I’m standing in front of a table of headbands, bracelets and strap bags made from recycled materials at a fair trade event in New York City. I’m pitching my business, A. Bernadette, when a man walks over and says, “Why should I support you when you work in Uganda? They kill gays there! It’s such a hateful place!” I’m flustered, but manage something like; “We build and maintain relationships with a group of artisans who make accessories from natural and recycled materials. We believe in respect and we promote respect in Uganda.”
He told me that he couldn’t support anything having to do with Uganda because of its Anti-Homosexuality Laws and the fact that American evangelicals are exporting homophobia to Uganda. He said we should not support countries, organizations, or individuals who promote hate and homophobia. I was backed into a corner. The best argument I could come up with was that Uganda is a beautiful complex place, where, just like New York and everywhere else in this world, many kind and generous people live along with some hateful assholes. I wasn’t able to convince him. It was the first time I really defended Uganda’s well-publicized homophobia and I felt a little weak. In reality I wasn’t really convinced that I should be standing up for such an awful place. Thankfully, he was polite. The last thing he said was, “You should really think about what you’re doing there.” And that’s exactly what I did.
I lived in Jinja, Uganda for three years and continue to run my business travelling often between Uganda and NYC. This man was right in many ways. I witnessed disgusting homophobia (and sexism and racism) in Uganda. I inadvertently got stuck in a “kill the gays” parade led by white missionaries. Men commonly say, “A woman saying ‘no’ doesn’t really mean it.” Accusations of homosexuality are used as a weapon and result in beatings by angry mobs. Maybe I should hate Uganda. I know the women I work with aren’t comfortable with homosexuality. I also know Americans who feel the same way. Should I ignore them too?
While living in Uganda, I decided that, while I would avoid public or political controversy for my own safety and the safety of volunteers I was responsible for, I would make sure to speak up any time I heard a sexist, racist or homophobic comment in a private conversation.
While Ugandans are notoriously polite and do almost anything to avoid direct confrontation, we worked in a business environment where conflict happened and direct resolution was necessary. We developed our own organizational culture and styles of disagreeing in accepted ways. Over the years we faced many challenges and have worked through them together. I like to think that by combining our cultural standards and behaviors, we brought out the best each culture had to offer. We spoke often and passionately about safety, respect, and honesty. We encouraged young employees to share their opinion respectfully instead of silently disagreeing with elders. We encouraged women to contradict men and point out sexist remarks.
No one had ever before said to me, “You shouldn’t work in that place because those people are bad.” And I realized, that’s exactly why I should live and work in Uganda. There are many people who say hateful things without fully realizing the consequences; that they are promoting murder and torture. Many have never questioned their beliefs or motives and just repeat what they are told. I realized that I am and will continue to be in a position to fight for equality because I have built relationships based on trust and respect. I am able to have honest conversations and spend time listening to a person’s logic or religious beliefs. I’ve read the GLAAD articles and know how to respond.
We shouldn’t ignore or turn away from Uganda and Ugandans because of their bad behavior. In fact, it is more of a reason to reach out to them and talk about why they believe what they believe. That strategy has worked America and can work in Africa. We’ve reached a tipping point in America because not only do young people support equal rights, “a key factor in rising support for same-sex marriage is that 14% of all Americans say they’ve changed their minds on the issue.” Many Americans didn’t support equal rights until they had a gay friend or family member who came out and asked for their support.
Right now, we can choose to stay silent and passively accept Uganda’s vile, offensive new laws. We can choose to support a boycott against Uganda by withdrawing aid and diplomatic relationships. We can watch as Christianity is used to justify and promote violence. We can turn away from Uganda and its people. We can accuse and condemn Ugandans of being unjust and intolerant in the court of public opinion. Or we can reach out. We will support the LGBT community in both America and Uganda. We will let everyone know we do not support hate. We will not let hate survive in dark corners of America or thrive out in the open in Africa. Our voices will shine the light of justice and love and for everyone to see.
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