NAIROBI, Kenya – When a Ugandan court overturned the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act this month, rights activists worldwide claimed a victory. But not gay Ugandans who fled persecution to live in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.
"The reaction shocked me. I went there. I thought it would be a celebration, but ... nothing," said Brizan Ogollan, founder of an aid organization that works in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. "They knew at an international level and at the diplomatic level, the decision is going to have impact, but at the local level, it won't really. You can overrule the law, but you can't overrule the mind."
Of the 155,000 refugees at Kakuma camp, 35 are registered with the U.N. refugee agency as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Ugandans who fled because of the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became law in February.
The now-overturned law called for life jail sentences for those convicted of gay sex and criminalized vague offenses like "attempted homosexuality" and "promoting homosexuality" in a country where being gay has long been illegal.
Since the law was first proposed in 2009, public opinion in Uganda has grown increasingly anti-gay, said Geoffrey Ogwaro, a coordinator for the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which is based in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Many gay Ugandans have lived in constant fear of arrest. Some were imprisoned. Landlords evicted tenants. One man tried to run over his gay son with a car, Ogwaro said.
"Unfortunately, the law's nullification has actually polarized society more," Ogwaro said.
Members of parliament have started petitions to resurrect the legislation, although President Yoweri Museveni is reported to have requested the parliamentarians to reconsider.
Three years ago, when a 26-year-old gay Ugandan man was caught with another man, his stepfather threatened to report him to authorities and he fled to Nairobi.
"I thought, 'No one loves you in your family,'" said the man, who insisted on anonymity because of fears for his safety.
With little money in his pocket, he could not afford to stay in the Kenyan capital. He registered with the U.N.'s refugee agency, and for three years he has waited in Kakuma camp for refugee status, which would make him eligible for resettlement in a new country.
The man does not want to stay in Kenya, where same-sex conduct is also illegal, and where a bill recently introduced in parliament proposes that foreign gays be stoned to death. He continued to face harassment in Kakuma but at least he got support from fellow gay Ugandans, he said.
"For the first time, I met these people who were just like me," he said. "You think to yourself, 'OK, I'm not alone.' At least I felt there was someone who understood me."
But last month he left for Nairobi because he thought the camp had grown too hostile. A Ugandan refugee was hospitalized in June after another refugee hurled stones and slurs at him, said Anthony Oluoch, executive director of the Gay Kenya Trust.
Recognizing the risks for LGBT refugees, the U.N. refugee agency said it is prioritizing their cases for resettlement.
The 26-year-old gay Ugandan has been trying to find work, but few employers in Nairobi are willing to hire a refugee. Two of his seven roommates have turned to prostitution. The house keeps a special fund for bribing police officers if they are arrested, he said.
Kenyan police could legally send him back to Kakuma. Some police officers have even deported asylum seekers back to Uganda against their will, said Neela Ghoshal, an LGBT rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"There's no place in Kenya where I really think they can live freely and safely," Ghoshal said of the gay refugees from Uganda. "They're basically set up for a lot of bad options in life."