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Glenna Gordon: “The Secret Lives of Gay Ugandans”

February 1, 2011

By **Glenna Gordon**

Last week David Kato, an openly gay activist in Uganda, was brutally murdered after a local paper published his name and photograph along with the names of hundreds of other gay Ugandans and a banner beside them reading “Hang Them.” I contacted Glenna Gordon, a photojournalist based in Africa, to discuss the growing homophobia in Uganda and her photo essay “The Secret Lives of Gay Ugandans” to help shed light on the climate of fear and hatred that allowed for his death to happen.

—Jamie Goldenberg for Guernica

**Guernica:** Your project centers on the secret lives of Uganda’s gay community. Why are they leading secret lives? How much can and do they share with the outside world?

**Glenna Gordon:** When I went to Uganda to work on this project in January 2010, the gay community, and the virulent legislation against them, was very much in the news, locally and internationally. Most of the coverage focused on the lawmaker who had brought the bill to parliament, the Uganda public’s reactions, and protests both for and against the bill. So while everything was focused on what was happening in the public eye, I really wanted to focus on what happened in private.

Some members of the gay community are “ out” in a way that somewhat resembles an American conception of being out, but most are not. And even for those who are, their love lives are certainly not conducted in public, or even hinted at publicly. Pepe Onziema, an activist with SMUG [Sexual Minorities Uganda], for example, is out and is very public about her sexuality. Her partner, however, is not. When I went to their home, Pepe had no problem being photographed or named, but I made sure to conceal the identity of her partner.

**Guernica:** Being noticed by the press is potentially very dangerous to many in the gay community in Uganda. David Kato was killed shortly after winning a case against a Ugandan newspaper that leaked the names of many gay citizens. What was it like to become intimate enough with the subjects of your photographs so as to be allowed into their homes and relationships with a camera?

**Glenna Gordon:** There’s a big difference between being in the press locally and internationally. While some of my photos were published in the London Times and Time magazine, that doesn’t mean that everyone on the streets of Kampala saw them. Many people—including David’s neighbors, saw the publication in Uganda that listed people’s names and put David Kato’s photograph on the cover. Pepe’s neighbors are unlikely to see the photos I took of her and her partner.

In terms of access, it certainly wasn’t easy. I had lived in Uganda in for over two years, between 2006 and 2008, and knew many members of the community from a time before they were at the epicenter of the news cycle. This made it easier for me than if I had just shown up without having a prior relationship to build on.

Even so, it was still an uphill battle. I met with everyone I photographed multiple times before I went to their homes to discuss what I wanted to do and to gain trust and permission.

When I was actually at people’s homes, it was more like hanging out than anything else. Pepe’s partner made lunch and we sang along to Tracy Chapman songs and joked about how Pepe couldn’t cook. During a visit with another couple, we read poetry and I hung out while he packed for a trip to a conference in Ethiopia.

**Guernica:** Is being photographed in this way a political act for them?

**Glenna Gordon:** Yes—I think it is. I emailed everyone I had a photograph of earlier this week and asked if they wanted me to take the photos off my website, since their security is certainly higher priority than my portfolio, and everyone insisted I keep them up, always with the undertone that David Kato wouldn’t have asked me to take his photo down. I double checked—are you sure?? “ I’m more out than ever,” said one person. And uniformly, everyone who had already agreed to be identified in photos still wanted to be identified. I thought about removing the photos anyway, but decided doing so would be paternalistic and undermine their activism and commitment to continuing to fight for gay rights. It’s amazing to see how David’s death makes people more committed to fighting. It shows a huge amount of strength and commitment. I think most people, myself included, would cower in the shadows after such tragedy. The kuchus in Uganda refuse to do this.

_____________________________________________________________________

**Glenna Gordon** is an American photographer and journalist who splits her time between New York and Africa. Her photographs are intimate descriptions of daily life, from the mundane to the exceptional, the political to the passionate. She attended to UC Berkeley and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Glenna first visited Africa in 2006, lived there for the next four years, and continues to travel to East and West Africa regularly.

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