We Are Still Here

27 June 2024 by Richard Lusimbo, Founder and Director General of the Uganda Key Populations Consortium

To mark Pride month, Richard Lusimbo of the Uganda Key Populations Consortium speaks out about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and bringing communities together to fight back.

For close to two decades now, I have witnessed the never-ending brutality and stigmatization of key populations, not only in Uganda but across the global Black community.

For too long, LGBTQI+ people in Uganda and across the African continent have been subject to discrimination, social exclusion and prosecution, which restricts their access to jobs, health care and much more.

A toxic concoction of prejudice and legislation, including Uganda’s 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), has driven the LGBTQI+ community underground.

In Uganda today, LGBTQI+ people are less likely to seek out necessary, lifesaving services like HIV prevention and treatment. Drug users are regularly denied necessary harm reduction treatments. Sex workers are routinely targeted for assault and extortion by clients and by the police.

Throughout the continent, marginalized communities are contending with intersecting forms of discrimination based on socioeconomic class, gender identity and sexual orientation.

And so, the cycles of poverty and marginalization roll on, health inequities widen, HIV and other illnesses can spread, and mental health and general well-being suffer.

We founded the Uganda Key Populations Consortium (UKPC) in 2018 to put a stop to all this – to challenge draconian laws like the AHA and advocate for equity and equality for key populations.

Back then, so many of us didn’t have a home – a place where we could sit together and say: this is what we, as a people, need and stand for.

UKPC brings together LGBTQI+ people and people from other key populations to express themselves, learn and build community. We work with partners to create safe spaces – drop-in centers – across the country, where our community can connect, access health services and make their voices heard.

Thanks in large part to these drop-in centers, we saw a huge increase in the number of people starting antiretroviral therapy, using HIV self-testing tool kits and taking steps to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

We also establish strong relationships with civil society, nongovernmental organizations and government partners that support us and our work to serve our community, despite constant challenges.

Today, all our work is under threat.

The AHA encourages violent abuse and discrimination against my community. A recent report paints a grim picture: since the AHA was passed, Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community has suffered 434 evictions and banishments, 309 incidents of violence, 92 recorded instances of mental health distress and 69 arrests.

The law also threatens people supporting LGBTQI+ communities and those providing or seeking basic health services.

Our community organizations have closed dozens of drop-in centers, shutting down a critical link between individuals and their peers – not to mention essential mental and physical health care. We have diverted much-needed funds to make our offices and meeting places safe and secure. We can’t be sure that reaching people online is safe, and that their data and identities will be protected.

Still: we are fighting back. I am fighting back. Our community is fighting back.

Changing the status quo will require more work and support. We need partners like the Global Fund and its Breaking Down Barriers initiative, because those programs empower communities to lead – and give us a voice. They also give us a platform for collective action, to continue working against the violence and hatred that, some days, feels inescapable.

When communities come together, change is possible.

Pride is a moment to celebrate – and to protest. Every June, I take a moment to close my eyes and focus inward, to honor myself and the community that made me. To think about what we’ve accomplished, and the work still left to do. This year is no exception.

We are proud of who we are. No law can take that away from us.

Richard Lusimbo is the Founder and Director General of the Uganda Key Populations Consortium, and a longtime LGBTQI+ and human and health rights activist. UKPC is a partner of the Global Fund’s Breaking Down Barriers initiative, which aims to reduce human rights-related barriers to health.

This op-ed was originally published on Washington Blade.