Disgrace. Prostitute. Sodomite.
These are labels one might hear extremists throw against LGBT individuals in the United States. But in Call Me Kuchu, a documentary following the human rights activism of David Kato, these labels carry even darker undertones for LGBT people in Uganda.
The film documents a nation deeply at odds with LGBT issues, specifically the politics around the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. This bill advocates life imprisonment (formerly death) for HIV-positive Ugandans engaging in “aggravated homosexuality” and a three-year imprisonment for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual within 24 hours of their discovery.
“Kuchu” is a term used by Kato and other members of the Ugandan LGBT community to describe themselves. Derived from the Swahili term “makuchu,” it roughly translates to an equivalent of “queer” except that, for the most part, Ugandans use it as a unifying term, one which draws them together as members of a community rather than identifies them as solitary victims.
Call Me Kuchu begins with an Ugandan religious leader delivering discriminatory propaganda to a manic, applauding crowd. The film then switches to the backyard celebration of a gay Ugandan couple’s ninth anniversary, depicting the duo surrounded by supportive friends.
As these events take place on screen, the distinct cacophony of a printing press can be heard, serving as a juxtaposition of two very different social scenes and symbolizing the media’s influence on Ugandan society.
As the film progresses, the importance of truth in journalism and public perception of freedom of expression move to the film’s forefront. The most novel question that Call Me Kuchu raises isn’t whether the kuchus deserve equality or if the Ugandan evangelicals and government are wrong. Actually, Kato’s fight against Ugandan prejudice is closely tied to the coverage of the Ugandan LGBT community by Rolling Stone, a weekly tabloid published in Kampala, Uganda.
For those reading this article —and anyone who reads any sort of news publication, for that matter — the actions of Rolling Stone and Managing Editor Giles Muhame are appalling. Under Muhame’s direction, Rolling Stone first outed over 100 LGBT Ugandans with the headline “Hang Them,” then falsely blamed the LGBT community for bombings in Kampala.
The use of misinformation as a weapon against the Ugandan LGBT community is a central aspect of Call Me Kuchu’s portrayal of the last year of Kato’s life. The bigoted opinions expressed by Muhame, delivered with chilling conviction, reflect the opinion of a large majority of Ugandans, encouraged by the influence of American evangelicals such as Scott Lively and Lou Engle.
In the words of Muhame, “We shall ignore the right of privacy in the interest of the public.”
In addition to Kato’s plight, the film closely follows three other kuchu Ugandans who must deal with damaging press coverage and the danger imposed by Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The stories of Kato, Naome Ruzindana, John Abdallah Wambere (better known as Longjones) and Stosh Mugisha each speak to a different aspect of the kuchu experience in Uganda — experiences that, on a superficial level, aren’t so different than those of LGBT Americans. Naome and Longjones fear whether they should officially come out while Stosh endures the confusion and ridicule that comes with being transgender.
Ugandans have differing reactions toward kuchu identity. Humor is, surprisingly, a pervasive element in Call Me Kuchu. It manifests as a coping mechanism for Kato and his fellow activists when faced with hardship, but it also fuels their celebration of themselves, shown during their impromptu drag fashion show.
On the other hand, laughter also becomes a means of ridicule for anti-LGBT Ugandans to express their lack of support and underlying discomfort with the issue. Though it is reassuring to see Kato make light of certain situations, it is equally alarming to view his opponents jokingly disregard the humanity of the LGBT community.
Politics, religion and sexuality aside, equality is an ideal that shouldn’t have to be compromised. In the United States, the issue of equality is debated in terms of marriage — with whom we can choose to legally partner and raise a family.
In Uganda, equality is reduced to an even more basic level. Not only are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people denied the right to marry, they are under constant threat of exposure and persecution.
The depiction of the Ugandan social situation, aided by the raw testimonies of the film’s subjects is eye-opening and heartbreaking. Before anyone can truly support an argument against the unalienable human rights, they need only consider what the Ugandan bill implies.
As a doctor, would you report a patient who comes to you in confidentiality, asking for help? As a parent, would you turn in your son or daughter to be imprisoned for life, simply because of an identity they are born with?
Despite the hatred promoted by certain groups, beacons of hope still exist in Call Me Kuchu, even after Kato’s tragic murder. Friendship, for one, emerges as a source of strength for the activists; their love for one another is a testament to the veracity of their cause.
This brings the documentary full circle to its original questioning of the true definition of human rights. Can a man love a man or a woman love a woman just as men and women love each other?
At Kato’s funeral, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo says it best: “I am free because I know the truth. And I will stand for that truth.”