PHOTOS

Facing Persecution: Portraits of Uganda’s Threatened LGBT Activists

Mar 07, 2014 at 5:49 PM ET

Ever since Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill criminalizing homosexual activity, the country’s LGBT population has been under siege. The law calls for sentences ranging from 14 years to life for charges of “aggravated homosexuality.” The law also criminalizes any allies of the LGBT community; anyone from public health workers to landlords to taxi drivers could be tried and imprisoned for “promotion.”

The law has meant that even photographs of the LGBT community have become dangerous to them. Ugandan tabloids like Red Pepper and Hello regularly publish photos, names and personal information of homosexual activists and citizens on their front pages, outing many and exposing all of them to abuse, including death threats. Some of the photos are pulled from social media sites, but many come from interviews with foreign news outlets.

These double-exposure portraits feature some of the most visible members of the LGBT rights movement—people who are defiantly public about their sexual identities and determined not to go underground. Even so, I wanted to convey that even the most prominent activists have to keep a part of themselves hidden to stay safe. This is what it means to be gay and illegal in Uganda.

I spent two weeks in Uganda in January, shortly after Parliament had passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill when it was still unclear whether or not Museveni was going to sign it into law. The bill had passed under suspicious circumstances, without the quorum required by the Ugandan Constitution, and the president issued a series of statements condemning the MPs involved. Activists were cautiously optimistic, and they were angry. So they intensified their efforts to demystify homosexuality, racing against a signature they hoped would never come. They wanted their faces to be seen, to educate the outside world and to change perceptions in their own neighborhoods, workplaces and families.

Daniella Zalcman’s reporting in Uganda was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.