Swimming for visibility and inclusion for LGBT+ people

by Clare Byarugaba | @clarekabale | Chapter Four Uganda
Monday, 29 October 2018 15:37 GMT

Uganda police officers question a member of Uganda's LGBT community during their pride parade in Entebbe near capital Kampala, before police asked LGBT members to abandon their gathering September 24, 2016. RETERS/James Akena

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Oppressive laws will remain until LGBT+ individuals gain acceptance within their families and societies

Clare Byarugaba is an LGBT+ advocate who co-ordinates the Equality and Non-Discrimination programme at Chapter Four Uganda, an organisation that promotes civil liberties 

I learned to swim at 25 and loved it. It helped me find balance. My therapist at the time noted that swimming should be part of my daily routine since it brought me much-needed peace. In the water, I am alone with my thoughts. What matters is how the water feels on my skin. As my muscles work to resist the water density, I am aware of my aliveness.

In 2016, I co-founded Uganda Kuchus Aquatic Team (UKA), the first LGBT+ swimming team in Uganda, where it remains dangerous to be out. My UKAT co-founder, Diane Bakuraira, was once attacked by five men who left her for dead. Swimming is one way she deals with lingering post-traumatic stress disorder. Our goal is to promote swimming for LGBT+ Ugandans and increase their overall health and well-being. We know that athletic opportunities provide an important, underutilised form of activism to change attitudes toward the LGBT+ community.

In August 2018, our UKAT marched at the opening of the 10th Gay Games in Paris without the support of our government. We did more than fly the Ugandan flag, we made a global statement – everyone has the right to participate safely in sports, no matter their sexual orientation and gender identity or background. 

In 2017, we participated in the World Out Games in Miami and at the IGLA Championships in Edmonton in 2016. UKAT delivered a great performance in Canada, winning dozens of individual medals and scooping first place in the small team division. The significance of the team’s participation in the games, as the only African LGBT+ team, cannot be understated.

History has taught us that it is precisely the presence of LGBT+ sports teams and similar social intervention projects that change attitudes and laws. But the struggle against oppression continues to be challenging, even dangerous.

Two days before we left for Edmonton, Ugandan police raided our Mr and Miss Pride pageant and detained more than 200 attendees. A 22-year-old man was so scared that he jumped off a fourth-story rooftop. He survived but broke his spine. He was more afraid of being arrested and exposed to his family than jumping from the building. Around two dozen organisers and participants, including myself, were arrested and jailed for several hours. Several people, particularly transgender women, were stripped and beaten by police.

Events like this overshadow the strength and resilience of the Ugandan LGBT+ (or kuchu) community – a group that, after all, has successfully organised pride events several years in a row without much incidence. 

Finding acceptance has been an uphill struggle. Most funding that comes from international LGBT+ rights agencies is earmarked for health issues and legal initiatives. While critical, these initiatives alone are unlikely to holistically influence attitude change and end persecution. Oppressive laws will remain until LGBT+ individuals gain acceptance within their families and societies.

Due to its unifying nature, sports can help achieve social change. Sports don’t just build a sense of camaraderie among team members – important for sustaining social movements – they also evade the political barriers often placed on mainstream activist work.

Acceptance towards LGBT+ people has been advanced by renowned athletes such as the NFL’s David Kopay and tennis champion Martina Navratilova who came out to the world and broke barriers. Homophobia has been curtailed by sports teams that led anti-hate campaigns by donning rainbow jerseys during games. We want be role models for all young Ugandan LGBT+ individuals and show that they too can safely participate in sports internationally.

Even as we continue to live under a government currently debating the Sexual Offences Bill of 2015, which proposes life imprisonment for same-sex relations, we know that by participating in the Gay Games, we are setting a global example and paving a way for more LGBT+ Africans’ participation in international sports.

Who knows – maybe an African country will one day host the Gay Games.

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