This Gay Man Survived Torture In One Of Africa's Most Horrific Dictatorships

Even after fleeing the Gambia with life-threatening wounds from his time in prison, Alieu Sarr still isn't safe.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 25, 2015, at 5:36 p.m. ET

After more than six months in prison, several rounds of torture, and two hospitalizations for his injuries, Alieu Sarr fled his country by boat under cover of night late last month.

Sarr was arrested last fall, alongside at least 15 others, by security forces controlled by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. Jammeh had launched a new witch hunt in the months following the August adoption of a law that would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with life in prison.

Most of those with whom he was arrested were released after short detentions, but Sarr and two other men were held to face charges. They were paraded before the media by security officials as Jammeh repeatedly made public pledges to execute LGBT people, including promising in a May speech to slit the throats of homosexuals. “No one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it,” Jammeh vowed.

In a phone interview from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Sarr told BuzzFeed News he was sure he would die, as dozens reportedly have while detained by the National Intelligence Agency. But in a final court hearing on July 28, the man he says tortured him and then fabricated a confession denied any knowledge of the investigation. Sarr and another were released; the third is out on bail and still facing charges.

Sarr said his acquittal felt like God had directly answered the prayers he would recite every time he went to court. But his tale — from mysterious arrest to arbitrary acquittal — is a parable of just how tenuous life is for the roughly 2 million people who have lived under Jammeh’s capricious and iron-fisted rule since 1994.

It also shows how lives are ruined even when people like Sarr survive police brutality and a corrupt judiciary. Sarr arrived in Dakar, the nearby capital of Senegal, just as eight people were sentenced there for homosexuality, including one well-known journalist. Sarr, who is sheltering with a friend who fled as soon as he learned Sarr had been arrested, is afraid to even go outside.

“Senegal and Dakar are the very same” as in the Gambia, he said. “My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”

Sarr was in a taxi heading home from dinner with a friend on the night of Nov. 9 when two officers pulled him out of the vehicle. He didn’t know why he had been detained until he arrived at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency, the security force that reports directly to Jammeh.

“My life is not safe in the whole of Africa.”

“We know you are homosexual — everyone told us about you,” he remembered the agents telling him. He said they gave him a choice: “If you want [us] to deal with you easily, you will call the names of homosexuals, because you know their names and we want to get them all.”

This was not the first time Sarr had been arrested. He was taken into custody back in 2012, the last time there was a mass arrest of people alleged to be LGBT, which began with a raid on a party. Sarr faced harassment — including from his family and people on the street — so relentless in the years since that he was forced to shut down his small business selling shrimp from a bucket in a local market.

Sarr’s lawyer told BuzzFeed News that a security agent who testified at Sarr’s trial said he was arrested under “directives that certain people were engaged in homosexual activity,” but declined to say where the directive had come from.

“Anybody who knows me in Gambia, they know that I am homosexual,” Sarr said. “Everyone [is] against me [because] they say that this is a Muslim country. It’s very hard for me.”

After he was arrested, Sarr said he was tortured between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. every night for the next eight days. He described how officers would pin him to a table and beat him with a fan belt from a car, or beat his hands with a ruler. Exhausted from the ordeal, he said he finally told the officers “about my story,” but he refused to give them names of other gay people. He believed the stakes were life or death — there were rumors that anyone the security services caught “making the homosexual act” would be fed to crocodiles, Sarr said.

“They were trying to get it by my mouth. I told them I don’t know any homosexuals in the Gambia,” he said.

So the officers turned to his phone and his Facebook account, Sarr said. They claimed some of his contacts were boyfriends. They also found he was connected with Gambian dissidents now in exile, and they claimed he was giving information to Jammeh’s political enemies.

On Nov. 17, the interrogations ceased and he was transferred to a high-security wing at Mile 2 prison, which houses the most dangerous prisoners as well as prisoners in cases of special interest to the regime. Sarr was held in isolation most of the time, while continuing to bleed from internal injuries inflicted during his torture. When he was hospitalized for his injuries in January, he was held under heavy guard at the private block of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, where other prisoners had died under mysterious circumstances while in custody.

A witness, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from the Jammeh regime, told BuzzFeed News at the time about seeing Sarr coughing up blood in the hospital while repeating, “‘I know I’m going to die.”

Three weeks later, Sarr was sent back to prison, and then to the hospital again in April, where he stayed for two months. “I was bleeding in my mouth, in my nose. I was bleeding seriously,” Sarr said.

Sarr’s account is backed up by his lawyer, but it could not be independently verified. The Jammeh regime keeps a tight grip on information in the country — including arresting and allegedly assassinating journalists — and it has intensified security since a failed coup attempt this winter.

But human rights groups have documented similar cases.

Amnesty International first told BuzzFeed News in mid-November that it had received reports that police were running a “well organized operation” attempting to identify and arrest LGBT people. Fatou Camara, Jammeh’s former press secretary who became a human rights activist when forced into exile in 2013, said at the time that she had spoken to a source in the intelligence service who said the agency had compiled a list of 200 people targeted for arrest. According to one lesbian who fled to Senegal as the arrests began, in some cases police visited their homes in the company of a 17-year-old boy, the youngest arrested in the sweep, who they believe was tortured into naming others.

Even in a country where the regime has arbitrarily detained — or killed — scores of people, this wave of arrests was unusual. Since seizing power in 1994, Jammeh generally targeted political opponents, not specific minority groups. Also unusual was the fact that forces known as “Junglers” or “Black-blacks” (because they dress all in black and cover their faces), which are essentially Jammeh’s personal secret police feared for their role in tortures and disappearances, were involved directly in the roundup.

But as the United States and European powers pressed countries like Uganda to drop sweeping new laws criminalizing homosexuality, Jammeh appeared to see a political opportunity to curry favor internally by burnishing his Muslim bonafides and justify the Gambia’s increasing status as an international pariah. Just weeks after Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the newly adopted Anti-Homosexuality Act in August 2014, the Gambia adopted a law closely modeled on Uganda’s which included a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as including cases like when someone repeatedly has same-sex intercourse, when the accused is HIV positive, or when the accused has sex with a minor.

In December, Sarr and two others were formally charged with full media coverage, the apparent show trial that would be the culmination of Jammeh’s growing anti-LGBT campaign.

Nearly eight months after he was first arrested, Sarr’s case had its final hearing on July 28. By then he’d developed a special prayer he would recite before each hearing: “God, help me when Seedy Camara comes.” Camara was the officer Sarr said interrogated and beat him, and his testimony could put him away.

Sarr’s lawyer, Aji Kombeh Gaye, is still mystified about what happened when Camara took the stand that day. She told BuzzFeed News that Camara “refused to have anything to do” with the “confession” that prosecutors had submitted as evidence, which bore Camara’s signature as the officer who wrote it down.

“We don’t know why he turned around and denied it,” Gaye said.

Sarr and another person charged in the case, Morr Sowe, were immediately released. The case of a third person still facing charges from the sweep last fall, Modou Lamin Bittaye, is still pending. His family had been able to secure bail for him, and so his case was not moving with the same urgency of Sarr and Sowe, whose lawyers were trying to them get out of prison.

Sarr had been unable to work since his first arrest in 2012 and survived largely on gifts from human rights activists living in exile. This time, he could see no way to stay in the Gambia, and three days after he was released by the court in the capital of Banjul, he began his journey to Senegal. He posed as a fisherman and took a small boat out on the Atlantic Ocean, crossed into Senegalese waters, and then slipped ashore. He finally made it to Dakar, about 100 miles north of Banjul, two days after leaving the Gambia.

Once there, he was taken in by Amadou Jallow, another Gambian who had been arrested alongside Sarr in the 2012 sweep and fled to Senegal by car in November 2014 when he learned Sarr had been rearrested. Jallow was surviving by washing dishes at a neighborhood restaurant, even saving a little bit of money.

Jallow has since spent those savings on Sarr’s medical costs, he told BuzzFeed News. Sarr still has coughing and internal pain from the beatings, as well as some kind of rash that Jallow says look like chicken pox. Fatou Camara, the Gambian activist now living in the United States, has set up a fundraising campaign to help Sarr get treatment.

Jallow’s meager salary, just under $2 per day, now supports them both. With the recent arrests in Senegal of alleged homosexuals, they agree that it’s too dangerous for Sarr to be in public. “He’s too feminine,” Jallow said. “Whenever he goes out people know he’s gay.”

They are petitioning for asylum through the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees with the hope that they will eventually be resettled someplace like the U.S. or Europe. But they have very little hope that will happen soon — they have heard rumors that some people wait 20 years in Senegal before being resettled.

“I want to do my life how I want to do my life … to be happy,” Sarr said. He hasn’t been happy since his first arrest in 2012, and now he feels imprisoned in the small compound where Jallow lives in Dakar.

“If I go outside, they say that this is [a] homosexual. That’s why I hide here, in one compound, till God comes to help me,” Sarr said.

Egyptian Doctors Think This Torturous Exam Can Detect "Chronic Homosexuals"

Anal exams are performed by police in many countries that criminalize homosexuality — and they base their work on 150-year-old European science. BuzzFeed News' J. Lester Feder and Maged Atef report from Cairo.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2015, at 10:38 a.m. ET

CAIRO — When asked to explain what Cairo's medical inspectors look for when they examine someone who's been arrested for homosexuality, Dr. Maged Louis picked up a pen and started sketching an oval with sharp points on both ends.

"The shape of the hole will change," he said. The anus "won't be normal any more and will look like the female vagina."

More than 150 people have been arrested on charges of homosexuality since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power just under two years ago, the largest roundup of alleged LGBT people in more than a decade in Egypt. Anal exams are a routine part of the investigation in such cases, and Louis has a role in overseeing all of them. He is the deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Forensic Medical Authority, as well as the chief of forensic medicine for the Cairo police district.

"First we make them take the prostrate position — the position that Muslims take when they pray," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. The tests are intended not just to determine whether someone has ever had anal sex, but also to detect "chronic homosexuals," because the letter of Egyptian law only criminalizes men who engage in "habitual debauchery." Louis said that he believed that in addition to their elongation, the anuses of "chronic homosexuals" also don't clench when touched or don't contract as tightly. They are smooth and lack the "corrugations" — wrinkles — found on "normal" anuses, he said. And though he denied that examiners penetrate subjects under examination, he also said they can detect a "chronic homosexual" if his anus can accept larger objects.

"A normal man's anus can't take more than one joint of the small finger," he said.

International human rights and medical experts dismissed Louis's checklist as having "no medical basis" and being "categorically not true." Most of those interviewed by BuzzFeed News couldn't contain their shock before all of the criteria were listed.

"I think you heard my laugh — I think that says it all," said Dr. Joel Palefsky, a professor at the University of California San Francisco specializing in anal cancer who is president of the International Anal Neoplasia Society. "We run a clinic where we do anal examinations of thousands of patients ... Never in my 20 years of doing this have I seen an anus that looks like a vagina."

Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organizations have long denounced such anal exams — which are routine in several of the world's roughly 80 countries that criminalize sodomy — as a form of torture that violates international law. Medical leaders in some of the countries where these exams are used have called for their abolition, such as in Lebanon.

But Louis was incredulous that anyone could doubt his inspectors' work.

"All of what I said is science and written in books," he said. "Doctors all over the world know that."

The idea that inspectors are intentionally fabricating evidence because of their own homophobia isn't what makes these exams so disturbing — though that does sometimes happen, according to defendants' accounts. It's that beliefs about homosexuality are leading doctors — some of whom have done extensive (and horrific) research into perfecting diagnostic techniques — to believe that what they are doing is science.

One of the modern pioneers in anal examinations in Egypt was Dr. Aymen Fouda, Louis' predecessor as deputy director of the Forensic Medical Authority, who went on to become chief medical inspector from 2005 through 2007.

During a 2003 interview with Scott Long, then-director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program, Fouda said the exams were based on techniques developed in Europe.

"In this kind of investigation there are six criteria which were established by the celebrated Frenchman [Auguste Ambroise] Tardieu," Fouda said, referring to the 19th-century forensic doctor who published a book in 1857 called The Forensic Study of Assaults against Decency. In the book, Tardieu spelled out six "characteristic signs" of "habitual pederasty," which included those described by Dr. Louis as well as sores and fissures. But, he wrote, "[t]he unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty" is an "infundibuliform" — or funnel-shaped — anus.

Fouda told Long that forensic experts were working on developing "new, advanced methods" to detect homosexuality "involving the use of electricity." Fouda had co-authored a 1998 study published in a journal published by the Egyptian Society of Forensic Medical Sciences that experimented with inserting hypodermic needles into the muscle of the anus in "unanesthetized humans" which claimed to demonstrate that gay men's anuses conduct electricity at a different rate. Other researchers continued experimenting with related methods, including a doctoral student who defended a dissertation at Ain Shams University — one of Egypt's most prestigious — in 2003 entitled "Medico-legal Assessment of the Anal Sphincter Functions in Sodomists."

Tardieu's theories were suspect in Europe even when they were first published, said Khaled Fahmy, a historian of Egyptian forensic medicine at the American University of Cairo who has studied its translation into Arabic.

"Even back then this is a highly ideological book," he told BuzzFeed News, part of a "morals campaign" that was a response to events in Paris at the time. And he thought it "would be shocking" to the Egyptian public if it were widely known that courts were continuing to treat examinations as serious evidence that were based on science that was 150 years old.

But, he speculated, they endure in part because they reinforce certain basic notions about homosexuality that circulate in Egypt: that it is like a disease, usually passed on to children through sexual abuse.

"There is a belief that this abuse during childhood will leave a physical mark, and it leaves a mark on the anus," he said. "We now have a homosexual body — not only a homosexual character which is a defective character, but it has physical traces that a forensic doctor can discern."

And though these anal exams now seem laughable in Europe and the United States, the belief that a detectable physical basis for sexual orientation persists into the 21st century. In 2010, the Czech Republic announced that it would stop subjecting gay refugees to a practice called "phallometry" or "penile plethysmography" — which involves attaching a pressure-sensing device to the refugee's penis while he is shown heterosexual pornography — after it was denounced as "degrading treatment" by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The same belief for a measurable sign of homosexuality also lingers in the hunt for a "gay gene," suggests Graeme Reid, the current head of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program. Though the argument that homosexuality is determined by biology has been very effective for the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and Europe, Reid said, efforts to isolate a "gay gene" are also based on a simplistic, "flawed cultural assumption" about the biological basis of sexuality.

"The idea that there is kind of one causation for sexuality seems absurd given what we know about the complexity of human sexuality," Reid said.

Some defendants who have undergone anal exams in Egypt describe open cruelty on the part of the doctors. One of the defendants in Egypt's largest homosexuality trials in recent history — the 2001 trial of 52 men that became known as the "Queen Boat" case — told Long of Human Rights Watch that the anal exam was one of the "two worst times in my life"; the other was when the judge sentenced him to two years in jail. "The doctors treated us like pigs," said another quoted in Long's report on the trial, and several noted that their degradation was compounded by the fact that they were forced to assume a sexually subservient position in front of women. Anal exams are far from the only intrusive practice that appears to be becoming more common in Sisi's Egypt — "virginity tests" for women who are arrested are also making a comeback since the military reasserted control, and Sisi has personally defended the practice.

Fahmy said that some of the doctors "may" see themselves as administering a form of punishment through these exams. But he thinks in most cases, the doctors "would be thinking this is not torture; they're not really humiliating them." A man who has allowed another to penetrate him — which carries much greater stigma than doing the penetrating — has already lost his honor in the eyes of many Egyptians, and so these exams seem like nothing by comparison.

Doctors likely believe that "these are people who have forfeited their honor to begin with," Fahmy said. "By being who they are, by being homosexual, they effectively have forfeited the constitutional protection that they are entitled to."

Because these "examinations have no forensic or evidentiary value for consensual homosexual acts," Human Rights Watch maintains that doctors who perform them violate the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics, which says physicians should not "apply their knowledge and skills in order to assist in the interrogation of prisoners and detainees in a manner that may adversely affect [their] physical or mental health or condition."

And there is no doubt that these exams are absurd, say doctors practicing in the United States. Dr. Ross Cranston, director of the Anal Dysplasia Clinic and Research Program in the University of Pittsburgh Division of Infectious Diseases, said not all gay men have anal sex regularly or at all, and that no credible study has ever shown any clear difference in things like muscle strength.

"I could not tell a gay anal canal from a straight anal canal," Cranston said. "There's no typical sign of the gay anal canal."

Human Rights Watch's Reid said the organization will begin a project this spring to document how common anal exams are and the role of medical practitioners in them. The organization has documented them in at least six countries in the course of investigating specific cases of abuse, but no comprehensive review has ever been done to establish how widespread they are. And it's not clear, Reid said, whether "there's a collaboration between medical examiners and police to deliberately subject people to humiliation and torture, or medical examiners genuinely believe that this has some kind of a medical basis."

Anecdotal reports suggest there is a good deal of skepticism about anal exams even in countries with notoriously homophobic regimes. In Uganda, for example, anal exams are "the first line of investigation" when someone is arrested for homosexuality, said Adrian Jjuuko, director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, which often provides legal support in cases involving LGBT rights. A Ugandan man who was arrested for homosexuality along with two others in November told BuzzFeed News that police stuck their hands down their pants when they were first detained to "see if we had Pampers," believing "gays put diapers on themselves" because anal sex causes incontinence.

But despite the police's fixation on the anus, Jjuuko said, "the state does not use [anal exams] as evidence."

The amount of research Egypt's forensic experts appear to have invested in anal exams would seem to set them apart. It's not clear whether the doctors who perform the exams have the same rigor — Long collected reports from defendants in the 2001 case who said investigators reached their conclusions based on the fact that they appeared feminine or had no hair on their chests.

Belief in the scientific rigor of anal exams is widely shared in Egypt. Medical examiners aren't just a tool the police use to simply rubber-stamp charges — in fact, they've contradicted the charges in Egypt's two most high-profile homosexuality trials under Sisi's regime.

During the trial last month of 26 men accused of participating in a "gay sex party" at a working-class bathhouse, it wasn't prosecutors who introduced the results of the anal exams, but the defense. Prosecutors didn't introduce them because only three of the men were found to have been sexually "used," contradicting the testimony of the arresting officer, who claimed to have personally witnessed multiple couples engaged in anal sex.

All 26 men were acquitted in January, the first time defendants had been acquitted on charges of homosexuality in a high-profile case since Sisi began controlling Egypt. But an exam pronouncing a defendant's anus "un-used" is not a guarantee of acquittal. Examiners routinely add a disclaimer to reports when they find no evidence of penetration that says anal sex can be undetectable if it happens with "full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants." And in another recent case — in which eight men were prosecuted based on a YouTube video prosecutors alleged was of a same-sex wedding — all were sentenced to a year in jail despite the fact that medical examiners said there was no evidence of penetration.

Even some Egyptian lawyers who support LGBT rights don't question the legitimacy of the exams.

In some cases, attorneys even demand police send their clients for forensic exams in the hopes that it will refute the charges. Mohamed Abo Zakry, a defense attorney with an organization representing seven of the defendants in the bathhouse case, reacted as if it were a stupid question when asked about challenging the legitimacy of the tests during an interview with BuzzFeed News just before the acquittal in January.

"We cannot say the exams are not accurate," Zakry said. "They are accurate. Any [doctor] who has experience can see clearly if this guy is gay or not."

Meet The Lawyer Who Helped Defeat Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act

Nicholas Opiyo grew up avoiding Uganda's brutal rebels and witnessing injustice inflicted by the government. "I saw terrible things happen to my family, and I said no."

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 10, 2014, at 10:52 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — As a child, Nicholas Opiyo would walk miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in town every night. They called kids like him "night commuters," a generation of children who would walk miles each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced into its ranks. The rebel group was fighting a fierce battle against the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s and 1990s and was infamous for its use of child soldiers.

Today, Opiyo is 34 and riding one of his biggest wins as one of Uganda's top human rights lawyers. Late last month, he and a team of lawyers won a case in Uganda's Constitutional Court, striking down the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for up to a lifetime in prison for those convicted of homosexuality.

Days later he won another high-profile case, getting the Constitutional Court to block Museveni's reappointment of the chief judge after he had exceeded the mandatory retirement age. He has now argued more than six cases before the Constitutional Court.

Taking these cases has come at some cost. In March, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society, when the country's Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against his leadership because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. His Facebook wall has filled with insults, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, and he says even his own 25-year-old nephew has called him "retarded" for taking the case.

But Opiyo sees taking that abuse as part of his job as one of the most high-profile human rights attorneys in Uganda. He has specialized in not only working on some of Uganda's most politically sensitive cases, but in defending people who have run afoul of authorities with no means to fight back.

"That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered," Opiyo said of the abuse. "I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that. For me, I'm OK."

Fighting these kinds of fights is why he became a lawyer in the first place.

Opiyo grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, the capital of a northern district that was a center of fighting between Museveni's government and the LRA, a rebel group that had its roots in an extremist brand of Christianity but became increasingly devoted to raw terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Sleeping in Gulu wasn't an iron-clad guarantee of a safe night — the LRA overtook the town from time to time — but government forces were largely able to keep the rebels out of the heart of the city.

So, from the time he was around 8 until he was 14 or 15, Opiyo would walk 4 to 10 kilometers to sleep, often choosing a church compound in the city center. If the church was full by the time he arrived, he would sleep on the stoops of shops around town. Sometimes he would sleep alongside some of his six full siblings, and once in a while near his mother, who was the last of his father's three wives.

"I lived this injustice — I saw it," Opiyo said. His career path was set, he said, when he saw his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to ferret out LRA collaborators within the town. The soldiers rounded up all the men over 18 and herded them into a dilapidated stadium, where they were held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, Opiyo watched as his father was beaten and paraded before captured rebels who were supposed to identify those they'd worked with. Those men were then loaded into trucks and taken away. Sometimes Opiyo's father would talk to him and his siblings through the crack, but he tried to shield them from the danger he was in.

"He didn't want to explain to us the details," Opiyo said.

His father was released after three days, but the terror and humiliation of the incident stayed with Opiyo throughout his education, which his parents — both teachers — ensured he continued throughout the civil war.

"I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no."

Opiyo first thought he'd be a journalist so he could get the word out about abuses like the ones that had befallen his family. This was in part because the BBC played a key part in his education. From the age of 6, he would listen to the BBC program Focus on Africa every night with his father, who would then leave the room when the 8 o'clock news began. Opiyo's job was to report to his father the events of the day when he came back.

This was part of his father's way to teach Opiyo English — his mother tongue is the local language, Acholi. But it also gave him an interest in public affairs, and a pride at being engaged in world events.

"I used to be the guy in school to break the big news to the headmaster," said Opiyo, who swings from principled argument to cracking jokes in a single sentence. He especially recalled bringing in word that the first African had been elected secretary general of United Nations when Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali was selected in 1992.

He got his basic education in rustic private schools, where he also would sleep on the floor at night. He didn't reach the big city until he was 20, when he headed to the capital Kampala to attend Uganda Christian University. This was his first taste of relative stability, since Kampala was somewhat insulated from the armed conflict that continued to percolate throughout the country. But it was also a culture shock. It was the first time he'd encountered a flush toilet.

Though he had started writing for newspapers while still in high school, Opiyo decided to study law, in part because he was inspired by his cousin, Norbert Mao, who had entered politics after practicing law and now heads one of Uganda's opposition parties.

"First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment]," Opiyo said. "But I thought … I can go to court and change things."

He focused on human rights in university, and, after he finished law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court's investigation into war crimes committed during the LRA war. He then became an investigator with an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, monitoring police abuse.

He took up cases on the side. The ones that stand out in his mind are those in which people found themselves locked up without any way to challenge their detention. In one instance in 2008, he came upon a woman in tears in a jail because her father, a local official, had been arrested for forging a document just a week after his wife had died. He tried to offer her help, but she thought he was trying to pick her up and brushed him off. But he left her his card.

"I think she realized much later … you cannot get a girlfriend in a police station in a crying state," Opiyo said, now laughing. "It's the wrong place to get a girlfriend."

After he was able to secure the man's release, he thought the business was done and he was preparing to move onto another case. But the next day the whole family turned up at his office with gifts: chickens, cooked bananas, a flask (though Opiyo is a teetotaler). Another time a man whom he'd gotten out of prison after a year and a half being held without charge offered him his daughter in marriage.

Opiyo's first constitutional case began in 2006. At the end of the legislative session, the government made payments to lawmakers — and several civil society groups contend was those payments were an attempt to buy their votes. Opiyo was part of the legal team that sued on their behalf. They lost, but, he said, he was satisfied that "the point had been made."

He later was part of legal teams that took on the ruling party in other cases. He helped sue to stop elections because the voter rolls were "full of irregularities." Earlier this year he helped successfully challenge the ruling party's attempt to expel four members who had become known as the "Rebel MPs" because they openly broke with party leadership over several issues.

When a group of LGBT people, opposition politicians, and human rights advocates came together earlier this year to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into law by Museveni in February, Opiyo joined as a petitioner and was one of the six lawyers working on the case. He had taken up some cases over the years on behalf of LGBT people, and he had earned the trust of the community. He was also the general secretary of the Uganda Lawy Society at the time — his involvement in the case ultimately cost him his leadership post — and he'd sought the position in the hopes of prodding the group to be a clear voice in support of human rights.

Opiyo took the lead on one of the least profound questions in the case — but it turned out to be the key to victory. While other lawyers focused on the way the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated rights protected by the Ugandan constitution, Opiyo made the case that the law was invalid for procedural reasons: There were not enough members of Parliament present when they voted on the bill in December to meet the Parliament's requirements for conducting official business, and so the court had no choice but to invalidate the law.

Some other members of the team, Opiyo said, weren't even sure they should include this point in their arguments at all — they thought the court was unlikely to take it seriously. But in the end, it was the only point they argued before the Constitutional Court. The court agreed with Opiyo's argument, and dismissed the law on Aug. 1 without ever considering the constitutional questions.

The case is not over, however. On Friday, Uganda's attorney general filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Even if they sustain the ruling, the issue could soon be back before the courts. A group of lawmakers are collecting signatures to force a quick re-vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the necessary number of lawmakers present.

Opiyo, who now runs an organization models on the American Civil Liberties Union called Chapter 4, is also working on several other high-profile cases: suits against new laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press, as well as a challenge to an Anti-Pornography Act passed the day before as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became known as the "mini-skirt law" because of its sweeping definition of things deemed too sexually explicit.

Opiyo, who came to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit organized by the White House last week, said he has no worry about returning to Uganda even after having helped defeat the Museveni regime in several high-profile cases.

Even in Uganda — where elections are dubious and the ruling party shuts down media outlets when it doesn't like what they publish — "the legal profession still has a fairly good level of independence," Opiyo said.

Obama Administration Stalls Response To Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act

"Delay is putting lives at risk," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET

The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.

Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.

This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.

As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.

"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."

"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask

that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."

Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."

National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.

"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."

The LGBT Refugees Who Are Seeking Asylum In the World’s Most Notoriously Anti-Gay Country

If they’re seeking sanctuary in Uganda, just imagine what they must be running from.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 5, 2014, at 8:51 a.m. ET

KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world's most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda's capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.

Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they're crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are "quite worse than Uganda," said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.

"There is a common saying, 'If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,'" David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.

One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. "I like to be near trees," he said during an interview in Kampala. "They don't have hate, they don't reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won't tell everybody."

Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children's rights and the rights of the disabled.

According to Green's account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.

"You're a lesbian," Green said the police asserted. "You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood."

When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.

Green's relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.

Going to the police was out of the question. Green's short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn't flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.

"I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. ... I was not able to open my door at any time," Green said.

After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him "Obama" — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.

"I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed," Green said. "There is no life" for him in Uganda, he said.

Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister's office, which reviews asylum claims.

Most of David's clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn't technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of "morality" or "decency" laws. Before the end of 2013, David's organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station "is like going into the lion's den" for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or "promoting homosexuality."

In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda's Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was "carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts." The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting "sperms" from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were "a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s]." One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.

Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it's a risk that's completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. "With the new law, it's something you just can't try," David said.

Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David's organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants' safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they've stopped coming to the organization's office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.

Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can't safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn't accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn't do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.

This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.

Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, "Now we are going to die."

HIV Divides Lesbians In South Africa

"The reality is lesbians are HIV-positive. The reality is lesbians are so in denial," a black lesbian activist in the township of Khayelitsha tells BuzzFeed.

A recent study found almost one in 10 women who have sex with women in southern Africa is HIV-positive, but homophobia and the stigma of the disease among lesbians make it difficult to confront.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Jul 16, 2013

Shortly after dawn on April 13, dozens of women gathered on a sandy street between shacks of raw wood and corrugated metal in the Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town, South Africa. Many wore the T-shirts of Free Gender, a local black lesbian rights organization. They were there to bury one of the group's members, Nomawabo Mahlungulu, who was known to her friends as Wawa. She died of AIDS on March 30.

Just after 7 a.m., the undertaker brought Mahlungulu's body from where a family member had watched it through the night, in keeping with Xhosa tradition. A group of men carried the simple wooden casket down the narrow lane to her family's house, which had metal walls painted a pale pink. An unframed 8-by-10 snapshot of Mahlungulu hung opposite her casket. Mourners crowded into the windowless room, which seemed to grow darker as the hot sun climbed in the sky. Many others spilled into the alleyway, dancing during the songs that punctuated the speeches and sermons in Xhosa.

The speeches contained a good deal of recrimination, and not just for the members of Mahlungulu's family who had shunned her. The deep stigma against HIV in South Africa has a particular bite among lesbians, and many who knew Mahlungulu believe this cost her the support network needed to help her fight the virus.

Mahlungulu had been HIV-positive for 10 years and had been active with the national organization Treatment Action Campaign, which campaigns for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS. Yet she had mystifyingly stopped keeping up with her medical treatment.

"One thing that I become worried [about] is our behavior as lesbians," said Funeka Soldaat, Free Gender's founder who's been an advocate in the township for more than 20 years, during an interview before the funeral.

A recent study found that around 10% of women who have sex with women in four southern African countries are HIV-positive. The study suggests that the main source of infection among lesbians is likely rape. Women are sexually assaulted in South Africa more often than almost anywhere in the world, and lesbians are often targeted out of the belief that it will "cure" them of same-sex attraction. And their trauma is often compounded when they seek help from police or health care workers after they've been attacked, keeping them from getting tested or treated for HIV.

But despite this fact, HIV also raises suspicion among lesbians that a woman has betrayed the community by choosing to have sex with men. And this can cause the support network women have struggled to build to evaporate.

Lesbians in her community, Soldaat said, feel they "can have that support system that's so great when your people assume that you are [HIV-]negative, and when you are [HIV-]positive you can't get that system anymore."

Muhlungulu's death raised concerns for lesbian activists across the country.

"She's left us with a lot of questions," said Nokhwezi Hoboyi during an interview in Johannesburg. Hoboyi has held leadership positions in the Treatment Action Campaign and helped found its LGBTI-interest caucus. She now works with the Forum for the Empowerment of Women.

Hoboyi was not close with Mahlungulu nor did she know the details of how she died, but her story echoed the experience of other lesbians Hoboyi knew fighting HIV.

"Understanding the stigma within lesbian relationships attached to being HIV positive... [I wonder,] what if the circle of lesbian women she was around were not the kind of women who understood that a lesbian woman could have HIV?" Hoboyi said. "Maybe she was scared to take her pills among her friends, maybe she was not comfortable, she had not disclosed her HIV status... I've got a lot of what ifs."

Rape occurs more frequently in South Africa than almost anywhere in the world, with more than 54,000 cases reported to police each year in a country with a population of less than 50 million. (Thousands more likely go unreported.) Lesbians are often targeted for what is often called "corrective rape." Although there are no accurate statistics on how frequently this occurs in South Africa, almost one in three women surveyed by the HIV study reported having been survivors of "forced sex" and these women were more likely to be HIV-positive.

Clinic workers and police often share the same homophobic attitudes as the attackers in these cases — a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council found 80% of South Africans disapprove of homosexuality even though the country has some of the world's most extensive legal protections for gays and lesbians. With those attitudes so prevalent in the country, rape survivors often are afraid to go to clinics to get medication to prevent contraction of HIV immediately after their assault and sometimes avoid getting tested at all.

Women who participated in a "Health Dialogue" sponsored by the Cape Town-based, LGBTI-services organization the Triangle Project reported being mocked by clinic workers or even being assaulted when they sought treatment.

"They said lesbians deserve this... I won't go back," said one woman, according to meeting notes taken by the group's acting director, Sharon Cox Ludwig, and told to BuzzFeed. The woman reported that clinic workers said to her, "[Lesbians] are from the devil. God did not make women for this. We are not acting like women."

But other sex with men may also be contributing to HIV. Though it is sensitive to talk about, the HIV study found that sex with men was not uncommon even among those who describe themselves as lesbians. In this survey, 76.2 percent identified themselves as lesbians. But almost half said they had engaged in consensual sex with a man at least once; one out of five said they'd done so in the last year.

This doesn't necessarily mean all these women experience opposite-sex attraction. They could have sex with men out of pressure to be straight; one in 10 of the women surveyed are married to men or have been in the past. And 18.6% of the women surveyed reported having engaged in "transactional sex," the trading of sex for money, food, or something else.

These circumstances push that sexual activity underground, lesbian activists say, making it harder to get them to engage in safe sex.

"They don't talk about it—they hide it from their friends," said Ntsupe Mohapi, who heads the grassroots LGBT organization EPOC — the Ekurhuleni Pride Organizing Committee — in a township outside of Johannesburg. "It's hard to practice safe sex … if you do something behind close doors."

Mohapi adds that the problem is compounded by the fact that transactional sex often occurs when women are most vulnerable and unable to insist on protection — when they are supporting a drug or alcohol habit or have no money for food.

There is also a lot of hostility toward women who are bisexual, said the Forum for the Empowerment of Women's Hoboyi, who has had relationships with both men and women. Some believe that bisexuals make lesbians more vulnerable to rape because they confirm the perception that even women who date women are secretly attracted to men.

"Especially now in an era in South Africa where there's a lot of hate crimes, some lesbian women feel that women who date men and women, or who are attracted to men and women, are the ones who [cause] men to target lesbian women," Hoboyi said.

Mohapi said she sees the same in her township.

"The problem that we're facing even now is that in the gay community [bisexuals] are not accepted very easily," she said. Lesbians may turn their backs on them saying, "You're going to put us in danger."

The layered issues that HIV raises makes it harder to get lesbians to practice safe sex with their female partners. Those who know their status may be afraid to tell their partners, and asking someone to use protection may imply you suspect they have been choosing to have sex with men.

Even those who want to practice safe sex can have a very hard time getting protection. Dental dams and other safe-sex supplies for lesbians are very hard to come by and can be expensive. Free condoms are widely available and can be cut into barriers for oral sex, but lesbians open themselves up to humiliation by asking for them at public clinics.

"There's a lot of, 'Why, what are you gonna do with it?'" from clinic staff when a lesbian asks for safe-sex supplies, said Hoboyi. "That's why lesbian women are very reluctant to go to clinics and ask for any protection."

The climate makes life very difficult for lesbian and bisexual women and very frustrating for lesbian, bisexual, and HIV activists.

These women regularly bury women who have lost their lives in homophobic assaults and fighting an incredibly difficult campaign to try to get authorities to take the threat of hate crimes seriously. They are burying still more whose lives are cut short by HIV. At the same time, though, many of those HIV-related deaths seem to result from the stigma that remains not confronted within their own community.

Just as lesbians ask their families and communities to be accepting of them, they must be accepting of those who are HIV-positive, Soldaat said during Mahlungulu's funeral.

"The reality is lesbians are HIV-positive," she said. "The reality is lesbians are so in denial."

J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and a 2013 Alicia Patterson Foundation journalism fellow. Additional reporting and translation contributed by Martha Qumba.

South Africa's Same-Sex Marriages Don't Always Have A Happy Ending

"All things that are in the constitution, here they don’t mean anything, they don’t translate to our daily lives. People are being killed,” a married black lesbian activist in a Cape Town township says.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Jun 16, 2013

APE TOWN, South Africa — When the reigning Mr. Gay Namibia married his Botswanan partner in South Africa in April 2013, Zimbabwe's declared, "History [made] as Africa witnesses second gay wedding." The first, said the website, happened a week earlier when two men married in a Zulu ceremony in the South African town of KwaDukuza.

Of course, these were neither the first nor second same-sex weddings in Africa. Many couples have married in South Africa since the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2006. But because South Africa has sizeable white and Asian minorities, its same-sex marriages are dismissed by many opponents of LGBTI rights as a foreign import on a continent where 38 governments still criminalize homosexuality. (In South Africa and many other parts of the world, the preferred acronym is LGBTI—Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex.) These weddings may take place in Africa, but they are not "African" weddings.

Mr. Gay Namibia, whose name is Ricardo Raymond Amunjera, and his husband, Marc Omphemetse Themba, have vivid memories of when South Africa passed its same-sex marriage law. So they were surprised when news of the private ceremony in a Johannesburg office of the Department of Home Affairs started making headlines around the globe.

"I'm proud that my union to Ricardo and … the wedding itself [have] actually made a bold statement … to the world out there that we are here, we are authentic, and we exist," Themba said. "Homosexuality has never been 'un-African.'"

Themba and Amunjera are lucky. Though homosexuality is illegal in both their countries, they have not been arrested. Nor have they been attacked or forced to leave their home, unlike other couples that have attempted to celebrate their unions on the continent. Both of their families even came to the wedding reception at the Hilton Hotel in the Namibian capital of Windhoek.

"Marc's family accepted me; my family loves him. It was every gay man's dream come true," said Amunjera.

Even still, they are making plans to move to South Africa, which they speak of as a promised land where they can live together with full rights.

"As much as I love my country, I want to be able to live in a country where my marriage is legitimate," Amunjera said.

Yet for those inside South Africa, the value of same-sex marriage legalization is far less clear. For some, it has transformed their lives in exactly the way Amunjera and Themba believe it will for them. But it hasn't wholly transformed South Africa.

Same-sex marriage was made possible because South African leaders embraced a radical vision of equality to excise the scars of apartheid. But opposition to homosexuality remains deep despite what the law says. Eighty percent of citizens regard homosexuality as "always wrong," according to a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council. This homophobia, along with the divisions created by apartheid, keep South Africa from living up to its promises to LGBTI citizens even seven years after same-sex marriages first became legal.

Black gays and lesbians in the township slums set up by the apartheid regime live under the constant threat of violence. Conservative Afrikaners, whose politicians criminalized same-sex relationships along with interracial ones, have left a legacy of ongoing homophobia for those families who once benefited from apartheid's privileges. Gays and lesbians from the country's longtime Asian communities and newly arrived immigrants alike are fighting not only to find a place in South Africa, but also confront strong homophobic currents from abroad.

South Africa is a paradox. The radical commitment to equality following apartheid made possible marriage equality well before many countries in Europe or the Americas. But it is also shaped by the some of same homophobic currents that are so powerful in other parts of Africa. Depending on where you live, your race, and your income, it can be one of the best places to be a same-sex couple, or it can be uncomfortable and dangerous.

Patting his country on the back in an LA Times op-ed last Thursday, Albie Sachs, the former Constitutional Court justice who authored the 2005 opinion legalizing same-sex marriage wrote, "It seemed so simple, so obviously right that a couple who loved each other could marry…. Today, such unions are commonplace in South Africa."

But the real experience of South African couples shows that there is nothing "commonplace" about same-sex marriage. Though the law makes it easy for same-sex couples to wed, many marriages are stories of struggling to turn an ideal of equality into a reality against a history of division and cultural hostility more powerful than law. And often, they don't have a happy ending.

Same-sex marriage became legal in South Africa in 2006 through legislation the government was forced to pass under a 2005 order from the Constitutional Court. It wasn't the result of some groundswell of demand or years of building a grassroots movement; it was the product of a decade-long litigation strategy led by a handful of activists.

When their work began, in the years after the country's first post-apartheid constitution was adopted in 1993, it wasn't necessarily clear that marriage would be on the agenda. Even the man who wrote the blueprint for the strategy, Edwin Cameron, said he wasn't too enthusiastic about the issue.

"It took me a long time to come around to marriage equality," he said. He used to rationalize this ambivalence with the argument that marriage is a heteronormative and patriarchal institution. But now he thinks it came from something deeper.

"In brief and crude terms, I think that it was internalized homophobia," he said. "I hadn't fully internalized the entitlement" that same-sex relationships deserve the same legitimacy as heterosexual relationships.

Cameron is now a justice of the Constitutional Court, and the only out gay and the out HIV-positive person in national office. In 1994, he was a law professor and activist who proposed what became known as the "Shopping List," a step-by-step litigation strategy to turn the constitution's LGBTI rights protections into enforceable law. It began with decriminalization of sodomy—achieved in 1997—and moved on to items like winning nondiscrimination protections in the workplace. Marriage was the final item, "the cherry on the sundae," in the words of another activist.

Cameron's own ambivalence isn't the only reason the Shopping List might not have included marriage. When he wrote it, marriage wasn't the central part of the LGBTI rights agenda that it has become. It would be another six years before the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The leading gay-rights groups in the United States did not even want to discuss the issue. They had just lost the battle over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and were seeing the beginnings of the backlash against same-sex relationships that would lead to the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, plus more than a decade of ballot initiatives enshrining marriage discrimination into state constitutions. Sodomy laws were still in place in many U.S. states with the full blessing of the Supreme Court—a decision not overturned until 2003.

Putting marriage on the Shopping List meant believing the principles in South Africa's post-apartheid bill of rights—the first in the world to explicitly protect LGBTI rights—demanded a level of equality greater than any other country had achieved. And it was obvious to Cameron that this included marriage, even if he wasn't comfortable with the institution.

"You can't say, 'I just want you to make marginal accommodations,'" Cameron said. "You've got to say in the end this is about complete normalization and equality."

But LGBTI activists established same-sex partnership rights piecemeal. Led by the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, they won a case guaranteeing immigration rights for the same-sex partners of South African citizens in 1999. They won a case requiring same-sex partners be included in employee benefit plans, and then another requiring insurance companies to allow gays and lesbians to collect on their partners' insurance policies.

They were still waiting to challenge the marriage law directly when two women without ties to the inner circle of LGBTI legal activists beat them to it.

In 2002, Marié Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys sued for the right to marry. But their lawyer was unprepared for this kind of case, and it was tied up for years because of technical problems with their suit. In 2004, they won a favorable ruling from Cameron, who was then a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Constitutional Court then took up the question, and it agreed.

In his ruling, Chief Justice Albie Sachs argued that the principles that brought the country out of apartheid demanded equality for same-sex couples. He had powerful credibility when he spoke; he had been an anti-apartheid activist who lost an arm in a 1988 assassination attempt by the government's security forces.

"The acknowledgement and acceptance of difference is particularly important in our country where for centuries group membership based on supposed biological characteristics such as skin colour has been the express basis of advantage and disadvantage," Sachs wrote in the December 2005 decision. "At issue [in this case] is a need to affirm the very character of our society as one based on tolerance and mutual respect."

But his ruling did not settle the issue. The Constitutional Court did not simply order that the language of the existing marriage law be made gender neutral. Instead, he gave the parliament one year to pass legislation to grant same-sex couples equal rights.

This opened a bitter fight and exposed deep homophobia and racial tensions. Opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage was led by the National House of Traditional Leaders, who held meetings around the country in which homosexuality was decried as "un-African," displeasing to ancestors under traditional African beliefs, and a perversion of whites and Asians. Christian leaders also aggressively mobilized to try to block legalization.

The opposition was so fierce that the legislation first introduced in parliament would only have allowed civil partnerships, not marriage. But the leadership of the African National Congress shared Sachs's view of what the constitution demanded. It enforced the strictest party discipline to pass legislation that would open "marriage" to same-sex couples, just weeks before the deadline set by the court passed.

The battle over this issue is not entirely over. The National House of Traditional Leaders is still fighting to put marriage equality to a referendum, and many LGBTI activists worry that the commitment to protecting marriage rights may atrophy as the generation of leaders who brought the country out of apartheid fade away.

But the most active front in the LGBTI movement is no longer in the courts and legislature. It is in the townships and other places where homophobia is most raw. Black lesbians, spurred largely by an epidemic of rape and other hate crimes, are making an especially visible case for giving teeth to the protections won on paper.

"For so long as we have constitutionalism and the rule of law, gay and lesbian equality will be part of the commitment," Cameron said. "The visibility of black gays and lesbians makes the issue irreversible."

Funeka Soldaat isn't so sure how much the protections people like Cameron have worked for are worth.

"All things that are in the constitution, here they don't mean anything, they don't translate to our daily lives," Soldaat said, standing on a dusty street between rows of wood and corrugated-metal shacks in the Cape Town township where she has been a lesbian activist for more than 20 years. "People are being killed."

She was attending the funeral of a woman who was active in the group that she founded, Free Gender, as well as the HIV advocacy group, the Treatment Action Campaign. Soldaat, who has survived a stabbing and a gang rape, has buried many friends. Even now she was helping to organize a pride march in the nearby township of Nyanga—where at least two lesbians were murdered in the past year.

Just a couple weeks earlier in Khayelitsha, the township where she lives, a 23-year-old gay man was assaulted by a group of men as he walked home at 5:30 in the afternoon. They knocked him unconscious with an iron rod and pieces of bricks before stripping him to see if he had undergone the Xhosa community's circumcision rites of initiation into manhood. When they saw that he had been initiated—which some believe should prevent a man from developing same-sex attraction—they shot him, taking off a piece of his ear.

Soldaat made her comment about the meaningless of the constitutional protections when asked her about her wedding ring.

Once marriage was important to her as an activist. She married for the first time in 1998, well before it was recognized under South African law, in what she described as a big "white wedding."

"It was like the first time that it was happening in the township, it was full, everybody was … coming." She said. "I think for me at that time it was also a little bit of activism, saying that this can happen" for African people.

She married for the second time three years ago. This time, they married in a bureaucrat's office. The symbolism was not important to her. Soldaat just wanted to make sure that her wife had a claim on their house in case she dies. Otherwise, Soldaat feared, her family would throw her wife out.

And she didn't want to put her wife in danger by making a statement with their wedding.

"I don't want [her to] be exposed too much to what I'm doing," Soldaat said. "I know if people can hurt me they may hurt her."

For her wife, who asked to be referred to only as Thando, the wedding had greater meaning as a symbol of their commitment to one another. But she has her own reasons for keeping their marriage quiet. Her seven-year-old son lives with Thando's parents, and she was afraid her parents would cut her out of his life if she is too public about her relationship with a woman.

"If I go ahead with telling them [I'm married]… They will say, 'No, you can't raise a child in that environment because a child needs a mother and a father.'" Thando said. "They will turn him against me."

Anti-gay attitudes within the African community generally get the most attention. But it persists among those who benefited from apartheid, too. The Dutch Reform Church—a denomination so closely aligned with the apartheid regime that it was once famously referred to as "the National Party at prayer"—still does not recognize same-sex marriages despite South Africa's legal evolution.

Judith Kotzé didn't feel "oppressed" by apartheid. In fact, she remembers the year she and her sister spent in the South African army in 1988—when "the country was burning" beneath the uprising against apartheid—as "the year of our lives."

They lived "in a bubble," Judith said while driving to her office in a beat-up white pickup. Their family had Afrikaner ancestors who'd arrived in the country in 1680, many of whom were Dutch Reform ministers. That was what Judith and her sister, Hanti, wanted to be, too, though the church barred women from the pulpit.

Their "bubble" began to crack in 1990, when they were finally able to enter seminary at Stellenbosch. That year, the church opened for women. Its leaders had broken away from their support of apartheid. And the sisters started to become aware of their sexuality, which could dash their chances to be ministers just as it had become possible.

Judith's sister, Hanti, came out first. She had gone to the Netherlands to study feminist theology, and there met the women who would later become her wife. When she told their parents she was in a relationship with a woman in 1998, their mother curled up into a fetal position and moaned in Afrikaans, "Why must the devil take the cream?"

"It gave me such a fright," Judith said. Hanti was always the one who was more aware of their inner emotions. If Hanti was a lesbian, Judith thought, there was a good chance she would discover the same about herself.

Her fear was compounded by her father's reaction to Hanti's coming out. Though he remained far calmer than her mother, his words cut deeper.

"The moment you bring sexuality into [relationships with women], you draw a line through your credibility and authority as a spiritual leader," he had said.

It took Judith several more years to figure out she was also a lesbian and work through its implications. She wrote her thesis on Christian lesbians, not because she thought she was one, but because she said she wanted to find "the most silent voice I can think of [in the Dutch Reformed Church]…. and let that voice speak" through her work.

After she finished her degree and was credentialed as a Dutch Reformed minister, she continued this work as an employee of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, an organization founded by another Dutch Reformed minister in 1995 to make South African's Christian churches more gay-friendly. She never did work as a Dutch Reform minister, but she has found her calling at IAM, which she now heads. She is also qualified to perform same-sex marriages through the Metropolitan Community Church.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2006 came as a "miracle," she said. Not because the legal recognition was so earth-shaking, but because the rituals around her wedding gave the opportunity to heal the wounds within her family.

Her parents had stayed home when Hanti married her wife in the Netherlands in 2002. And though they at first said they would stay home when Judith married her longtime partner, Surita, in 2007, they thawed as the planning progressed.

Her mother gave tips on what music they should play and how to arrange the flowers. When they learned that Surita's parents were going be there, they decided they would come as well. When the ceremony began, Judith's mother was playing "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desires" on the organ. Her father witnessed the union with his signature.

The fact that the wedding—a real, legal wedding—helped her family come "through the other side," Judith said, showed that God was at work.

"Something more happened than just what the eye could see," she said.

Muhsin Hendricks was making wedding dresses in Johannesburg when he developed a crush on a waiter in an Indian restaurant near where he went to buy fabric.

After he did his shopping, Hendricks said, "If I had some change left I would spoil myself at this restaurant where he was working—just to go and watch him."

Hendricks hadn't trained in fashion. He had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, leader of the Lansdowne mosque in Cape Town, and studied at a madrassa in Pakistan. He moved to Johannesburg after coming out, leaving behind teaching positions at several mosques as well as a wife and three children. While supporting himself with wedding dresses, he was raising money to start an organization for gay and lesbian Muslims.

Hendricks had known since he was five that he was gay, but he had hidden "behind religiosity," fearing that he was going to hell. His pious life was driven by the desire to figure out "what does the Quran say about me," he said.

"I couldn't believe that the very merciful God that you hear about in the Quran would create me like this … and then send me to hell," he said.

He was in his late twenties when his struggle brought him to the point of crisis. He sequestered himself for three months on a friend's farm, fasting while living in a room next to the stables. By the end, he had resolved "to use my own conviction and my own understanding of the scripture" to help other gay and lesbian Muslims.

That project would lead to the creation of The Inner Circle, which describes itself as an organization for "sexually diverse Muslims to reconcile Islam with their sexuality." And as he prepared to launch it, he kept up an 8-month vigil at the Indian restaurant without ever working up the courage to speak to the waiter.

Finally, the waiter broke the silence when he needed to vent about another customer.

The waiter, who asked to be referred to only as Sam, is the son of a Hindu pandit, and he had left India for South Africa just a year before he met Hendricks. He said he left because his native Punjab was too hot. Knowing next to nothing about South Africa except that it was cooler than where he was born, he bought a ticket to Johannesburg with a friend. They arrived without knowing where they would stay or where they would go. His friend burst into tears at the airport, overwhelmed by the large and dangerous metropolis, and ultimately went back home. But Sam found his way to an Indian neighborhood, got the job at the restaurant, and stayed.

He hadn't seen a movie in that time because he didn't have a car, and Johannesburg is a dangerous place to get around without one. Sam said he would buy tickets for a Bollywood movie if Hendricks would drive.

When they were sitting in the car on the way there, Hendricks told Sam he was gay.

Sam asked if he had a boyfriend. Hendricks said no.

"Ok, I'll be your boyfriend," Sam remembered responding, though he said he hadn't ever thought of himself as gay up to that point.

The money for The Inner Circle came through a month later, which required Hendricks to return to Cape Town. Sam surprised him by asking if he could go with him.

They married after settling in Cape Town in a ceremony that Hendricks describes as "very Bollywood" because of its elaborate mix of Muslim and Hindu elements. But it couldn't have happened in India nor Pakistan nor elsewhere in Africa. South Africa's laws made it possible, and Hendricks felt its global resonance.

He wanted to show that his faith did not have to be patriarchal or homophobic as it is taught in much of the Muslim world. To underscore this point, the couple was married by a woman imam who came all the way from Indonesia.

The Inner Circle now spends much of its time using its relatively safe location in South Africa to support LGBTI Muslims in more embattled parts of the world, "arguing for human rights through theology."

"Homosexuality is [regarded as] as 'un-Islamic' as it is 'un-African'," Hendricks said. "The fact that our work is currently largely international shows that it's not just a thing we can solve over here."

Charlie's desire to marry brought him to South Africa in 2008. But not because he was going there to get married. He was fleeing the mob that almost burned down his house in Kenya because he and his boyfriend, Rob, were planning a marriage ceremony. The mob had also beaten Rob nearly to death. Charlie last saw him while he was recovering from his injuries in a Nairobi hospital. These are not their real names; the two men still worry about their safety.

The people who attacked their home weren't strangers. They were friends and neighbors, people who had shared meals with the couple in their house. With the exception of the occasional name-calling in the street, Charlie and his boyfriend hadn't had any problems in their neighborhood.

But that all changed when they decided to formalize their union with a wedding. That was a step too far even for friends who were willing to tolerate the fact that they were gay.

The mob came to their house two weeks before the ceremony.

"They were attacking us at night," Charlie recounted. "They were throwing stones and calling names, like, 'Gay! We kill you people!'"

As they cowered inside the wooden house, they could see that the mob was lighting fires in the street. Some were holding crude bombs fashioned out of bottles filled with petrol and paraffin.

The mob likely would have killed them if a woman who lived nearby had not slipped into their backyard. The couple jumped out a window and followed her to her house. She wouldn't hide them inside for fear the mob would look for them there. So she put them in the hutch where she kept her chickens. The birds squawked so loudly they feared they would give them away.

Charlie snuck out of the chicken coop around 5:00 the next morning, the usual time he left for work. Their attackers must have been asleep, because he made it there safely.

But they were waiting for Rob when he left a couple hours later. They beat and stabbed him, and probably would have killed him if the police hadn't intervened.

Charlie learned of the attack from the neighbor who'd saved their lives before. After work he went to the hospital, though this was risky. If the police were still there, they could have arrested him for violating Kenya's law against homosexuality. And the neighbors who attacked them could have been lurking around the hospital waiting for him to visit.

After visiting Rob, Charlie went immediately to his mother's village outside Nairobi and made plans to leave the country. He had heard that South Africa's laws meant that he could get asylum because he was gay; he already had one friend who had relocated to Cape Town. He called this friend, who connected him with a lawyer who arranged for him to fly to South Africa on a tourist visa. He would apply for refugee status once he arrived.

Charlie returned to Nairobi just to say goodbye to Rob, who was still in the hospital.

Charlie got lucky when he arrived in Cape Town. He had no problem getting refugee status based on what happened to him. Many other LGBT refugees are not so fortunate; even though South African law should guarantee them asylum rights, they often encounter resistance from homophobic immigration officials, as a recent report by the group People Against Suffering, Oppression, and Poverty documents.

But South Africa was no promised land. Charlie was rail-thin as he spoke in PASSOP's offices in Cape Town's Southern Suburbs in March of 2013, having been out of work for many months. He lost his composure while explaining how he was days away from being evicted from his home in the township because he couldn't come up with the $30 to pay the rent. And while he says he hasn't been harassed for being gay, he is constantly abused for being a foreigner—sometimes, local shop owners won't sell him bread because he can't speak the predominant local language, Xhosa.

His instability was part of the reason that Rob never joined him as they'd planned. Once he'd recovered from his injuries, Rob had first gone to another country bordering Kenya. There he found a boyfriend with a good job and decided to stay.

"I regret everything all the time," Charlie said.

But South Africa did save his life. And even as Charlie is struggling to survive, South Africa represents the hope that human rights are possible for gays and lesbians even in Kenya and other African countries that are even more hostile.

Marriage "is something to be talked about, and it's very important to me," he said. But, it's not just about marriage, or even the laws themselves. It's also about living their lives. "They should allow these people to have their own rights—the equality of all."

J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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