Shot in Uganda in a time when it is illegal to identify as homosexual, Call Me Kuchu begins as a casual, on-the-ground account of life for an LGBT person living in a country in which human rights and civic freedoms have been pushed aside by religious extremists and hate groups. It ends as a eulogy for ts own central subject.
In January 2011, Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato Kisule was found murdered in his house. Often referred to as the first openly gay man in Uganda, he was the figurehead of the small and struggling gay rights movement in his country. At the time Ugandan politicians – led by MP David Bahati – were pushing forward an anti-homosexuality bill that became known in the global press as Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill. Repercussions from the murder sounded globally, with rallies and memorials being held around the world in his honor, and leading voices like Human Rights Watch, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department, and the European Union speaking out against the murder and calling for a detailed investigation.
But Kuchu (which is non-derogatory Ugandan slang for “queer”) begins at a very different place. It is 2010 and the anti-homosexuality bill is nearing debate in Uganda’s parliament. If enacted, it would allow the government to execute HIV-positive gay men and imprison both LGBT citizens and anyone who does not report that someone they know is gay. Kato, a former teacher who now spends all of his time and resources organizing support for the country’s LGBT people, knows that this bill would be devastating if passed. His efforts at activism via his LGBT rights organization, SMUG, are assisted by a former Anglican Bishop who was kicked out of the church due to his support of LGBT causes. Their immediate concern is in building a community center for LGBT persons to meet and speak freely, as public discourse is not an option.
But soon even the private lives and homes of Kato and his friends are unsafe: a local tabloid called Rolling Stone has begun to publish names and photos of gay people – the largest expose includes the headline “HANG THEM” on the front page. The paper’s editor, Giles Muhame, brags about the entrapment schemes and covert surveillance that his paper undertakes in order to out people. His interviews are a shocking display of pure, shameless, violent hatred.
Gradually we get to know David, his family, and some of his friends a bit better. One woman tells the story of how, as a girl, she was raped by an acquaintance trying to teach her to be straight. She wound up both HIV-positive and pregnant – and people used her pregnancy as proof that she could not, in fact, be lesbian.
As the group of “kuchu” friends become more afraid of imprisonment and lynching, they are forced to go into hiding. But David leads a small group in taking Rolling Stone to court for libel, invasion of privacy, and incitement of violence. It’s beyond brave – he could be arrested or beaten for simply going out in public, much less representing the gay community. And the chances of a group of people whose very identities make them criminal winning a lawsuit in a corrupt system are miniscule.
Still, the group soldiers on. We see them discuss homosexuality with friends and relatives, most of whom have no understanding of LGBT identity other than it is an “abomination”. We hear directly from a rage-filled anti-gay pastor who has teamed up with American fundamentalists to spread the message of hatred for gays and lesbians, claiming that gays are “recruiting” and raping children. One Ugandan human rights lawyer points out that this anti-gay sentiment is not even organically a part of Ugandan culture – it has been taught to them by American missionaries preaching fire and brimstone against anything that doesn’t satisfy their interpretation of the Bible.
Call Me Kuchu is more than an alarm call that our brothers and sisters in Uganda are in desperate need of aid. It is a beautifully rendered and bravely made outcry for the right to live one’s truth without fear. In the U.S. we have made enormous strides in LGBT visibility and toward equality for all. But the recent rash of anti-gay violence and setbacks in gay rights campaigns should serve as a reminder that we have a long way to go, and many enemies working against us. Kuchu is a riveting, infuriating wake up call that no one, anywhere in the world, should get too comfortable. And it is also a testament to how the actions of a few brave souls can create change through activism, litigation, and simply living their lives authentically.
When the filmmakers behind Call Me Kuchu – Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall – began shooting a small documentary about Kato and his friends as they tried to build momentum for an LGBT movement in Uganda, they could never have predicted that their film would ultimately be his last will and testament. As the film depicts in graphic, heartbreaking fashion, Kato’s own village cursed him for his sexuality at his funeral. As members of a global community of LGBT people and their allies, we owe it to Kato’s memory and the livelihoods of those he left behind to learn and to tell their story.
Call Me Kuchu opens in NYC on Friday, June 14, with other cities to follow. Visit the film’s website for more information.