Out of the Uganda Anti-Gay Debate, a Hero Emerges: Valerie Kalende on Life Under Fire

Splashed across the front page of Uganda's Daily Monitor this weekend was a profile of Val Kalende, a Ugandan lesbian taking her story public to protest the bill winding through her country's parliament. As anyone who has been following the debate knows by now, if passed, the punishment for her publicly declared homosexuality would be life imprisonment or death.

Ms. Kalende has been openly gay since 2002, several years before she became a rights activist with the group Freedom and Roam Uganda, six years before she met the woman she calls the love of her life...

...When Ms. Kalende agreed to talk to a journalist about how the proposed law made her feel, she first sought the consent of her partner. [Her partner] said yes, but with the caveat that "you don't put me out there." Before she left Uganda [to study in the U.S.], Ms. Kalende's partner had sought to convince her lover to go slow with her activism, to keep a low profile, to just hang in there. It was the kind of advice Ms. Kalende was always reluctant to accept.

Even before the article was published, Kalende was not in the closet. A self described "LGBT activist," she was arrested in 2008 and has spoken to other media outlets about her positions. But never has she spoken publicly about her relationship in such detail. To do so in Uganda's current environment, when legislators are waging a potentially genocidal campaign to eliminate the country's gay community, is, as one Ugandan blogger put it, recklessly courageous.

I spoke with Val Kalende to find out what the response to the story has been. "My phone has been ringing off the hook since Saturday," she said. "Some are telling me it was a brave thing to do. Others have been negative, saying they are going to start campaigning for the bill, that kind of thing." Her family told her the decision to talk about her personal life was too extreme. One member of her partner's family asked her to tell everyone the story was blackmail. Her pastor encouraged her to give another interview to the Monitor proclaiming a sudden miraculous transformation into a heterosexual. Failing that, he offered to counsel her to help her drop the habit.

I asked Kalende whether she'd received any threats. Not yet, she said, but she's been staying home every evening to protect herself. "I've noticed that everywhere I go, people recognize me now," she said. She remains convinced the bill is going to pass, even if some of the headline-grabbing punishments are dropped.

Given the direct connections drawn between U.S. evangelical leaders and the Uganda bill, a story about legislation in central Africa has now become an American story, too. Rachel Maddow is relentlessly hammering U.S. religious and political leaders on her show, generating much-deserved buzz and, in all likelihood, helping to extract those recent statements denouncing the bill from the likes of Rick Warren, Scott Lively, Tom Coburn, Chuck Grassley, and Russ Feingold. This is a welcome development, of course; there's ample evidence their misguided missionary work planted the seeds for the draconian legislation.

But it's instructive to remember that people like Val Kalende are really at the center of this story. Rick Warren may be getting accolades for his statement, but he has hardly been a profile in courage on the issue; he has neither put himself in the interviewer's chair nor committed to hammering the message home via Ugandan media networks. Kalende, on the other hand, is inviting very real risks by agreeing to be interviewed, and she is going to have to live with the consequences. Ever the activist, she finished the interview by asking if she could facilitate more Newsweek coverage of the issue. Whatever happens, it's clear she went into this with her eyes wide open.