I’ve traveled all around the world, including six trips to Africa, and Uganda remains perhaps the most beautifully arresting place I have ever visited. So, when my husband and I began thinking of dream trips we could take this year, the prospect of getting to introduce him to what Winston Churchill called “the pearl of Africa” put the country high on the list–not a bad travel target for a gay couple that embraces the world as its oyster.
That was before Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that imposes prison terms for homosexual acts. While watered down from an earlier iteration that was widely known as the “kill the gays bill” for its death penalty provision, the new law is one of the most regressive anywhere directed at the LGBT community.
I was torn. How could a place I had so revered transform into something so repugnant? Could I ever go back? Did I even want to?
The Uganda I experienced just a few short years ago is woven with savannah, enormous lakes, and rain forests. The glacier-clad Rwenzori Mountains, Africa’s tallest range, are here, along with the headwaters of the Nile.
Uganda’s biodiversity is awesome, ranging from the lawn-mowing hippos along the shores of Lake Edward and lions hidden among the trees of Ishasha to a bird list that tops 550 species in Queen Elizabeth National Park alone. Star of the safari, of course, is the imperiled mountain gorilla, visible only in its tiny, remote natural habitat.
My positive impressions weren’t limited to wildlife and scenery. While traveling a muddy, winding road for a chance to see the iconic silverbacks, Uganda’s people gave me a new perspective on being in the minority.
“Mzungu!” shouted an 11-year-old girl from the roadside, pointing at me. Along with a couple dozen other children, all walking home in tidy school uniforms, eyes widened and grins erupted. “Mzungu!,” they squealed in unison.
For a moment, I might have been Brad Pitt strutting a red carpet, flanked by adoring fans. My driver, Joseph, laughed as he explained the excitement. “They’re going to go home and tell their parents they saw a white man today.”
Once the cornerstone of Africa’s Grand Tour, Uganda dropped off the tourism radar in the years surrounding Idi Amin‘s tragic reign in the 1970s, with most mzungu (travelers) bypassing the country altogether for decades after his deposition and exile.
When National Geographic Traveler‘s editors asked me to suggest destinations for their Best of the World list in 2013, my only recommendation was Uganda. I was aware of the evil being spread there by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but by 2012, the strength of the militant religious group was on the wane and the nation seemed to be settling on a more stable path.
I was also aware of a reprehensible bill that had bubbled up in the Uganda parliament calling for the execution of gays and lesbians, but had heard Museveni was not expected to sign it. In the short piece I wrote about Uganda for Traveler, I elected to ignore the LRA issues and the anti-gay bill (neither of which could be adequately addressed in a few hundred words in any case).
I gambled that Uganda would move past this flashpoint. I was wrong.
As a gay journalist who covers tourism (though rarely gay tourism), I am torn. In the course of my travels to more than 90 countries around the world I have never personally experienced discrimination. Of course, I don’t carry a rainbow flag around with me, but when I check into a hotel with my husband—be it in Florida or Jamaica—I’m guessing the staff doesn’t spend a lot of time pondering our sexuality.
Instead, I’d like to think that we represent one tiny facet of the world’s richly diversified community, and that our simple presence in places where LGBT rights are not enshrined puts a face on the other-ness that homosexuality manifests for many.
The idea that we would, as some radical religious leaders imply, try to indoctrinate anyone to our orientation is laughable. At the same time, we are proud to represent a stable, happy same-sex couple who travels the world with joy. And that stability—that normalcy—I fear, is what is so threatening to some Ugandans.
So, do we simply boycott Uganda and write letters to our elected officials urging them to do the same? Or do we venture to Uganda openly, without hostility, allowing Ugandans to see up-close what a gay couple is—and isn’t?
Do we have a responsibility, let alone the right, to try and effect change—particularly when human rights are involved—in another country?
In Africa the subject is by no means confined to Uganda. Though the post-apartheid constitution of South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, just six weeks before Museveni signed the Uganda bill into law, anti-gay legislation was passed in Nigeria. Thomas Ndayiragije, a Johannesburg-based senior program officer for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, reports that his organization is tracking anti-gay propositions in Zambia and Malawi.
Prior to February, were my husband and I to travel to Uganda, our presence there would not likely have been an issue, as it hasn’t been in the other African countries we’ve visited. Today, not only does the bill make same-sex relations criminal, it also criminalizes those who fail to report even the vaguest hint of such relations—a provision that would presumably apply to hoteliers and others in the tourism industry.
As black gold—oil beneath the Rift Valley, right inside Murchison Falls National Park—emerges as a potential export for Uganda, Museveni might feel he is in a position to ignore the international community’s criticism of his administration’s policies. Tourism dollars may no longer be a bargaining chip.
“I’m not sure if boycotts and badmouthing, even when well deserved, will get the results anyone wants,” suggested Kent Redding, president of Denver-based tour operator Africa Adventure Consultants. “Museveni is a dictator,” he continued. “If you stumble across a lion in the bush and he feels like he’s backed into a corner, he will attack. [But] if you give him a way to exit without trouble, that’s the path he’ll usually take.”
Let’s hope so. It’s a big world out there, and there are so many corners to explore, especially in Africa. But when it comes to planning a special adventure, my husband and I will travel where we’re more welcome.
David Swanson is a San Diego-based freelance writer who has contributed to National Geographic Traveler since 1998. His work has also appeared in Islands, Westways, and American Way magazines, and in newspapers across North America.