governmental organizations in the country that he believed were promoting homosexuality.

"All he did was ask her some basic questions about the magazine," said Vincent. Some time after Nabagesera left, according to Vincent, Lokodo ordered police to collect any copies of Bombastic they found in public. "But the message was already out," continued Vincent. "People had already read it, including the minister. That is what matters."

The magazine has been burnt in public and its volunteers and editors have been accosted with threats of violence. But Nabagesera, Ambrose, Vincent, and their crew of more than 100 volunteers are already planning a second edition of 15,000 copies, with an ambitious distribution plan that aims to get an issue into every pair of Ugandan hands.

"When you look at the media's perception of [the LGBTI community], so much is focused on AIDS, human rights, types of advocacy," said Ambrose. "But there is a gap between these things and the voices of the people they affect."

"We heard the call for these stories," he concluded, "So we responded to the call. We responded with Bombastic."

*The Ugandan queer community explicitly includes "I" for "intersex" in their acronym.

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