It’s been a hectic but transformative year for Trans Rescue with a lot of stress and plenty of ups and downs, but we’ve come through it and we’re delighted to be able to say that with your help we’ve been able to help over 140 people to safety so far in 2023.
In this review we’re bringing you the work we’ve done this year, something on the passengers we have in transit, some good news about passengers who’ve made it to safety, and news of our upcoming campaigns. Keep reading, and find out what we’ve been up to.
The original impetus behind the formation of our predecessor organisation TransEmigrate was to provide support for American trans people in escaping the increasing number of anti-trans laws in the USA creating a hostile environment in which to be trans. With just over a year until the next US Presidential election we have returned to this topic, launching a campaign to equip American trans people with the support and knowledge they need to reach safety.
With an estimated 1.6 million transgender Americans their numbers are too large for us to help each of them individually. However, because an American passport remains one of the strongest in the world trans American’s needs are very different from the people in developing countries who have occupied much of our attention until now.
Our campaign has started by persuading American trans people to apply for a passport, and will continue by helping them explore the escape options available in the likely event of a far-right government. Without this work we think escape will only be a realistic option for the wealthy, so our aim is to lower the hurdles to the point at which it becomes practical for many more. There are a huge number of American trans people who we think can get themselves out if they have the right information and encouragement, these are the target audience we are trying to reach.
By far our biggest operation this year started in the spring, when we found ourselves the only outside LGBT organization with access to a network on the ground in Uganda as the government there enacted a series of measures criminalizing LGBT people.
We had an extensive presence in Kenya already, and had helped a few trans people in late 2022 in Uganda. So we were, awkwardly, one of the few global organizations with an existing program in Uganda. This placed us in the position of taking what would turn out to be a prominent position in the movement to help Ugandan LGBT people flee. We were rather a small organization to be doing this.
We obtained a generous 40K Euro grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expand our existing trans haven, Eden house, in Nakuru, Kenya. Sadly, the shelter was raided in August by Kenyan police due to the presence of LGBT people. We divided the residents of Eden House into smaller groups and set up safe houses in other cities.
Annie, our director, took a group of Egyptians who were in the house to Tanzania, while Arya, our shelter manager, took a group of Kenyans to the coast. We established a new, smaller shelter for some of the Ugandans, while others moved in with friends. We have ongoing costs to support those passengers who remain in Kenya.
Having now become the target of the Kenyan police, in the end we had to get most of our staff out of Kenya. Arya had to flee Kenya herself. She’s currently in a third country and we’re attempting to relocate her to a permanent place .
Passengers In Transit
We currently have passengers in transit across several regions of the world, in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Americas. In some cases our role is an advisory one for passengers who are self-funding, we are helping others directly with their extraction, and a few more are being supported by us in mid-journey.
As we move towards 2024 we’ll be continuing to work on our America campaign, something which is likely to intensify with the progress of their election.
This new project will involve extensive writing, video production and post production work. If any of you have an interest in helping with the campaign in that way, please drop us a note.
Meanwhile we have our existing in-transit passengers to continue on their way, our growing cadre of former passengers to support in various ways, and our continuing work helping new passengers.
A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of an impromptu meeting of five former passengers. In the group most of the former passengers were bright young adults with an impressive array of credentials who will be contributors to the communities in which they now find themselves. This work can be emotionally hard, dangerous, and exhausting, but moments like these keep us going.
We could not do this work without our donors and supporters. We thank you, and we hope that this has given you some ideas of what we have been doing over the last year.
Happy holidays and a happy and safe new year for all of you,
Maeen is a Yemeni cis man who became an anti-child-soldier activist during the earlier years of the Yemeni civil war, subsequently becoming the civil servant with responsibility for child services in the city of Taiz. This made him the enemy of all the warring factions due to his opposition to child recruitment, and he was subsequently imprisoned and tortured. His friends secured his release, and in the year before Trans Rescue was founded Anne helped him escape his hiding place for Egypt, with her own money. This year we were able to help him obtain humanitarian asylum in France, he is now in the French asylum system, and learning French.
Why are we, an organization dedicated to helping transgender people, helping a straight cis man? When we formed Trans Rescue we asked ourselves what to do with Maeen. We decided trans people were better than that, we weren’t abandoning someone who was in danger because he helped children. What we couldn’t reveal then was that he also performed a vital role for us as our Arabic-speaking man on the ground who helped us considerably with our work. We can not thank him enough for this service and we are thus very pleased to have been able to help him reach safety.
There are some subjects that everyone knows a lot about, but the “knowledge” they have is instead received opinion which bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. As a non-profit which deals with refugees we’re right in the thick of just such a subject, because everybody has a lot of received opinions about asylum seekers. If we had ten dollars for every hot take we’ve heard on the subject we’d probably be better funded, but as it is we’re still operating on a shoestring. So perhaps it’s time to look at the subject from our perspective. We’re not asylum seekers but we deal on a daily basis with the system on a global scale, and we know something about how it works from a first-hand perspective.
First, A Little History
So, just why can people claim asylum? The answer to that in today’s form goes back to the years after World War II, when the inconvenient truth for many countries was that before the war they’d turned away people who later became victims of the Nazis. That and the legal status of huge numbers of refugees from the war all across Europe and elsewhere led to the UN adopting the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, which defines a refugee and sets out a list of provisions to ensure their protection. The important point to take away from the 1951 convention is that a refugee has the right to claim asylum in a country if they are standing on that country’s soil. This protection was put in place to stop states merely pushing refugees back over their borders, instead they have to process their asylum applications. This forms the basis of the asylum system, however there are other treaties such as the Dublin Regulation which limit so-called asylum shopping around European countries, that modify the framework under which it operates.
A country then has to process the applications of the asylum seekers who arrive, and to do that they stick those people in camps or hostels or asylum seeker centres while they do it. The purpose of processing the application is to determine whether or not the person is a danger, and whether or not they are a genuine refugee, as of course a percentage applying for asylum are under no threat and are just seeking a better life. The problem with all this though is that the process takes a while. It’s not unusual in European countries for someone to spend years in the system without a decision, and thus you’ll find those asylum seeker centres overflowing with people. As an example according to the Refugee Council in the last year the UK has had a shade under 80000 applications, and holds a little over 175000 people awaiting a decision in an array of camps, contracted hotels, and even ships. This in turn becomes something for politicians to make their capital from, and here begins the problem with the way countries deal with asylum seekers.
Why Asylum Seekers Are Great For Politicians
Having tens or hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in camps is a great tool for politicians, because they can use the prospect of lots of foreigners to scare pearl-clutching middle-class voters and secure their votes. This is universal, whether politicians are left or right, in government or in opposition, they all wave the asylum seeker stick when it suits them. This creates a sense of threat from asylum seekers in the population that’s way out of proportion to their real numbers, but perhaps more importantly for the asylum seekers themselves it gives the politicians few incentives to do anything about the problem. Put simply, there are votes in having a bunch of asylum seekers to scare people with, but no votes in spending money to deal with them.
All those hot takes build up then, about how the flood of people is unsustainable and the asylum seekers are being given five star accommodation at the expense of hard working people, or that they’re all economic migrants anyway and none of them are real refugees.. It’s compounded by an intentionally-curated lack of understanding of the 1951 convention or the Dublin Regulation, and the inevitable result is a more authoritarian and rightward political shift. It’s not as though something can’t be done about the problem, but it suits the politicians for it to remain.
So. What’s The Fix?
If there’s a fix for the asylum problem then, what is it? Certainly not abandoning parts of the 1951 convention as the British Conservatives are toying with doing, as tinkering with basic human rights law affects everyone, not just the people you don’t like. Instead there are two fairly straightforward policies which can deal with it. The first is to pour money into asylum processing such that it becomes much faster and that economic migrants can be more readily identified, and the second is to invest in overseas aid with the aim of improving the prospects of people who might otherwise try the asylum system as economic migrants. Sadly neither of these can be used to scare voters, so the chances of either of them happening are slim.
We hope then that this piece has given you something to think about. If you hear one of those uninformed hot takes or perhaps you might have been tempted to give one, maybe now you know who really wants you to hold those views. You probably don’t consider yourself a supporter of the far right and neither do your friends, so if you hear anyone tempted by this gateway drug it’s worth knowing something about what lies behind it.
As a Brit who travels to and from mainland Europe on a regular basis, there’s something of a sobering reminder to be found beneath your feet as you walk around European towns and cities. Every now and then you’ll see a small brass plaque in the pavement, with a name, some dates, and sometimes a place name on it. These are the so-called stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, memorials for the victims of the Holocaust in front of their former homes, and each one bears the name of a Jew or other victim.
Brits and Americans are taught about the Holocaust, in schools, through the testimonies of survivors, and through television and film. Many of us had grandparents who fought or otherwise served in the second world war, and among those were a significant number who saw its effects for themselves. But it didn’t happen at home in the UK or America, so for those of us born long after it happened it still remains difficult to comprehend.
In considering the people whose names appear on those stumbling stones, the horror of it all becomes far more immediate than it does when watching a historical documentary. It happened here on this quiet street in a prosperous town, this is not the place of horror far to the east which we’ve been taught to associate with the Holocaust. By the time the Nazis rounded up their victims it was far too late for anybody in Germany or the occupied countries to protest, and of those courageous people who did take action to save Jews from capture, many were themselves caught and sent to their deaths.
The question that’s probably in the minds of most people when struggling to comprehend the Holocaust is this: How could it have happened? The answer doesn’t come in the final act of the victims being rounded up and exterminated, but years earlier. In the relentless Nazi propaganda which polarised an entire population to see Jews as subhuman, but also in the refusal of so many people to understand what was happening. The message from the numbers of Jewish refugees sounding the alarm bells throughout the 1930s was largely ignored, because people preferred instead to believe that it couldn’t be that bad. You are left wondering, how many of the victims of the Holocaust could have been saved, had the countries outside Germany done more about the plight of German Jews in the 1930s?
Given the above it’s not difficult to draw parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the actions of the right wing of US politics here in the 2020s. The demonisation of transgender people in right-wing American media has been ceaseless, and the legislative programme of Republican state lawmakers has demonstrated their resolve to wipe us out in their territories. They are chillingly open about their plans for us under a future Republican presidency, in which near-dictatorial powers would be seized at a federal level to override lawmakers in Democratic so-called safe states. Meanwhile, as in the 1930s, those not directly involved either within America or in other countries choose to ignore the plight of American transgender people, either because they don’t believe it will happen that way, or because they simply don’t care.
So this is why we’re sounding the alarm for trans Americans. There is no magic time machine with which we can go back to 1931 and warn about the Holocaust, but there is still time for transgender Americans to get out. When this is all over, we would prefer not to carry the guilt of having stood idly by while it was happening.
Though our operations over the last year have had a focus in the developing world, the situation closer to home for us in countries such as the USA has been of significant concern. An inevitable descent into some form of fascism seems all-too-possible, and since we trans people are the scapegoat of the moment it’s not difficult to see where this is going. In case any Americans remain in doubt we’d like to direct them to the Heritage Foundation’s 2025 blueprint for a newly elected Republican president. Entitled “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise”, it sets out a chilling path in which a president gains near-dictatorial powers through abuse of the federal system backed up by a supreme court packed with their yes-men. They can then criminalise being transgender at the federal level and erase us from society, effectively making any “safe states” irrelevant.
Over the past year then, we’ve urged people to not wait for that end, but to get out while they still can. Our biggest concern is that if it’s all left to the last minute as a newly-elected far-right President prepares for his inauguration, only the wealthy trans people will succeed in escaping and the rest will be left for the Republicans to come after. Unlike many of our passengers who will be denied access to international travel based simply on their nationality, transgender Americans still have one of the most powerful passports in the world. They have options, something that will disappear abruptly when they are criminalised and their documentation is invalidated.
The Only Luxury You Have Is A Bit Of Time
The trouble is, we can only keep saying this and urging people to plan their exit, we can’t airlift every individual trans American to safety as we simply don’t have the resources. We’ve taken some grief for this, as people shoot the messenger rather than listening to the message. It comes down to this, getting out in some form is not out of reach when you have the luxury of time, but as the time becomes more limited, so does the chance of escaping.
As a first step, if you haven’t already, get yourself a passport. Only 37% of Americans have one, don’t be one of the 63% who are stuck in a fascist society with no way out. It costs $130, which we know isn’t a sum everyone will have handy, but here’s where the time comes in. You have the luxury of time, use some of it to get that cash together. When it’s the document that will save your life, isn’t it worth some sacrifices to save for it?
So you’re getting a passport, what now? Your whole life should become an exercise in planning for a future as an immigrant somewhere else. What are your skills, what do you have to offer another country who might take you? Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to work in finance or computer programming to emigrate, a huge number of countries have skill shortages in much more mundane areas. If you can’t find one of those visas there are digital nomad visas, or even ancestry visas if Grandad came from the old country. We can’t hold your hand here, you will need to become an avid student of international visas. Every country’s immigration department has a website listing what’s on offer, and it’s up to you to spend your time trawling through them.
Having started looking, what skills can you learn? Can you come up with a location-independent way to earn a living? How many languages can you speak? Anglophones tend to be bad at learning other languages, so it’s an easy way to give yourself an edge. Sometimes visas even hinge on speaking the language, as an example Japan has one for agricultural workers which requires a high standard of Japanese. We know from our own experience here at Trans Rescue that language learning is hellishly difficult, but with apps such as Duolingo being only a download away at least it’s never been easier to start.
Here’s the bottom line then. Only the most blinkered of individuals could claim that there’s no threat of America lurching over the brink into fascism, or that trans people wouldn’t be first against the wall in that eventuality. There’s no credible future in somehow seeing off the military industrial complex of a fascist government with an AR-15 popgun, so your best chance of avoiding the inevitable is to get out. Time is running out for that to happen, so the earlier you take action the better your chances of survival. We can offer basic advice and we’ve done our best to share as much as we can here, but we can’t hold your hand through the whole process.
That’s up to you.
Header image: Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, ‘Unite the Right’ rally, 12 August 2017. Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0.
It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of running a non-profit working in developing countries, that we find ourselves the target of scammers who impersonate desperate passengers in order to extract money from us. Some of their stories sound believable at first, others fall apart after asking simple questions, and the rest, well, let’s just say that some would-be scammers have fertile imaginations. We’ve become pretty good at spotting them, by analyzing the many available information sources, by investigating their stories, and by experience and intuition. To provide readers with an introduction to this facet of our day-to-day work then, we’re sharing with you a recent scam attempt and a little of our investigation.
The message as we received it
We received a message on Telegram, which you can read in the screenshot. It has a set of pictures, and the following text:
Good evening, I’m [redacted] based in [redacted]. Sometime last year my village mate helped me set up my own community through transrescue and that’s how I got your number. She is [redacted], right now she is out of reach. The reason I have contacted you directly, we are going to [big city] reasons being the community here does not want us any more you understand right? I have 2 trans men 2 intersex kids and 3 gays. Let me get straight to the point we do community service some programme [redacted] organised for us bead making and weaving, even bed making. We just sold all that stuff and rented a house in [redacted], it’s 4 bedroom. Local chief wants us to go away ASAP, that why I’m here, can you help us relocated? I need to get a lorry carry all our belongings to [big city] that’s all.
Along with the text was a series of images, of which we’ve posted a screenshot. We’ll refer to them as images 1 through 5 in the following analysis, but first of all it’s worth looking at the story itself.
How it all falls apart
This was one of those scam attempts which caused us to smell a rat when we first opened it, as we can tell you from experience, running a house as a refuge for queer people is no small undertaking. If someone we had been associated with were doing that, we’d know about it. We’d have almost certainly been financing it, and we’d know the people within it by both name and face. The idea that the person mentioned in the message could have been running such an operation without our knowledge is not credible. In addition the industries suggested, bead work and basket making, seem calculated to appeal to an imagined European idea of what Africans might do. As enterprises for a queer refuge, they stretch credibility.
Turning to the images, our attention was first attracted to image 5, the dormitory. It’s what we’d recognise as basic but comfortable accommodation, and it might just have passed muster but for a few details. Have a look at that window first, it’s a unitary double-glazed window placed in a deep embrasure, those walls are thick. It’s simply not an African window or building but a European one designed for a cold climate. Even the beds and interior aren’t quite right, in that while pine isn’t unknown in the country this is supposed to be from, it would be unusual to see so much of it.
As you might expect, we turned to a reverse image search to confirm our suspicions. The dormitory in image 5 does indeed provide comfortable accommodation, however it’s not in Africa but in Ireland. It’s at the Black Sheep Hostel, Killarney, and it’s repeated across many accommodation booking websites.
When you’ve got to get out, and fast, you need a bug-out bag containing the essentials for your escape. What do you need to think about when packing yours? Everybody’s bug-out plan will be different to suit their needs, we’re here to set you thinking about what you’ll need to do.
Here in 2023, trans people are under relentless attack, particularly in the USA but in other countries too. You don’t have to be a genius to see where this is going, there are people who want to eliminate us, and given the chance they’ll follow through on that. All your planning for an orderly exit can go up in smoke if events unfold too quickly, so it’s time to also take a look at planning for a quick exit just in case. And for that, I’ll start with a mid-September day at the height of the pandemic.
When It Was My Turn, I Made All The Mistakes
Back in 2020 I had a very unstable domestic situation, eventually culminating in my being made homeless going into the second UK COVID lockdown. When things began to go awry I packed a bug-out bag for what I judged the likely risk would be, and in the event I made such a series of mistakes that they should serve as a lesson to others.
My threat model was that things would take a temporary turn for the worse, and I would have to clear out for the day. The British countryside in September is pleasant enough, so I packed for a day outdoors. I would hang out in a quiet and shady corner, where I was going to have a brew and eat nut bars while I sat with my laptop and did my work. At the end of the day I’d slide back in unnoticed, and that would be that. In the end when it came, it was so unexpected and ferocious that I didn’t have a chance to grab my bug-out bag and I didn’t feel safe going back that evening. All I could do was run for my car, which is why I found myself that afternoon in my local megastore buying essentials. I was fortunate, I had my mobile phone and my handbag, and a friend offered me her sofa to sleep on, but it could have been so different. I avoided sleeping in my car with no food or money by a whisker, and I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.
So, where did I go wrong? I packed for too specific a scenario, I didn’t properly anticipate my threat model, and perhaps most importantly, my bug-out bag wasn’t in the right place for me to grab it when I needed it. You can learn from this just as I have, you have a better line on the threat model, you can plan much better what you will do, and you can place what you need, where you will need it.
A Bug-Out Plan Is What You Need
The first thing to say is that a bug-out bag is not there as part of a long-term and well-considered extraction master plan. It’s there for emergencies, when you need to drop everything and run. So part of it is the bag itself, but you should also consider it as a component in a greater bug-out plan. And don’t forget what you might have to leave behind, are there any other arrangements to be made? As an example, if you have a cat, arrange in advance for their welfare with a cis friend in the event you have to run. Or if you won’t be able to return, arrange with your friends what will happen to your possessions.
Our threat model is depressingly obvious in this case, that it’s going to in some form become dangerous to be where you are because you are a trans person. One of the things you’ll have to think about is how long you will be away, which will affect what you decide is essential, and thus what those other arrangements should be.
Having considered the threat model, next up think about your bug-out plan. What are you going to do and where are you going to go? Will you take shelter with a friend, use motels, sleep in your car, or what? Are you heading to the next city, another state or province, or will you leave the country? And how are you going to do it, in your car, by plane, or by some other method? How much is it all going to cost, and have you got enough cash stashed away? Think in terms of the short, medium, and long terms, where will you be tonight and how will you get there, then the next night, followed by the next week, and so on. Once you have a pretty good idea of where you are going to go and how you’re going to do it, come up with an alternative plan for each stage. Things will go wrong along the way, and in those events you’ll thank yourself for coming up with a backup plan.
There’s More To A Bag Than Just A Bag
We know our threat model then, and we’ve made a plan. Are we finally at the bag? Not quite, because a bug-out bag isn’t always a single physical bag. Instead it’s a series of components which might be in the same place but don’t have to be. Loosely, consider what you take with you as things to have on your person, things you might carry away with you, and things to cache somewhere else to pick up once you’re away from immediate danger. Where do these things have to be to be of most use to you?
In my bug-out above I got one thing right, I had my car keys, phone, and payment card with me. These are the things you have on your person, and for instance you might want to add some cash, your passport, or a supply of your medication to them.
Where I went horribly wrong was in the bag I was going to take away with me, In my day pack I had a waterproof groundsheet, camp stove and coffee fixings, my laptop and some trail food, but hadn’t considered I might need the necessities for a night away. Then to compound it all I left it somewhere I couldn’t easily grab it, when I should have put it in my car. You will certainly dodge my mistakes, but think more carefully than I did and try to avoid pitfalls of your own.
If you’ve planned things correctly, now you should be equipped to get away from home with the essentials, and you’d be safely on your way. But stop and think for a moment, are you carrying too much? Can you keep your immediate exit safer by carrying less, and caching some of the more bulky things with a friend somewhere for later retrieval? There are some things here that you definitely shouldn’t have on your person, for example ADHD meds which require certificates to cross international borders, or professional qualifications and diplomas which can be a red flag for immigration staff. Maybe a friend can store and forward a bag of your stuff, or you could even stop by a UPS depot on your way, so you don’t have to weigh yourself down.
If you were hoping for an exhaustive list of what to put in your bug-out bag as part of this article, then we’re sorry to have disappointed you. But with luck we’ve set you thinking about the things you’ll need to consider in case you need to make a quick exit, and made that eventuality a lot safer for you if you ever find yourself in that position. Stay safe everyone.
We’re Trans Rescue, and what we do is help trans people get out of dangerous places around the world. If you’re reading this site, you’ll know that the number of places we’re concerned about is rising, and we don’t think it’s hyperbolae to say that countries such as the USA and the UK are heading towards some very dark places in which trans people will very soon be in mortal danger. These are our countries of birth, it gives us no pleasure to watch this happening in what should be safe and free places.
Fighting Endless Small Battles Is Wearing Us Down
Every week it seems as though there is a new revelation, an American state criminalises trans healthcare or a US politician calls for our elimination, while a British newspaper stokes a new hate campaign with a bogus scare story. Being a trans activist has become an exhausting process of constantly fighting small battles, and while we may win some the effect of all this fighting is taking its toll.
Watching this happen has become a concern of ours, as we see each one of these battles as a small step down the steep slope towards fascism and we think, genocide. The trans community is wearing itself out fighting a losing battle, and has we think, become too exhausted to see the bigger picture until it becomes too late. It’s chillingly simple: nothing will satisfy them but our complete elimination, and our greatest worry is that they will gain the power they need to do that. Fighting all those small battles isn’t going to stop them, neither is hoarding guns and staying to shoot it out, because when they come for us they will do so with the full force of a militarised state apparatus.
How Bad Does It Have To Get To Convince You?
If humanity has learned one thing from the horrors of 1930s Germany, it is that those who get out early will be the survivors of genocide, not those who leave it too late or who stick around to fight a futile rearguard action. We’ve already outlined the information needed for all budgets to start planing an exit from the USA and the UK, but how bluntly must we state the need to get out of those countries before people accept it as a priority?
We don’t want you to be a name or worse still just a number we repeat at future Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies. Please don’t become one more person we’re trying to save, instead choose to be a survivor able to testify and hold the criminals to account.
We have a story to tell you, and it’s much too big for us to handle alone, so we think you need to know about it. It’s a story about Uganda and east Africa, but it also has troubling implications for the USA and other developed-world countries.
Government-Sanctioned Anti-LGBT Violence Is Back in East Africa
The tl:dr; or perhaps too scary:didn’t read, is that Uganda has tried on previous occasions to pass a draconian law with the death penalty for homosexuality. Last time, the Ugandan courts struck it down, but now it’s being reintroduced. As a result, there is an escalating pogrom-like wave of violence against LGBT, and especially trans, people. We fear this may be the opening of a wider LGBT genocide in Uganda, and later across all of East Africa.
The less visible back story is that this is being encouraged and supported, if not initiated by, the US Christian right, and may be an attempt to move the Overton window to where killing LGBT people is acceptable. The American right wing is well aware that progressive activists in the USA ignore what happens in Africa. Thus they know once a genocide in Africa happens and there is no universal response, it can be exported to more and more places, until finally it comes to America. Thus we should support the Ugandans, because this is a spark that needs to be extinguished before it becomes a fire. And we need to treat it as a warning that genocide is coming to the US.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index describes Uganda as a “hybrid regime”1, where widespread election fraud and intimidation of opponents seriously undermine democracy. Uganda has had a single prime minister since 1986, Yoweri Museveni. Religion plays a huge part in Ugandan politics. It’s a largely Christian country (84%), split roughly evenly between Catholics and an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican church. At independence in 1962 the country inherited British colonial laws that made homosexuality illegal. Section 145, 146, and 148 give terms of 5 to 7 years for homosexual acts.
The Trail Leads Back To The US Christian Right
The connection with US politics can be found in an unexpected place, a long running political institution in the US is the annual “National Prayer Breakfast”, organized by the Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family”. The event has grown to a week-long series of meetings, meals, and activities. In theory it’s hosted by members of the US Congress, and most Washington DC politicians attend.
In 2008 Jeff Sharlet wrote an expose of the Fellowship Foundation as a public name for “The Family”, a Christian new religious movement deeply committed to the idea of influencing public figures towards Christian right ideals. After Netflix released a documentary series about the Family, questions started being raised about the relationship between the National Prayer Breakfast and the organization. As a result, in 2024 the US Congress will organize the event rather than the Family.
Timeline To Genocide
The National Prayer Breakfast has spawned copies in many places, including Uganda, also organized by the Fellowship Foundation. At the Uganda National Prayer Breakfast in 2008 Uganda MP David Bahati, an ‘associate’ of the Family, floated the idea of a bill enacting the death penalty for those convicted of homosexuality under certain circumstances, and providing long prison sentences for all homosexual acts and for advocating for LGBT rights as an individual or NGO. (If you want to be terrified, watch this 2010 interview with Bahati and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC).
When Bahati then showed this bill to others within the Family they considered it a ‘bridge too far’2, and the death penalty provision was dropped. The bill worked its way through the Ugandan legislative process, attracting considerable attention from foreign governments with funding of LGBT NGOs within Uganda, diplomatic action to threaten sanctions, and economic pressure. Nonetheless it was signed into law on February 24, 2014, but on August 1, of that year the supreme court of Uganda declared it to be invalid on procedural grounds.
In 2015 Ugandan MP Monicah Amoding introduced what became known as the “2019 Sexual Offences Bill”, largely a repeat of the 2014 bill. In 2021 the bill was passed by parliament, but vetoed by Museveni, largely due to concerns about loss of foreign aid.
On February 28 of this year MP Asuman Basalirwa introduced a new bill, the “Anti-Homosexuality bill 2023”. This seems to be part of a much better orchestrated attack. There are currently almost daily calls in the press for anti-homosexuality laws. Even Uganda’s muslim clergy has been enlisted – a rare event in a deeply religiously divided society. On Christmas day the Inter Religious Council (IRCU) Christmas Message, an important event broadcast on the state broadcaster UBC, called for religious leaders to come together to fight homosexuality. On January 26 Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba of the Church of Uganda, also head of the IRCU, called for an attack on LGBT people.
On January 25 Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayabwa, with the support of first lady and minister of education Janet Musevini, introduced a “Get The Gays Out” bill requiring that all male secondary school students obtain an anal examination before the start of term, with those on whom anal papillomas are found to be expelled. This bill was encouraged by a coalition of religious leaders, in turn supported by The Family.
In late January a video started circulating, of a Ugandan trans woman being murdered by two men with knives. They stabbed her over 40 times on camera. We have a copy of this video, but are not releasing it out of basic human decency.
In adjacent Kenya, on February 24, the supreme court declared that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has the right of association, and declined to dissolve the organization. There have been street demonstrations and calls for anti-homosexuality bills in Kenya in response, and stories of street violence. Our trans haven Eden House has been under a semi-lockdown.
On March 1, the president of nearby Burundi called for Burundians to “fight homosexuality” at the Burundi National Prayer Breakfast.
Two days later on March 3 in Uganda, the new 2023 Anti-homosexuality bill was gazetted. The bill mandates hefty penalties including:
100,000,000 SHS fine (about 2000 USD) for “promoting homosexuality”
10 year prison sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ (if HIV+ or with a minor)
5 year prison sentence for ‘simple homosexuality’
10 year prison sentence for conducting a same-sex marriage
Compensation to the victims
Journalists who disclose the identity of a ‘victim of homosexuality’ fined 5,000,000 SHS (about 100 USD)
7 year prison sentence for running a homosexual brothel
1 year prison sentence for renting to a homosexual
Courts can order protection for a child “likely to engage in homosexuality”
We entered the picture in mid December, helping 5 trans women who were attacked in Bundibugyo. Three of the women were able to flee when their home was attacked by police and locals, but two were arrested. Both were savagely beaten, one’s genitals mutilated, the other beaten on the head so severely she died. Two other women were jailed for several days and severely abused. One woman’s injuries are permanent.
This Is Already Happening
While state violence against LGBT people, especially trans people, is endemic, the community on the ground has reported a sharp increase in the level and frequency of violence. This violence has only been accelerating since December, and many LGBT Ugandans are trying to flee the country, mostly into neighboring Kenya. We have had far more requests for help than we can respond to.
Jeff Sharlet, who has written frequently about The Family, observed in an interview during the Netflix series that The Family likes to work in places “no one is paying attention to”. His example is fighting gay rights in Romania and Uganda. Then, he says, they expand to other places more on international radar. This is an old Christian evangelical strategy, to try to convert people “no one cares about”. They will send missionaries to isolated places around the world, use money, and often colonial power, to inject Christian beliefs and values into such places.
We know Uganda has become and is becoming a much more dangerous place for LGBT people. We, and many in Uganda, are very concerned it may be the opening actions of an LGBT genocide. Many there are looking for avenues of escape. In a larger scope, we worry that these actions may be an attempt to shift the Overton window. And we are concerned that they may hail an attempt at genocide in a western country, probably the United States.
What can we do about it?
First, we can support LGBT Ugandans. They immediately need money and visibility, without repeating the mistakes made when a number of Ugandan NGOs were funded with little oversight after the 2014 bill was introduced. In short: throwing money without oversight at any random Ugandan who claims to have an LGBT organization is counter-productive.
Second, we can give their plight visibility, something that can be readily achieved by the LGBT community and allies in the US or in Europe. Outside every Ugandan embassy, every time the Ugandan government seeks to promote the country, at every Ugandan state visit, and at any entity or event supporting the Ugandan government or economy, there should be demonstrations and publicity about the plight of LGBT people in the country. Only by embarrassing the Ugandan government in public and by associating any aid or other material support for the Ugandan economy with extremely bad publicity, can we ensure the safety of that country’s minorities. These are some of the external tactics that helped with the struggle against South African apartheid.
Third, we can keep a careful watch on the situation, and understand what it portends for the USA and other developed countries. LGBT people and their allies worldwide need to be aware of developed world power structures, especially those of the far right and of Christian fundamentalism, to understand their methods as used in countries like Uganda, and to foresee how those might be imported into countries closer to home.
We will leave you by quoting a recent tweet from Frank Mugisha, Ugandan LGBT Rights worker, “Ugandans have really been radicalized to hate LGBTQ persons. What went wrong?”
Long-time followers of our social media presence will know that we’ve been supporting a pair of Egyptian trans women over the last year. Rudy and Nancy are pseudonyms for a pair who have been on the run from both their families, and the police crackdown on LGBT people. Last October we published some of their audio testimony.
Good News, And Bad News
We have some good news about them, but also some bad news. Last week we had arranged for them to fly out of Egypt to a third country, and while Rudy has made it, Nancy was turned back at the airport. This is one of the risks in our work, that somewhere a random member of staff at an airport won’t like the look of them, and won’t let them on the plane.
Right now we have Rudy safely in the third country, and Nancy still in Egypt. We have flight tickets for both of them in about ten days to reach their final destination, but if we can’t get Nancy to the third country she won’t be on that flight.
Now Nancy Needs Your Help
So this is where you come in. We’re mounting an appeal to get Nancy out of Egypt to the third country, for which we estimate we’ll need about 1200 Euros. If we don’t manage it we lose our existing investment in her flight to safety, she’s stuck in Egypt, and we’ll have to raise even more money for a fresh extraction in future.
So please help us if you can. It’s a fairly short time to raise quite a lot of money, but I know our supporters as a generous bunch who are concerned with getting endangered trans people to safety. Please help us ensure that two people rather than one reach safety in early March.
Header image: Jonathan Payne from Ayr, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0.