travel

'LGBT travellers can help change hearts and minds - I don't want them to stop visiting Uganda'

Queer Ugandans face widespread persecution, but gay Ugandan tour operator Michael Kajubi believes LGBT travellers can be a force for good.

2019-01-16

This article appears in the February Travel issue of Attitude, available to download and to order globally now.

Editor's note: Those found guilty of same-sex sexual activity in Uganda may face life imprisonment for "carnal knowledge against the order of nature". or seven years imprisonment for "gross indecency".

Attitude encourages all LGBT tourists to research local laws and customs before travelling, and to consult with groups such as the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

St Augustine once said: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

I’ve always loved to travel, to have the chance to learn about different cultures in other parts of the world, and I hope that by the time my journey is over, I have read many pages of the book.

A page that many people miss out on however, especially LGBT+ people, is the one of my home country, Uganda.

Nicknamed the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, it’s a beautiful country that has much to offer: the source of the Nile, the amazing mountain gorillas and other wild animals, the fresh waters in the lakes and the natural resources.

In 2013, I started McBern Tours and Travel, a company that welcomes tourists of all genders and sexualities, to explore my home.

Every country has its strengths and its weaknesses, successes and challenges, so yes, I admit what most of you are thinking: Uganda suffers from widespread homophobia.

Article 21 of the Ugandan Constitution clearly states that all people are equal under the law and protected from discriminatory legislation.

But even with this clear mandate, we continue to witness government oppression of the LGBT+ community through legal measures such as the infamous “Kill the Gays bill” that was signed into law in 2014, but, thankfully, later ruled invalid by the constitutional court.

But, as has happened and is happening in many countries around the world, through hard work in education, dialogue and one-on-one interactions through tourism and business, we have been working to establish the rights that LGBT+ citizens deserve, and have made some progress.

There is a strong and growing civil society working to advance the cause, to secure access to health services, to legal and societal acceptance.

Through these efforts, we held the first gay Pride in 2012 with just a handful of people attending, and within a few years it grew to more than 500 people — a show of solidarity from the LGBT+ community and an indication that we are willing to take risks to increase our visibility.

My own journey to self-acceptance has also been long. I wasn’t necessarily aware that I was gay when I was young but I always felt a bit different. I went to a single-sex high school, and although I admired some of the boys, I always thought it was unacceptable and would fight the feelings.

I would look at guys more than girls, and when I was a bit older, I realised I was attracted to them, but I never acted on my feelings until I finished university. I knew that coming out was not something that would happen easily, and when I first met other LGBT+ people, I was still closeted.

Michael Kajubi (Photography: Markus Bidaux)

I’m a shy person, so I just observed and didn’t want to be known or identified by them — I was cautious with what I said and who I said it to.

Eventually, though, I came out to my cousin, who was my closest friend at the time. He didn’t believe me, and started preaching about how I was not created this way and would change.

After some time, he became distant then stopped talking to me. It was painful to lose a friend but I wouldn’t change who I was.

I launched McBern Tours to help support the McBern Foundation, an organisation that I started with the aim of improving the quality of life for elderly people in rural areas, the name McBern coming from my uncle — he’s my role model in terms of work.

I thought tourism was a sector that I could tap into to raise funds for the foundation, as I didn’t think people would be interested in supporting it otherwise.

I employ four full-time staff, and we offer safaris around the national parks, as well as organising VIP business trips and helping students coming here to do research projects or internships.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

When I started the company, as well as wanting to help the elderly, I also saw it as an opportunity to support the LGBT+ community by employing marginalised youths who, like me, were being discriminated against and struggling to find employment because of their sexuality.

I envisioned a safe working space for LGBT+ people, where we can show tourists of all identities the beauty of Uganda, while helping the elderly.

But setting up the company came with its own set of challenges. While the Ugandan government is known for promoting tourism, its stance on my community has affected the business.

When President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, many tourists — gay and straight — postponed or cancelled their trips to Uganda.

That was during our first year of operation and it hit us hard. It hurt terribly to watch my dream be damaged by misleading statements from selfish government officials and religious leaders.

I only hope that one day they will give the LGBT+ community the chance to showcase what we are capable of doing, and discover how much we can contribute to the development of Uganda, like our straight brothers and sisters do.

Attracting LGBT+ travellers to Uganda as a tourist destination is difficult, but last year, McBern Tours joined the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, and I was able to speak at the annual conference in Toronto.

I’ve also been working to improve relationships with allies in the Ugandan tourism sector and have secured assurances from the Ministry of Tourism that guests will be protected and are welcome to visit.

I know the power that travellers can have, not just on the person but also the place. Those who travel make a big impact on the society they visit.

As more LGBT+ tourists venture to my country, Ugandans will learn more about the global LGBT+ community, and how tourism can benefit them. That contact will slowly but surely encourage a change in the mind-set of Ugandans.

LGBT+ travellers from around the world help me remember that there are many other people like me trying to make a positive impact in the world.

A lot of progress has been made in the past 10 years and it’s slowly getting better.

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