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Being LGBT in East Africa

Being LGBT in East Africa

Neus publishes a book by Frédéric Noy which concludes a long-term project on the LGBT community — or, as he prefers to call them, LGBT minority — in East Africa. The book comes out at a time when the candidates in Uganda’s January presidential election are turning homosexuality into a political scape goat, blaming it for all of the country’s ills.
Collins still has numerous burn marks on his body from an assault. © Frédéric Noy

For “7 years, 5 months, and 25 days” Frédéric Noy documented the LGBT community and their struggle in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. “I wanted to approach this issue from a human rights perspective, limiting myself to a territory whose culture and history is fairly homogenous,” he explains. “I wanted to work as an anthropologist, within a small area but with an in-depth coverage.”

The only point of difference among the three countries is the law. It is thus articles of law that open the book, entitled Ekifire, published by Neus. While Rwanda recognizes only civil, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, in Uganda carnal relationship with a person of the same sex is treated on the same level as intercourse with an animal: it is considered unnatural and punishable by imprisonment. But whatever the letter of the law, homosexuality is invariably rejected by society at large.

Behind the scenes on Trans Day of Remembrance, a group of costumed performers wait to take the stage. © Frédéric Noy
In a remote suburb of Kampala, a transgender woman does the splits during a housewarming party.
​​​ The house is also a refuge where many transgender people live. © Frédéric Noy 

“The law is supported by the courts, which is fine, but the real prison is the social prison, the prison of the family, the prison of stigma. That’s what brands you and what will end up killing you, it’s the little death,” says Frédéric Noy. Faced with this reality, the photographer stepped back to make room for those he documented. The testimonies of these people, printed on fine paper in the middle of the book, cover thirty pages. As for image captions, these are compiled in another notebook inserted at the end of the volume, to allow the images to speak for themselves, show the people as they really are, without any labels. “These are true fighters,” Noy says.

The texts tell us how everyone first became aware of their homosexuality, how their family circle took the news, how they live — or, in some cases, survive — and what they feel. They describe the rejection, the secrecy, the physical violence, the persecution from one city to the next. There are those who fight, those who give up and betray who they are, those who marry to deceive the neighbors, and those who are happy. The narrative arc of the images and testimonies follows a trajectory that recalls the words of one of the protagonists, Nicolas Opiyo. A human rights lawyer who has successfully pleaded several high-profile constitutional cases, including the fight against the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), Opiyo is “an incurable optimist, even though he is on the front lines,” notes Frédéric Noy.

Bilal and Queen Jimmy, two gay friends, bicker in the room a friend rents in Bujumbura. They meet regularly to talk, to confide in each other, to put together plans and projects, out of sight. © Frédéric Noy 
Pauline, a young lesbian in a friend’s house in Kigali, prefers to live in hiding despite the absence of a law criminalizing homosexuality in Rwanda. © Frédéric Noy

“I firmly believe that people will change if we give the debate a human face and if we don’t stop talking about the issue,” wrote Opiyo. The book, in fact, opens with tragedies, with people who are forced to flee to avoid death or inferno: “Not three months go by without me ending up in prison,” said Brinch in Burundi. “Ekifire,” which lends the book its title, is the nickname of the LGBT community in Uganda. Literally, it means “half-dead.” This name takes on a disturbing double meaning as we read the testimonies: physical or psychological death always lurks in the shadows.

“As you splash your face with this water, I lose my way, dissolved in the sewage,” writes Poison Ivy in a poem that helps her “exorcise that moment of depression” that comes over whenever she removes the makeup that makes her feel like herself. Water, however, the water of Lake Victoria, brings the book to an encouraging conclusion. After rejection, exclusion, exile, and violence comes the possibility of living openly. And the photos echo this: the faces at the end of the book proudly face the camera while the bodies are turned toward the lake’s horizon, evoking the happy end imagined by Shakira: “Even a child that will come after us, born like us, will not be able to continue hiding. She will come, serene, after we have fought for our rights.”

During the International Day against Homophobia 2015, a young gay loungers on the shore of Lake Victoria, in Entebbe. On this day, dozens of community members gather for a party hosted by the Youth On Rock Foundation.
© Frédéric Noy
A young gay couple dance in a house rented by an activist in the outlying Nansana neighborhood of Kampala. This place serves as an office and a refuge. LGBT homelessness rates are on the rise because of widespread evictions, unemployment and abandonment by families on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Created in 2017, the refuge now hosts fifteen members of the community. © Frédéric Noy

By Laurence Cornet

Laurence Cornet is the editorial manager at Dystrub, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent exhibition curator based in Paris.

Frédéric Noy, Ekifire
264 Pp, €36

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