Picture this: you are a citizen and part of your civic duties include voting for your leaders. You wake up, dress up and go to the polling station. When you get there, you get discriminated against because of how you are dressed to a point that you change your mind about participating in the exercise. It sounds ridiculous, yes? No. This was the reality of some masculine-presenting lesbians in Uganda when they went to vote, as captured in the report on the impact of Covid-19 on Lesbian Bisexual and Queer womxn by The Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG).
“Sue is a masculine–presenting lesbian. The day before voting, she was very excited to vote for who she believed was best suited to be her president. She had all her clothes and necessary documents prepared. All the excitement came crumbling down when she reached the polling station and people started whispering, she noticed she was the centre of attention. She was so uncomfortable and worried for her safety that she considered abandoning voting and going back home. In the end, she decided to go through with the voting but couldn’t stay for the vote counting.”
“Brenda, a bold masculine-presenting lesbian chose to wear a bright coloured pair of shorts and a t-shirt and went to vote. She dressed up that way to dare anyone who was bold enough to walk up to her and say anything homophobic. When she reached the polling station, all attention was shifted to her when they started whispering. She did not give a damn. To make matters worse, her surname is masculine-sounding. That too raised eyebrows, but apart from the looks and whispers, nothing significant happened to her. She says she considered opting out of voting but later changed her mind because she wanted to exercise her constitutional right to vote.”
“Randy, a masculine-presenting lesbian, had promised her partner that she would vote. But as soon as she reached the polling station, she started wondering if it was a wise decision. Other voters were giving her disapproving looks and whispering amongst themselves. She started contemplating going back home but remembered her promise to her partner and went through with it.”
Heightened Homophobia due to Covid-19 and elections
The incidents above as experienced by Sue, Brenda and Randy show the magnitude of homophobia in Uganda. Uganda is widely known for its very homophobic culture and its legislators’ attempts at passing an anti-homosexuality bill which has even been further worsened by the Covid-19 and the elections.
FARUG reports an increase in rape cases since some LBQ womxn had to go back to their homes where they were exposed to homophobic relatives and friends. Some of the relatives and friends had sexually assaulted the LBQ womxn due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, being close to such people further exposed them to unwanted sexual advances and violence.
As a result of the abuse, particularly in their households, increased substance abuse was also reported. LBQ womxn turned to drugs as a coping mechanism while sharing spaces with homophobic family members. Other than rape, there was also an increase in gender-based violence. FARUG’s counsellor and paralegal reported that GBV cases had increased compared to the period before Covid-19.
The LGBTIQ+ community was scapegoated by the president during campaigns and blamed for funding the opposition. The rhetoric was met with increased homophobia and transphobia in the country which affected LBQ women. As a result, LBQ womxn- particularly the masculine-presenting ones were verbally intimidated and threatened by the public. One lesbian reports that she was told, “We are going to beat you rastas”.
The threat of violence and intimidation hindered the movement of masculine-presenting women within the country. The polling stations were not spared as some masculine-presenting LBQ womxn were deprived of their right to vote. Apparently, some election officials felt that the masculine-presenting LBQ womxn did not have a right to vote, even though they had all the required documents to participate in the elections.
Both Covid-19 and the electioneering period increased homophobia in the country which largely affected the ability of masculine-presenting LBQ womxn from voting. For security purposes, some chose not to go to the polling stations since they feared the violence that would ensue. Some of those who managed to go to the polling stations were turned back based on how they presented, stemming from the widespread homophobia in the country.
Sue, Brenda and Randy were met with discriminative eyes and comments and they even contemplated changing their minds about voting. Voting in Uganda is a right that all citizens have and there are no laws barring people who dress in a particular way from voting. Due to homophobia based on real or perceived sexual orientation, some masculine-presenting LBQ womxn were locked out of the elections and did not exercise their right to vote as citizens of Uganda.