Theatre producer David Cecil talks about his deportation from Uganda for staging a gay play

British producer David Cecil was arrested in Uganda and subsequently deported back to the UK for staging a play that described the conditions of gay people in the African state. Knowing how strongly some African countries feel about the issue of homosexuality, we wanted to find out more about David's decision to go ahead with the play. Here's what he had to say:

Can you tell us more about the problems highlighted by your play “The River And The Mountain” and in particular about the everyday challenges gay people in Africa have to deal with?

The play was in no way activist. It was designed to be thought-provoking, but above all, entertaining. Our original intention was to take a controversial subject, that no-one was talking about, and make it funny and entertaining. The hero of the play is a successful businessman, and the audience doesn't know he's gay until halfway through, when he reveals his sexuality to a close friend – then it all goes wrong for him. In this way, the audience is cheering for this guy – he fights corruption etc. - but then... Shit! He's gay! I think that that is a much more effective and realistic approach than demanding that the audience sympathise with him. Why should they? The actor we cast as the hero is a well-known, straight model and film star. He loved the script and threw himself into the part. The audience were watching someone they knew well from countless billboards, plays, films, etc – and he was gay!

So the issue we highlighted was that Ugandans don't really appreciate that gay men and women are normal people. We showed that you can be friends with someone, realise they are gay, and then keep on caring about them. And because this was entertainment, not propaganda – we left it open to the audience to decide. At no point did we say: “It's OK to be gay.” We just were pointing out that there are gay people living relatively normal lives in Uganda.

As for lesbians in Uganda: arguably, they have an easier time than gay men, in that homophobic people don't find them so disgusting and they are not associated with paedophilia. On the other hand, it is harder for them, since, particularly in the village, women are expected to marry and bear children, not get jobs. So, in that economic sense, rural lesbians must have a very hard time. You meet some lesbians who are happily married and, practically-speaking, bisexual, in that they voluntarily have sex with their husbands, but are also inclined to women.

Can you explain to us what happened when you got arrested for going ahead with the play?

A week before the premiere we received instructions from the Uganda Media Council (UMC) that we were not to perform the play in public, until they had reviewed and cleared the script, which would take weeks of committee meetings. Since the secretary of the UMC was only asking this at the last minute, since no other play gets this kind of warning, since the instructions were not phrased in legal terms, and since we could only perform the play on the scheduled dates due to our other work, we went ahead.

We performed the play to private audiences 8 times – with a total audience of about 800 people. After the last performance I was invited for an 'informal' interview with the Media Crimes Division of CID (Criminal Investigation Department). Then the following week I was charged with 2 counts 'disobedience of an order by a public official'. If found guilty, I was looking at 4 years, automatic sentence.

I was put on remand for 4 nights, in the main prison - Luzira. Though Luzira is legendarily awful, it was actually OK, though the food was bad, even by English standards. The other prisoners were very cool, despite 'Gay Activist Arrested' headlines in local press. They saw my arrest, like theirs, as being unfair. This vindicates my earlier remarks that the majority of Ugandans are NOT violently homophobic.

Then I was released on bail and appeared in court 5 times, September to January. Each time, the prosecutor failed to bring a single witness or piece of evidence. She (poor woman) had not even been given a file, with any statements, by the police. Incredible. The magistrate, who is a conservative Christian, surprised us all by dismissing the case on January 2nd – my birthday!

So life went on. Then, suddenly, a month later, 5 guys in suits turned up and took me to the Immigration offices. They told me I was to be immediately and indefinitely deported, for being 'undesirable'. I was not given the chance to appeal and was put in the cells of a local police station for 5 nights. That was less pleasant, with 43 guys in 2 small rooms.

However, as in Luzira, people did not judge me. An amusing detail: daily, born-again Christian prayers were conducted by a charming young man called Hassan, who confessed he'd been arrested for... sodomy! Then I found myself on a KLM flight back to freezing Britain. The weather here is one of the most painful parts of the punishment. More seriously, I am now separated from my girlfriend and 2 children. This is very upsetting, especially as my kids are very young. I miss them with all my heart.

We receive news from the African continent that often highlight homophobic politics (such as life-sentences for gays, head of states asked to kick homosexuals out of the country, etc). Judging from your experience, would you say that is it more a political matter rather than a widespread issue? Is homosexuality such a big problem for everyday people?

First of all, it's obviously important to recognise that in the vast continent of Africa, not all people have the same attitude to LGBTI people. In the case of Kampala (capital of Uganda), which I am most familiar with, the city is very cosmopolitan, but at the same time a 'big village'. As a centuries-old trading centre, people have long been interacting with foreigners, but at the same time, local traditions are very strong.

With regard to homosexuality, on the one hand, there are arguments that it is a 'foreign curse' or 'modern import'. On the other hand, there are local ways of interpreting it, e.g. as a non-malign 'spirit', or as a traditional way of coping with the loss of a spouse or absence of heterosexual partners. More generally, you hear people talking about homosexuality as a weakness, akin to inter-generational sex, or serial infidelity, or addiction to alcohol or drugs. These are all 'abnormal' and potentially destabilising practices, that must be explained or condemned, and then forgiven or overcome, with help from the community.

In my view, what has changed in Uganda, in recent years, is two-fold: the rise of LGBTI as a distinct 'identity' in Uganda (particularly Kampala), with a corresponding demand for political rights and social recognition; the political claims of fundamentalist religion, particularly evangelism, which has a very negative view of homosexuality.

Effectively, homosexuality has changed from being a habitual practice or social tendency, to a being a clearly-demarcated identity that some people regard as threatening and others regard as rightful. This pattern is familiar in the US, where battle-lines have been drawn with the rise of so-called 'identity politics' or 'culture wars'. Likewise, Ugandan LGBTI people see themselves as an endangered minority, whose existence is not officially recognised. The more politically active ones are now fighting for rights, and they are making their presence felt in a number of ways – forming NGOs, making public statements on TV, fighting legal battles in the High Court, and even holding public Pride events.

I am sure that the debate would have arisen anyway, but the recent attempts to further criminalise homosexuality have given it a peculiar urgency. It is - as in the chicken and the egg – hard to say which came first: were the homophobic lobby responding to the emergent homosexual identity in Uganda; or did the LGBTI people rapidly form a politicised 'community' to protect themselves from a new wave of persecution?

What we do know is that prior to 2009, when the Anti-Gay Bill was first tabled, US evangelists had started funding efforts to 'sensitise' the Ugandan people as to the 'dangers' of homosexuality. The information they sought to disseminate in Uganda was identical to the claims of Christian fundamentalists in the US: gays are a threat to the traditional family; gays are sexual deviants, akin to paedophiles; gay rights groups are funded by shadowy international forces ('the pink dollar'), who wish to spread homosexuality worldwide; gays 'recruit' young children in schools and through insidious cultural means (like theatre, film, puppet shows, etc.); homosexuality is a type of contagious mental illness; and so on. Google “Scott Lively” and check out what that evangelist has been preaching in Uganda.

Now, I am very sympathetic towards the everyday, conservative Ugandan view of LGBTI people. Like all post-colonial societies, Uganda has been struggling to cope with the accelerated pace of transformation. From a moderate-conservative perspective, the traditional 'African family' is under threat and must be protected. However, where I would strongly disagree with the homophobic Ugandans, is that I think they are mistaking the causes for the symptoms: the appearance of LGBTI people in their communities is a product of the demise of the traditional African family, not its cause. These changes are happening. The question is not: “how do we punish these people who represent the changes happening to Uganda?” The question is: “how do we accommodate the changes that are happening in Uganda?” The irony is, that by seeking to legislate against LGBTI people, the proponents of the Bill are in fact disempowering communities, as they pass the parenting/guidance role to the state.

The root of the current problem is that the more cynical US evangelists in Uganda are spreading the idea that homosexuals are shit-eating child-molesters. So even if their Ugandan followers accept that the new LGBTI identity is a product of modernisation, it is one that must be rejected, rather like dangerous narcotic abuse. I'd like to emphasise here, that the problem is not US evangelism itself, it is a minority of self-interested individuals, who are exploiting their position of power and financial superiority to gain supporters. It would be hypocritical and unfair, and could alienate potential allies to the LGBTI movement, if we say “it's all the fault of the evangelists”. They're a mixed group, and many are appalled at the actions of their fellow Christians.

What is most alarming is that these few, hateful evangelists have deliberately targeted the political establishment in an attempt to gain power and support. Allegedly, they have organised 'breakfast prayer' meetings with the highest levels of government, in which policy direction is discussed. There are rumours of meetings with individual ministers and MPs, which are doubtless the genesis of specific private members' bills, such as the Anti-Gay Bill. They would doubtless promise funding and bulk votes (from the evangelist community) in return.

Reports of this influence are widespread and credible. If true, Uganda is being threatened with an unprecedented religious conversion of its political class. This is an issue that negatively affects all Ugandans, regardless of sexual orientation. As I write, I am listening to the BBC report on the proposed 'miniskirt bill' – effectively a ban on wearing revealing clothing in public, with provisions allowing the government to monitor your usage of the Internet, in a bid to eliminate pornography from the country.

Fortunately, the Ugandan people are too sensible to accept this kind of intrusion on their individual liberty. However, what is very interesting is that this 'miniskirt bill' is the brainchild of the Catholic Minister of Ethic & Integrity. This latter Minister is apparently trying to outdo the political evangelists! So this is perhaps a case of an intra-governmental competition to woo conservative voters. It is not a straightforward case of US evangelism messing with Uganda. However, these evangelists are responsible for creating a context, where it is harder for politicians to show any sympathy for LGBTI people.

As you can see, there is no simple summary of the situation, except to say that attitudes to LGBTI people are indeed being distorted for political purposes. The man on the street used to think homosexuals were merely prone to 'weakness' and many still do. Check out the responses of locals to the murder of David Kato: they were appalled. http://www.monitor.co.ug/artsculture/Reviews/Two-years-after-David-Kato-s-death/-/691232/1723030/-/item/0/-/71002b/-/index.html The hatred of homosexuality in Uganda comes from a deliberately disseminated misconception that gays are paedophiles.

What is the biggest mistake we “westerners” make when we try to understand African culture? What are the main misconceptions?

Uganda does not share our legalist culture. We need to appreciate that recognition of LGBTI people in Uganda has to happen on a social level. Unless social attitudes change, a change in the law will not help people to understand or accept homosexuality. Nor will legal reform help to silence the homophobic lobby, who will accuse politicians of betraying Uganda to western imperialism. If we push too hard on African societies to change, even liberal Ugandans will push back.

Within Uganda, there are plenty of people who are annoyed at the illiberal reforms being proposed in their country. Have a look at Freethought Kampala's site and facebook page, for example. One of the main misconceptions we have is that liberal reforms in Africa can only come from the outside. If that were so, then human rights would indeed be an imperialist concept.

Not long ago David Cameron suggested to economically stop helping those countries that have embraced homophobic politics. Do you think that this approach could be successful?

Uganda was occupied by imperialists in my father's lifetime and has struggled to become Independent ever since. If you tie developmental aid to conditions of who Ugandans sleep with, then you open yourself up to accusations of neo-imperialism. It's a form of blackmail, from that perspective. For me, as someone who believes in Independence as an ideal, the Ugandan political establishment should be focused on freeing itself from undue foreign influence, whether in the form of conditional aid or homophobic propaganda.

We want to take this chance to thank David Cecil for finding the time to talk to us, but also we want to wish him every success in the future: may he soon be reunited with his family and may his message be a glimmer of hope for those still struggling to be accepted for who they really are.

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