“They’re not coming to arrest us!’’ Mukwaya, a usually soft-spoken 28-year-old Ugandan told his two friends, jumping a little with relief.
This bar, the Fireplace, on P Street NW, is the kind of place the three men had always dreamed of, a place in which men who have sex with men could gather without fear of prosecution or persecution. Within seconds, a man had asked Michael Ighodaro, a lanky 25-year-old Nigerian with a demure smile, to dance.
Teah Wright, a 31-year-old Liberian with a deep voice, grinned and declared: “Friends, these are the best days of our lives.”
Hours before, the three men were travelersfrom disparate parts of the same continent, bound together by a single struggle. They met near the booth for the group African Men for Sexual Health and Rights at the International AIDS Conference, held this week at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. They talked about the need for African gay men like themselves to create an indestructible activist network.
And then, Wright asked, “Where are the [gays] going out tonight?”
For these new friends, the simple question of where to gather socially held a special significance.
In Uganda, Mukwaya has fought bills threatening to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death and to imprison those who don’t turn gays over to authorities. In Liberia, Wright organizes against a law that could make same-sex marriage a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In some Nigerian states, gay men can be stoned to death.
Most gays in Africa hide their private lives. “We become the world’s best actors at home,’’ Ighodaro said.
Now, for the first time, they were playing on a different stage, the United States, a country with a leader who says they, too, should be able to marry. Accustomed to secret talks on Skype in which they arranged to meet in private homes behind closed doors, the men felt a subtle thrill as they openly made plans to party.
Here, gay people didn’t party in the shadows. There is a freedom in the night.
“Again,” Wright asked, “where are we going out?”
“How about the Fireplace?” Mukwaya suggested. “It’s by my hotel.”
“I heard people say that’s the place where black men go to meet old, white men.”
“Where on earth would you hear that?” Mukwaya asked. “Those are just stories.”
Mukwaya’s own story became well known in certain circles after it was related in a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.
Police in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, first arrested him in connection with protests calling for more resources for groups serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Ugandans. A month later, police apprehended him on his way to a hotel and took him into a darkened room. By his account, officers cut his knees with razors. They strapped him to a contraption that forcibly stretched his arms. They stripped him down to his underwear and repeatedly questioned his manhood.