I am a glass half full kind of person and as much as things here in the states can seem shaky at times, I always remember that things could be worse, especially as an LGBTQ+ person living in the world. I remember a film we screened at qFLIX years ago about a Pride parade in Russia. The activists planned for months in secret and the parade consisted of them running out in the street with a Pride flag and then scattering and rendezvousing in a separate location. It was heartwarming and yet sad to see how elated and terrified they were about having the first successful “Pride March,” which lasted all of five minutes. In Uganda, things are pretty terrifying right now. The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 contains some of the toughest antigay laws in the world. It calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of homosexuality, including potentially the death penalty for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.” Erukana “Erwin” Wambi is a student at Rowan University and an activist hoping to make things better here and in his home country when he graduates.
Tell me a little bit about where you grew up.
I’m from Kampala, which is the capital of Uganda. I grew up nearby in a small district — you call them cities, but we say districts — called Jinja. It’s a small quiet town, not a lot of people. The kind of place where everyone knew each other. I have five half siblings with different mothers, but our dad passed away awhile back when I was about 14. My mom passed away too when I was very young, maybe around seven or eight. I don’t have really clear memories of her. I have more memories with my dad, [chuckles] not necessarily good ones though.
Who took care of you?
I moved in with my grandma until she passed away in an accident in 2018. After that, I moved to Kampala and lived with my eldest sister.
What’s a good memory from childhood?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I had a difficult childhood, soooo, [laughing] I’m trying to filter out the trauma and see if there was anything good. Ahhhh… hmmm, no, I can’t think of anything! I was a feminine boy and it had a big impact on how I associated with my family and schoolmates. [Pauses] Still thinking but … no, I don’t remember any good memories. They’re all about being forced to go to church where my dad was an elder, and my dad trying to make me be an electrician like he was. He believed that manual work was manly but it was not something I wanted. He also wanted me to become a church elder too. We would go to prisons to preach the gospel and I would also go on the radio and preach. He was training me to be him. It was a lot of pressure, as was going to school where I didn’t really associate well with the male students. I didn’t know about sexuality but I was very flamboyant and the teacher would tell me I needed to speak like a man. It was difficult because I didn’t have anyone I could express my trauma to.
I’m always surprised by how much our Black communities here and in Africa are taken with Christianity, when it’s not a religion that’s part of our histories.
It’s the impact of colonialism. We are taught growing up that we can’t do anything without religion. Originally, it was used as a way to justify slavery, a way of putting them in check. In truth, most of the families are not really religious, they just are brought up with it.
What was the worst of it for you?
Not having anyone to talk to. At the mental facility, I learned that I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression. When I was a kid, whenever I got really anxious or nervous, my leg would shake. My father called it my addiction and would tell me to stop but I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I tried to talk to my siblings to tell them about how my dad treated me. They told me that I was being disrespectful and ungrateful. They said, “Your father is paying your school fees and providing food. You cannot speak bad about your father.” They banned me from talking against my father about the abuse so I was alone with my feelings.
You had a tough row. Out of curiosity, how many languages do you speak?
I speak three native languages from my country. That’s Luganda, Lusoga and Lugisu. They are from three different tribes in Uganda. My dad was Mugisu, so I personally belong to the Mugisu tribe, which is far in the east, in the mountains. But where I grew up was the Lusoga tribe was, and as far as I know, my mother was Lusoga. Then when I moved to Kampala, I learned Luganda. Sometimes, the languages can be similar but with different accents and vernacular, kind of like speaking English but one person is from Texas and the other from Boston. And I also speak English, as it is.
It sounds good to me, definitely better than my Lusoga!
Thank you. Mugisu is much different than the other languages. We’re also known for the public circumcisions. Have you heard of that? The tradition is called Imbalu, whereby teenage boys are circumcised publicly without any anesthesia or pain killers as a symbol of strength and bravery and the transition into manhood. It represents a boy’s respect for his family and community, bringing his relatives honor. That’s another one of the reasons I left. I refused to have it done, so I was no longer considered part of the tribe or the family.
It sounds like being shunned in the Amish communities.
That’s exactly it!
When did you start to become aware that you were gay or even what gay was?
I learned about it in church! But not in a good way. They were always preaching about homosexuality and how they were going to hell and all that. It was always something bad or negative. At school, they would call me slurs and I would think, “I’m not this!” because it would make me feel bad. I knew I had an attraction to the same sex but felt it was not right. It was not until I was 12 years old that I started trying to embrace it. I met this guy in school who told me he was attracted to me [laughing] and he introduced me to a whole new perspective! I thought I was the only gay person in my tribe! I’ve gone through a lot of transitions from when I was 12 years old to now.
I would imagine that on top of the normal fears of, “I’m gay. What are people going to think?” that with the laws in Uganda, there’s also the fear of, “Am I going to jail?” or worse.
Yes. In school, there were set rules about homosexuality, and there were a couple incidents of gay students caught and expelled. At that time, that was the only consequence, unlike today with the harsher sentences, including the death penalty. Originally, I had planned on getting my degree and going home to help improve the queer community. Before I left, I was volunteering with several queer organizations and I came here to improve my skills but I don’t feel safe going back home now with the new antigay laws that were passed just this year. I spoke to my friends back home and most of the organizations are all on lockdown now or underground. There are literally no active groups as far as I know. If they are active, they’re meeting in other nearby countries, like Kenya or strictly online.
It’s terrible because people are not getting the resources they need. A lot of the closed groups provided HIV/AIDS services, testing, condoms and lubricants, health care for trans individuals, and all sorts of things that are no longer available for them. Coming here, I was at the airport and as they were checking my passport leaving Uganda, the women stamping it asked me, “Why do you wear your hair long like a woman?” I played it off saying, “Oh, I’m a student and couldn’t afford to get it cut.” She said, “You have to be careful, you’re going to a place where men marry men!”
Yes, and I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to come out there at the airport. I just wanted to get out of there! I’m looking at starting the application for asylum so that I don’t have to go back but I haven’t really learned how yet.
How did you find people or organizations when you were coming out?
Mostly on Facebook and I got a lot of information from the other boy in my school when I was 12. Our town didn’t have any queer organizations. They were mostly in Kampala and he told me about them. There was even a night club there. I heard it’s no longer open because it was raided several times.
I started volunteering with an organization called Kuchu Shiners of Uganda. It was a passport to learning about homosexuality. Things weren’t safe then either, but I would say the persecution was moderate. It wasn’t at gunpoint like it is now. People feel entitled now to harass someone who is gay. On top of that, if you know someone who is gay, you have to turn them in or you can be imprisoned for failing to report them. You cannot rent a house to someone who is gay. It’s really bad. Being someone who is feminine in approach and personality or gully or something, if someone just suspected me, and they reported me, what position would that put on me? Not to mention that I’m out on all my social media, so it’s not a secret.
But back to the organization, I learned a lot about being a gay person from Kuchu Shiners, everything from safe sex to being safe in public. I’ll tell you. The kid from school — who was my first boyfriend — was Muslim and he had a lot of internalized homophobia. He didn’t want anyone at school to know he even knew me. But I was glad to learn what I did from him. The next organization I worked with was the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum. They focused on equal opportunities and justice for queer people living in Uganda. It was the only legal entity designed to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people there. It was a huge thing for me to learn that there were some legal protections at the time.
How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I met the singer and songwriter Tom Wilson Weinberg in an online discussion with one of the organizations. We shared similar opinions about human rights and became friends on Facebook. I shared my experience as a gay person in Uganda and I think he saw potential in me and was willing to help me get my diploma in Uganda, which you have to pay for. I think he saw a little of himself in my desire to help my people. I wanted to apply to schools in the states to give me a new perspective and found Rowan University in New Jersey. With a scholarship and help from Tom, that’s where I am now. I want to work for a group like the ACLU and help change people’s lives.
What are you studying?
I’m a computer science major with a minor in social change and social justice.
You mentioned a mental health facility before. Was that when you were a kid? We have a long history of locking people up for being gay or trying to “cure” them. Was that the situation?
No, it was just last week. I was committed after expressing suicidal thoughts to my community assistant on campus. It all happened very fast. I’m currently in outpatient care. With the help of medication, I’m feeling much better.
Do you feel comfortable talking about it?
Yes, it was late at night and I called my CA because I was feeling all of this pressure inside me. She wasn’t there, so I left a voicemail message talking about my feelings, so she had to report it and they took me to a facility.
It seems almost ironic that when you were home, where you were more in danger and in a more repressive environment, you were seemingly doing OK. But here, where we would think that you’d have a better time, you’re struggling.
I’ve been here for eight months and there’s still a lot of things to get used to. I have friends but generally, people don’t like getting close here. There’s also a lot of stress and pressure and I’m having financial issues, so I don’t even know if I’ll be able to continue my education and it was all adding up. I want to stay here, so it’s very scary and it was triggering. But talking to someone was very helpful and we’re working on my schedule, so that I can talk to someone here.
Glad to hear it, so a few last questions: What do or did you do for fun when you were a kid or now?
As a kid, we did chores. You had to ask for permission to play. That was the first rule of the house. Watching TV wasn’t really fun because we were very restricted with what we could watch so there wasn’t much as a kid, but when I got to be about 17 and moved to the city, I was able to watch TV and movies and hang out with friends. Now that I moved here, I’ve gotten into gardening. I have a few plants in my room — a cactus and two bamboo plants. Tom also just bought me a new plant! And I love graphic design. It helps relax my mind. Just the idea of creating something new is really nice. I’m also involved in a few campus clubs.
What was the biggest culture shock coming here?
The weather! And the language. The English I’m used to speaking is a lot different, so it takes a lot of time for me to interpret what I’m hearing! Especially short messages on texts, like LMF…something. I’m still learning what all these things mean. And I’m still trying to figure out some of the slang terms. I’m not used to them. The other thing I faced was having grown up in a country where you had to hide your sexuality in public. It takes some getting used to being open and expressing myself in public.
Does it throw you off if you hear someone from Texas or the deep South talking?
That’s really crazy! I was volunteering last week with someone who had an accent from Texas and I swear, I could not figure out what they were saying!
Don’t worry about that. Half the time, I can’t either!