LGBTI Ugandan refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, protest for humane treatment on Jan. 26 at the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. (Photo courtesy of Kamarah Apollo)
Shunned by his family for acting too girlish, attacked by his neighbors for being gay, Ivan Kimbugwe fled to Kenya, only to face further homophobia there. Now he has a chance to reach safety in the United States. This is his story.
By Kamarah Apollo
Ivan Kimbugwe, with his face obscured for security. (Photo courtesy of Kamarah Apollo)
Ivan Kimbugwe, age 24, was born in the Rakai district of south Uganda, one of two boys in a family with six children. At a young age, he was criticized for behaving like a girl. Then things got worse, as he recounts here:
I was beaten and thrown into sewage water at age 11 because I acted too girlish,’’ Ivan said, crying. “That was back in 2003. On the way home from school, my school mates would harass me mercilessly for my mellow voice or my feminine pace. At that age, I thought I deserved to be mistreated, because my behavior was controversial.
I heard the village elders commenting about me to my parents. My father started despising me. He didn’t feel comfortable walking with me in our neighborhood or going to the nearby market.
Soon I was estranged from my entire family, especially my cousins. My life became very lonely. Whatever environment I was in became traumatic. Nobody wanted to hear anything I had to say. Everybody believed I was worthless. They didn’t acknowledge any suggestion I made.
Map from Germany shows the location of the Rakai District in Uganda.
In April 2015, I met a boy I called Elvis, a clothes retailer who smiled at me and watched as I walked through the market, purchasing some items. When I approached him innocently to bargain for some of his merchandise, he spoke to me in a friendly and lovely manner. I was surprised. A human being was paying attention to me. He tolerated my mannerisms.
Before long, we embraced. We started living together. He taught me the business of buying clothes from Tanzania and selling them in our rural area, where he had two small shops.
We stayed together even as the neighbors wondered about our weird relationship. In rural areas, people tend to inquire about the personal life of each person in their community. They investigated us, but we didn’t pay attention until it was too late. We used to stay in our house for three to four days at a time.
The community elders called a mysterious meeting about threats to our rural area. We weren’t invited. Later we observed people whispering about us. People would spit at us. I became afraid as I observed such a fierce antagonism in the face of our innocent behavior.
Police raided our home and demanded to know details about each of us. We answered them honestly, but the police officers obviously were dubious. I told Elvis that we should move away, but he kept calm and ignored the fierce faces that surrounded us.
Two weeks later, our kitchen was mysteriously set on fire. Two days elapsed before police came by to assess the damage.
That same day, while walking home from the shop, a group of people threw stones at us. They screamed at us that their children were at risk because of our “barbaric behavior.” We rushed home, shut the door tight and refused to open it.
Elvis was shocked by what had happened. When police investigators came by to find out about the incident, they refused to take a statement from us. Instead, they only took hostile information about us from the local council.
We decided to leave the house and move into Rakai town, but when we reached it, rumors about us had already spread there. Fortunately, Elvis was creative: He sold his two shops and prepared to restart again from zero. I couldn’t handle the thought of being criticized that way once again, so I thus boarded a bus in early 2016 and left Uganda.
LGBTI Ugandan refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, protest for fair treatment and recognition of their humanity on Jan. 26 at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The sign states “LGBTI are also humans.” (Photo courtesy of Kamarah Apollo)
Elvis felt betrayed, but I knew that time would eventually provide an opportunity for us to get together again. I knew he would understand.
It only took seven months before Elvis was in downtown Nairobi, ringing me on the phone to pick him up. That was in October
Life here in Kenya has never been easy. We’re always struggling against Kenyan homophobia and looking for our daily bread. Worse, Elvis has an asthma problem, but medical attention for us refugees is limited.
Ivan has been granted approval for relocation to the United States, but now is unsure whether he will be allowed to enter the country. He has been told that the Trump administration has declared a 120-day hold on refugee relocations, pending a review of the situation.
Elvis is awaiting an interview that will help determine his eligibility for refugee status.
Kamarah Apollo, the author of this article, also is a gay Ugandan refugee. He was relocated in October from Kenya to Salt Lake City in the United States. He remains in touch with his friends in Kenya via social media.