When Rita heard rumours that her son was gay she refused to believe it.
At the time, she thought that homosexuality was an abomination – a “problem” that happened elsewhere, not in Uganda. When she finally realised the truth, she felt that something bad had invaded her own home.
“When I confirmed it, I wept. I wept because I could not believe it… I locked myself in and wept,” she told The Comb. Uganda’s hostility towards homosexuality is well known. Gay sex is punishable by life imprisonment, and LGBTI people often face discrimination, threats and harassment.
But the battle over gay rights is often thought of as a situation with two clear sides – LGBTI individuals on one hand, and homophobic communities on the other.
The reality is a lot more messy, with parents like Rita caught in the middle – between the strongly held beliefs they have grown up with and the plight of their loved ones.
‘Rumours about my son’
A group in Uganda is trying to help parents like Rita understand and accept their children, and deal with the challenges and trauma of living with homophobia.
Rita found out about the rumours surrounding her son from a friend, who had heard people saying that he was homosexual.
She was in turmoil and started to think about whether there had been signs that she had missed.Eventually, her son confirmed it was true that he was gay. With friends and neighbours talking about the family, Rita locked herself in the house to escape the gossip andpublic shame, while her son’s father blamed her, saying she had failed as a mother.
Eventually, she says she “soothed herself”, realising that no-one else would look out for her son, and she tried to find a way to deal with the situation.
Rita found herself totally alone at a time when she needed advice and support. A huge turning-point for her came when her son heard about the new support group, and encouraged her to attend.
The group is called PFLAG Uganda, which stands for Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays. Its aim is to create a safe space where parents can come together with others who are in the same situation, to ask the questions and have the conversations that they would never normally dare to. The group’s founder is Clare Byarugaba, an openly lesbian LGBTI activist who was inspired by her own family’s experience.
Clare was outed by local tabloids before she had spoken to her family about her sexuality. She had no warning, and no way to prepare her parents for learning the truth and dealing with the shame that came with the revelations.
For gay Ugandans, one of the most painful costs of their sexuality can be rejection from families. Clare’s conviction is that for LGBTI people who are already so vulnerable in a country where homophobia is rampant, home should be the safest place, where they can always come back to and feel fully accepted.
But to achieve that, Clare realised that parents need support as well. She felt compassion for what her parents were going through, essentially being outed as parents of an LGBTI child – considered one of the biggest sources of shame in Uganda.