As a child in Uganda, John Bosco remembers hearing an old wives’ tale that if a man fell asleep in the sun and it crossed over him, he would wake up as a woman. “I used to try that as a kid,” says John now, some 30 years later. He sits at a table in a busy cafe across the road from the railway station in Southampton, his fingers playing with the handle of a glass of hot chocolate. “I’d spend all day lying under the sun. From childhood, I wanted to be a girl. I wanted dolls. At school, I played netball. I wanted to dress up like a girl … I rubbed herbs into my chest that were meant to make your breasts grow. I tried everything but it didn’t work.”
He tells me that there was not one single moment when he realised he was gay; that the knowledge of it had always been there, unexpressed until he found the right words. As he grew older, John started being attracted to men. On the radio, he heard stories of gay couples being beaten and killed by police. He says that if he could have changed himself, he would because he so desperately wanted to be considered “normal”, to fit in, to make his family proud.
When he went to university to study for a business administration degree, his relatives and neighbours in Kampala would ask why he never had a girlfriend. “I used lots of excuses – I’m not yet ready, or I have a girlfriend who doesn’t live in the same area,” he says. “It was difficult because you cannot be open [about your sexuality]. You can’t socialize like any other person. A lot of the time, you have to keep your distance. You feel you’re not yourself. It makes things really hard.”
This is the reality of being gay in modern Uganda, a place where homosexuality is criminalized under the penal code, punishable by life imprisonment. According to human rights organisations, about 500,000 homosexuals live in the country, unable to admit their sexuality for fear of violent retribution either from the police or their own communities. Anti-gay legislation is a relic of British colonialism, designed to punish what the imperial authorities thought of as “unnatural sex” – thinking that was subsequently reinforced by wave upon wave of Catholic missionaries.
Although much of that legacy has been dismantled as Uganda modernizes, homophobia is as entrenched as ever. An anti-homosexuality bill, due to be discussed by parliament before June, advocates the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” –ie for gay people with HIV practising sex, or gay people who have sex with someone under 18. Known colloquially as the “kill the gays” bill, it would also make it a crime not to report someone you know to be a practising homosexual, thereby putting parents, siblings and friends at risk.