Is That a Boy or a Girl?

Is that a boy or a girl?

I’ve never felt comfortable with laws against hate crimes or with designations of particular groups as “hate groups,” which seem to me to come way too close to banning thoughts. After all, any assault is a hate crime. If a man beats someone nearly to death, what does it matter if he did it because she’s his girlfriend and he’s enraged that she spoke to another man, or because he spotted some stranger on the street kissing another girl? Whether he yells, “you cheating bitch” or “you fucking dyke,” aren’t his rage and his fists equally dangerous? And I believe so profoundly in individual liberty to believe and say anything, no matter how disgusting or repulsive someone else might believe it to be, that designating a group a “hate group” has troubled me profoundly. Call those groups liars, sure. Educate with the facts. But I’ve been queasy about the harsh categorization.

But as I’ve learned about Mich’s beating in Kampala, which I wrote about here yesterday, I’ve come to see that certain words are actually violent threats—not just against the individual, but against the entire community that the individual  represents. That assault is not just violence against the individual, but is also a warning against anyone who looks like her and dares imagine that she has a right to exist. Seen this way, a hate crimes law might be most important as a symbol, the introduction of the concept that that group, even if we dislike it, has a right to exist in our society. Whether or not its penalties are invoked is almost secondary: passing the law itself educates the polity at large and the police in particular that such threats and assaults violate a pluralist social contract, announcing that all of us, even X group, have a place under the sun.  And designating a group a “hate group” might clarify that its words are incitements to such vigilante violence.

Uganda, needless to say, has no such laws against hate crimes. What it bans, instead, are sympathetic portrayals of LGBT lives. It treats us as enemies of the state. 

That's why Mich, a Ugandan transwoman, was beaten viciously by a group of Kampala bar patrons who perceived her to be gay. One man smashed her face against the concrete, another person tried to strangle her, someone else kicked her in the ribs. When a group of LGBT activists tried to get her help, doctors and police ignored her. A foreign official finally, secretly, helped her get medical care.  I first heard about this from an American reporter, Andy Kopsa, who happened to be in Kampala reporting another story. She put me in touch with Clare Byarugaba, a human rights activist who works with Uganda's LGBT community.

When I spoke with her over Skype this past Sunday, Byarugaba sounded worn down from grief; she told me about the beating in a thin voice, slowed down and choking on some of the details. It had been awhile, she said, since she had seen someone with such a terrible beating. And yet, she said, beatings of trans people and butch lesbians is “quite common,” occurring once or twice a week, maybe more outside Kampala.

Mich was willing—with much coaxing—to report it to the police. Most victims refuse to do that. “They don’t want to be outed,” Clare told me. “They lay low, saying, ‘I don’t want the police to find out about me.’”

Her organization does safety training for transwomen and butch lesbians—and warns them to be alert as soon as they hear that taunting, hateful question, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ “If someone sees a boy who looks like a girl, they know that is a gay man. Or if they see a girl who is very butch, they know that is a lesbian woman. They are the most at risk; they’re the face of the LGBT community.” How at risk are they? Transwomen or butch lesbians, she says, “can’t stay in a house more than three months, or people start to ask: Is that a boy or a girl?” When her group does safety trainings, they explain that if you see certain signs of threats, do not ignore them. People start to talk to one another about you. The children start in with their taunts. So the visibly transgendered (masculine women, feminine men) end up having to move, and often need to avoid particular neighborhoods where the derision has gotten too great. And here’s where I started to grasp, at a gut level, the need for hate crimes laws: certain kinds of taunts are warnings that vigilanteism is on its way. 

Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honored Byarugaba and six other Ugandans with a “Human Rights Defender” award for their efforts, putting the Ugandan government on notice that these people’s efforts are being watched. But getting recognized by a foreign government doesn’t make Byarugaba’s daily life any easier. At times, in fact, international efforts can backfire. She notes that even though Western governments and bodies like the UN Human Rights Commission have pressed Ugandan leaders on LGBT rights, the government simply insists that there is no discrimination, and promises to investigate violations against LGBT persons—and then ignores or defies the pressure, keeping up the drumbeat of discussion that LGBT people threaten everyone else’s children: recruiting, molesting, and the like. As a result, ordinary people—like Mich’s attacker--take it upon themselves to be vigilant—or should I say, to be vigilantes, policing the streets themselves.

I asked Byarugaba whether it’s helpful or harmful to have international attention, and what non-Ugandans can and should do. “Keep an eye on Uganda,” she said. “Don’t take the death of that [death penalty for homosexuality] bill for granted. The antigay campaign is far from over.” And yet it is harmful when foreign governments attach LGBT-rights conditions to international aid. That only brings backlash. What works best: when Clare and her fellow Ugandan human rights activists talk about what happens to how Ugandans’ LGBT neighbors are treated, presenting it as an issue about how Africans are treating Africans. Too much Western pressure gets people angry about outside interference in local issues. Once other governments start to weigh in, she said, “it changes the focus from African people in grave danger to issues of sovereignty.” On the one hand, it’s important to have the protection of being able to say that the world is watching how Uganda is treating its LGBT people; on the other hand, when other governments threaten to withhold desperately needed aid, Byarugaba said, other Ugandans get angry, asking, “Why is this such a big deal, and not poverty or HIV?” Of course, the truth is that, as the Prospect has reported in depth, antigay attitudes are the real Western import. But those attitudes are now deeply in the culture. 

Fortunately, she said, the international human rights community has learned from past backlash to check in with Ugandan activists before taking any public stance or action. “That is a good place to be, Byarugaba said. “Take our lead. Don’t jump ahead of us.”

Right now she belives that what’s essential is to keep documenting and telling the stories of abuses and mistreatment—like Mich’s. “We are always at risk,” she said. “If that risk doesn’t have a face, it is easier to ignore.” Local news coverage isn’t necessarily helpful. “75 percent of Ugandan people would say, ‘yes, it is good that they beat him up. They have been recruiting our children; they should die.’” And yet how else can those other 25 percent, those potential allies, reach their neighbors, family, and friends? Anyone who speaks out publicly in favor of LGBT rights is in danger of arrest. The same week that Mich was beaten, Ugandan citizen David Cecil was arrested for allowing his bar to be used to stage a play a Ugandan businessman who starts coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay. Cecil took this on after Ugandan authorities had denied permission for the play to be performed in the National Theater, according to The Guardian. If convicted, Cecil faces two years in jail.

In other words, public expression of sympathy toward LGBT people leads directly to jail—while anyone who spreads lies and hate about LGBT people gets to walk around freely, policing the streets.

This is what leaves Byarugaba sounding so worn out. “As activists we can’t stop talking,” she says. “But it’s a dilemma. [Most Ugandans] still believe that gay people are a threat.” Her voice is heavy and slow as she says, “We don’t know how to handle it. It’s an uphill struggle. If our own President is not speaking out against such violence…” her voice trails off. “It’s hard to go against public homophobia. The environment doesn’t give us that much space. We will not stop. It’s a struggle for our lives.”

Tomorrow: what makes a Ugandan human rights defender tick?

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