What Makes An Activist?

Faced with being despised and threatened, the normal human instinct is to hide. You keep your head down. You pass, if you can. If you can’t, you try not to draw attention to whatever it is about you that your government and your neighbors believe is evil. Throughout history, those who’ve tried to pass have had mixed success. Think about the maranos and conversos, the Portuguese and Spanish Jews who, facing the Inquisition, publicly converted to Christianity but privately still observed Jewish law. Or the light-skinned African-Americans who, during the long horror that was Jim Crow, left behind their darker relatives and became white. Or those East Germans or Czechs or Russians who hated the Soviet system but kept their heads down and their mouths shut, and tried to get by.  

But there’s always a troublemaker who can’t keep her mouth shut. Faced with hatred, she defies the government by agitating on behalf of the despised identity, working to change not herself but society.

That’s the story of Clare Byarugaba, the young woman who was among a handful of Ugandans who received Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Defender Award this summer. When I spoke with Byarugaba this month about the transwoman Mich’s ferocious public beating for being visibly queer—one man attacked her, and a group of bystanders joined in—she told me that most LGBT people spend their daily lives passing. That leaves feminine men, transwomen, and butch lesbians who cannot pass—and who therefore cannot get jobs and who regularly risk unprovoked assaults. Byarugaba noted that there was another reason, besides fear for one’s own life, for LGBT people to stay quiet if they could: fear for one’s family. “If you are out as an LGBT person,” she says, “it’s not just you that suffers. Your mother could become the laughingstock of the village.” She said this quietly, almost inaudibly.

I asked Byarugaba—who is soon going to be 25, she said—why she chose to become an activist. Her voice became lively and cheerful, in distinct contrast to the grief in her voice when she talked about Mich and about the political situation for LGBT people. Hers was the answer I’ve heard most activists (or other people) who jump toward instead of away from danger: “I’ve always not been able to be silent about how people are treated.”

I’ve heard this phrasing from almost every activist for a despised group I’ve questioned: not that they chose to be activists, but that they could not keep their mouths shut. It wasn’t a matter of bravery, but an inability to do otherwise. “It’s not just LGBT, it’s the women, the children,” Byarugaba said. “I grew up in a family with domestic violence. When you’re a young child, and you grow up and find out you’re different,” you know what to expect: the violence you’ve already seen around you. “But you develop a sense of strength, knowing: I am not safe. My family could easily disown me. And so I have to make things better for my community. I didn’t grow up thinking I want to be political. But I’ve never tolerated violence against marginalized populations.”

You’d think Byarugaba would be proud of her work. Perhaps she is, privately. But to my ear, she sounded, rather, as if she were grateful for the chance to help others—that she took pleasure from every small way she could make change. “The community that are not actively speaking out thanks us for making the environment different. They say, I’m not an activist. I’m scared most of the time. When we are able to make a place to meet, and we can just have fun, and we see how happy they are—“ she paused. Although the Skype video had broken down, I could hear her voice shining with happiness, even joy at having created a few bubbles in space and time where LGBT Ugandans briefly felt free. For that, I could hear in her voice, all the work was worth it—even if it was impossible to envision when the result would be the profound societal shift that we in the United States have seen. “We want to broaden those spaces. What is important is tolerance, to be able to make policy changes. We know our rights. The government doesn’t want to recognize them. But we have to speak up.” 

Byarugaba’s deepest identity, she made clear, is as a woman and as a human rights activist. All else aside, “You are a woman at the end of the day.” Working from those two public labels, she builds and the Coalition build bridges with other human rights causes. The point Byarugaba presses to her allies has echoes of the famous testimony of the German pastor Martin Niemöller, who spoke out against the Nazis: First they came for the socialists…   

When Mich and others like her are assaulted, in public, and witnesses refuse to come forward, and doctors refuse her medical attention, and police refuse to investigate, Byarugaba continues to document the horror and put the facts in front of as many people who will listen. While she says that “75 percent” of Ugandans might side with the attackers, the remaining 25 percent can be moved with the idea that “This is a human being. What is happening to them could happen to us too.”

When I spoke with Byarugaba, she was clearly feeling particularly exhausted and perhaps more despairing than usual: the week of Mich’s beating, bar owner David Cecil was arrested for producing a play that had a Ugandan businessman who comes to terms with being gay as its hero. Now free on bail but stripped of his passport, Cecil is facing two years in jail.

But LGBT Ugandans are indeed “broadening the spaces” in which they can be free, as Byarugaba puts it. As I’ve noted here before, Uganda recently had its first Pride gathering, recounted by as Alexis Okeowo in “Gay and Proud in Uganda,” at The New Yorker, which included this about a bus ride to the event:

A trans woman named Bad Black showed me glamour photos taken of her at an L.G.B.T.-friendly studio in town: in them she is wearing a wig, dresses, and lingerie. Bad Black, who helps run a foundation that helps H.I.V.-positive L.G.B.T. Ugandans, was wearing typical male attire for the bus ride, but wore gold earrings and had short, fluffy curls. She can’t dress as a woman on a daily basis, but planned to change once we got to the lake. Nature, a cheerful trans woman sitting in front of us, plucked a photo to admire it and remarked, “Hmm, photos do lie.” The bus erupted into laughter. Several people, adorned in rainbow-patterned scarves and armbands, pulled out makeup compacts and started to apply bright eye shadow and lipstick. We made noisy stops along the highway to pick up more attendees, and passersby, curious about the laughter and music, peered inside….

One participant, Ambrose, who was in charge of selling Pride-themed T-shirts, explained that the dynamics of being gay in Uganda have changed: “This is who we are. We are here to stay. And we are not going anywhere.”

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