Erik Friedly, 47, is an American citizen living in Kampala, Uganda, working in health communications. He has lived there for nearly a year and will live there for at least one more year if not longer. In an email interview with the GA Voice, Friedly discusses the LGBT community in Uganda and the impact the notorious "Kill the Gays Bill" has on the gay people living there. The bill is expected to be passed by the Parliament perhaps as soon as this week.
Are you openly gay to your colleagues? Do you have to be careful about who knows you are gay?
I am open to most of my American colleagues in the same way that I am at home in the U.S.; it just becomes apparent in getting to know each other and becoming friends. So, yes, most of them know, I think. I am not, however, open with my Ugandan colleagues in the same way. Some may suspect, of course, but I am not as open with them because of attitudes here which most — not all — people hold. But, for example, I am certain that my household staff must at least suspect what my orientation is but we obviously never discuss it.
Gay American living in Uganda opens up about its gay community and the ‘Kill the Gays Bill’
Are you aware of a gay “community” in Uganda? People in the U.S. think that gay people are constantly being hunted. Is this true or can you give a better description of how gay people are treated according to what you have seen and heard first-hand?
I was truly surprised — and this may be my naïvete — when I came here and discovered that there is in fact a gay community. There are gay organizations, “gay bars,” etc. There was even the first-ever Gay Pride celebration this summer (until the police broke it up). But I don’t want to overstate it, because it is still very much underground and very difficult here. So many gay men are married or have girlfriends as a cover of sorts. But gay people are living their lives here as best they can every day. There is incredible courage and bravery here among the LGBT community; it’s humbling. And believe it or not, there are some fierce queens here (and I say that with the utmost respect!). That’s an absolutely beautiful thing to see.
What is the general opinion of the bill among people, especially Ugandans, you know and associate with?
That’s a tough question. While the legislation is very popular, it is hard to tell at times if it’s truly the intent of the legislation that people support or is it the way the bill thumbs its nose at the West, whom they see as imposing neo-colonialism on their culture by influencing events and politics.
Do you follow the bill closely and what kinds of concerns does it raise in you? Do you ever fear for your own well being?
I follow the legislation very closely, yes. I have no concerns for my safety or situation (though perhaps I should). What I am concerned about is all of the young men and women I’ve come to know here who will live in even greater fear if it passes. I’m concerned about how it will impact Uganda’s rising HIV prevalence, because HIV infection is much, much higher here among men who have sex with men — and the majority of those MSM report either being married or having concurrent sexual partners. Driving these men underground and stigmatizing them further will only drive them away from critical health services and potentially exacerbate Uganda’s serious HIV epidemic. And I’m concerned for the future of Uganda’s democracy…who will be next if this passes?
What do you love about living in Uganda?
In spite of it all, I love it here. I love Africa, period. Uganda is a gorgeous country with sweet, gracious people. I love the huge, big, beautiful sky. The weather is nearly perfect. I have fruit growing in my yard year round, and vegetables too. The work is challenging. I love the way, whenever you arrive at a business or shop, you are greeted with “You are most welcome.” I love that every business meeting starts with trays of tea and soft drinks and a few small snacks. There’s incredible potential here too. And the men are absolutely beautiful — which helps.
Can you share a couple anecdotes of your stay so far?
That’s hard to say because almost every day holds some remarkable moment, sight, or event. I will give you one sad one and one sweet one, because Africa is a constant mix of the two, I think.
I was in Kalangala, which are the islands in Lake Victoria that are home to migratory fisherfolk who have some of the highest HIV rates in Uganda. We were in the home of a man who is HIV+, and his wife who is not, to talk to them about the challenges of living as a sero-discordant couple. Just as we were finishing, someone ran from the village to deliver the news that the husband’s sister had just died in childbirth — something that happens to about 16 women every day in Uganda. To see this man, who is big and strong and struggling himself, just sit down and cover his face in his hands was striking. The moment represented so many of the challenges of life here. People living in tiny, homemade shacks, facing so many difficulties everyday. It takes strong people, I think, to keep going in these circumstances and still smile and welcome strangers to their home.
A happier moment was recently when I had the opportunity to visit a Muslim school in eastern Uganda to distribute some school supplies to the children. Seeing all of those beautiful, smiling faces, all lined up and wearing their neat British-style school uniforms, so excited to receive such small tokens. I felt like Santa Claus. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
Do you think Americans can have a say in stopping the ‘Kill the Gays Bill’ —- do you think it is important we as LGBT Americans understand what is going on and what specific things do you think we can do to help LGBT people in Uganda? (A small group of Atlanta activists held a protest against the Uganda bill at the Georgia State Capitol last week.)
That’s a tough question. I think that if there is too much external pressure on this, we risk pushing the Ugandans (who are very proud) to pass this legislation just to spite the West, and the US in particular. It is a delicate balance, honestly. I think LGBT groups in the US need to know whats going on here, but I think that perhaps instead of agitating for the US to withdraw its considerable foreign aid to Uganda, they should find ways to support the fledgling human rights groups here in Uganda, as they know best how to navigate this dangerous time better than we do.
What else would you like to share?
Without sounding cliched and condescending and without reducing a huge, complex continent to some golden-hued ideal, which is always hard for Westerners in Africa, I would want people to know what an amazing place this is. There’s a spirit and a way of life here that — despite all of the challenges — holds tremendous lessons for us all. Africa can renew your spirit, I think, in many ways, just as it challenges your patience and sometimes brings you to tears.