Two days will forever be etched in Amare’s mind. The first was when he finally accepted that he was gay. And the second was the day he realised that being gay could get him killed. That day his father, a gay pastor in Uganda, was shot dead for his sexual preference.
“So I ran. I ran as far and a fast as I could,” he says.
Amare is one of the thousands of gay refugees who have found solace in a foreign land. “Even if it means I have had to start from nothing, it is better than living continuously in fear,’ he says.
Laws criminalising LGBT identity are still in place in countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, according to research by the UN’s refugee agency in 2015. Social exclusion and other forms of violence were reported everywhere.
The severity of those laws can vary, but Ugandans face a particularly harsh variant. In late 2013, parliament passed the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, which broadened the criminalisation of same sex relations in Uganda, stating that any man who permits a male person to have “carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature”, is committing an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.
While the offence of aggravated homosexuality, defined in the law as a same-sex sexual act with a person under the age of 18, carries a death penalty. The legislation also includes provisions about persons outside of Uganda who are charged with violating the act, asserting that they may be extradited to Uganda for punishment.
Implementation of the act has not been smooth. On 1 August 2014, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the Act invalid as it was not passed with the required quorum. “But, although the constitutional court ruled the act invalid on account of procedural grounds, many saw it as an opportunity to target us. They had the law to back them up. It mattered little what the courts said,” Amare says.
In 2011 gay activist David Kato died after receiving serious head injuries in a brutal attack. Photograph: Stringer/AP
And even before the passing of the law, the signs of a frightful future for Uganda’s gay community were all too visible. On 26 January 2011 Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, David Kato, was found with serious head injuries and later died of his injuries, in what authorities in Uganda characterised as a robbery. His death came barely weeks after winning a court victory over a tabloid that called for homosexuals to be killed.
“The movement into Kenya started in 2005, a year during which intolerance grew. And the politics of the day plus the intrusion into East Africa by American evangelists did not help much,” Dennis Nzioka, a sexual and gender minorities activist who focuses on LGBT matters in Africa, and a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. “But the final push came with the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill.”
After the bill was passed things got worse, according to Amare. “Police and vigilante groups would raid our meetings and beat and arrest us. Some of my friends were left badly beaten. This is when I decided I could not stay on any longer.” The threat of violence was not abstract for him. It was real and personal.
And then at the end of 2014 Amare’s father was caught in a hotel with another man.“He was shot and died on the spot. News of his death was spread on media, church, and to family members. Attention shifted to me.”
Amare had started living with his father. He was an adult. “Everyone assumed I was like him. It was only a matter of time before they came for me,” he says.
So he left for Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “I had nothing on me. Just a change of clothes,” he says. He got to Nairobi alone. He says he slept in the streets for two weeks before seeking shelter in a church.
Kenya is one of the few East African nations that has provided homes, permanently or temporarily to LGBT refugees. “At the height of the movements in 2014, we recorded 400 LGBT refugees. The number has since dropped and now keeps fluctuating because a lot of them are being resettled in countries outside Africa,” Nzioka says.
Of those who have found shelter in Nairobi, Nzioka says 90% of them come from Uganda. The rest are spread between Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
“Kenya is less intolerant to members of the gay community compared to some of her neighbours. Although there isn’t a clear government policy with regard to the LGBT community, organisations working primarily in this space have been left to thrive,” Nzioka says. “There is no harassment of staff, nor the shaming of those who have come out as gay.”
True, there have been a few problems. “Uganda and Kenya have different education systems so I could not proceed with university. This means that a good job was hard to come by,” says Amare.
Nzioka says this lack of continuation with education and an almost impossibility of professional progression has relegated many LGBT refugees into a difficult life.
“To sustain themselves they engage in sex work for survival. Others look for boyfriends to fund their livelihoods and hopefully start small businesses for them,” he says.
LGBT persons are frequently subjected to abuse and exploitation by both detention authorities and other refugees, according to the UNHCR study: “Asylum-seekers and refugees with a diverse sexual orientation or gender identity face distinct vulnerabilities. In addition to severe discrimination and violence in their countries of origin – including sexual abuse, lack of police protection, exclusion from access to basic services, arbitrary detention, and social and familial ostracism and exclusion – LGBT asylum-seekers and refugees are frequently subject to continued harm while in forced displacement.”
Amare wasn’t any different. “I didn’t have anything. Life in Nairobi is expensive. To make ends meet, I sold myself. That was the darkest period of my life,” he says. “After almost a year prowling the streets I chose a different path after I started seeing my friends get sick… plus the risk of abuse increased.”
There has been some tightening up of the situation in recent months. From some points of view, LGBT refugees were receiving preferential treatment, so individuals who were not of the community took advantage. This led to more stringent vetting of the LGBT refugees. In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the LGBT refugee processing centres that some NGOs had set up were shut down, and all incoming refugees, regardless of their sexual orientation were sent up north to Kakuma refugee camp. This change was not as a result of Nairobi’s stance on the LGBT community but because of a broader government stance on refugees by the Kenyan government.
For now though, Amare is among a hundred LGBT refugees awaiting resettlement in third countries. But that is not a priority.
“First I finish my education,” he says. He is finally enrolled in a Kenyan university pursuing a degree in theology. He wants to be a gay pastor like his slain father.
“It is only god who knows the heart of man,” Amare says. Eventually he came out to his remaining parent. “She understood. A mother can never disown you.”