The JRB presents an excerpt from John Marnell’s new book Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith and Migration.
Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith and Migration
Wits University Press, 2021
I Am Not Willing to Live a Lie
Narrated by Angel (Uganda)
I am a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Uganda. It is been just over two years since I joined the LGBT Ministry. Having a space where I can connect with other LGBT migrants has made a big difference in my life. The other people in the group have gone through similar things to me and hearing their stories makes me feel less alone. I came to South Africa to be free; it is dangerous to be gay in Uganda. I love that there are laws protecting LGBT people here, but that doesn’t mean life is easy. There is a lot of violence and corruption in South Africa. Still, I would rather be free here than living a lie back home. I just wish I wasn’t so far away from my family. I pray that things will change in Uganda. LGBT people shouldn’t have to run away from their country just to survive. We deserve love and support, just like everyone else.
A Loving Home
Growing up, I was happy and content. Like all children, I sometimes fought with my family, but most of the time I lived a carefree existence. My parents were kind and always treated their children with respect. I was especially close to my mother. One of my favourite things to do as a child was to listen to her stories. Some nights, while preparing the evening meal, my mother would share memories of her childhood. I would sit beside her, transfixed by her soft, gentle voice. She would also teach me her favourite songs and then we would sing them together while doing chores. It was from my mother that I learnt what is right and wrong. There were two important lessons she taught me: first, always aim to be a better person; second, always act with kindness. My mother passed in 2007, when I was twenty years old. Even though my mother is no longer a physical presence in my life, she continues to guide and protect me.
I have five siblings in total: three brothers and two sisters. As the second oldest child and the first-born boy, I had to take on extra responsibilities. When my parents were busy with work or church activities, it was up to me to care for the young ones.
I was, and still am, close to my siblings. My last-born brother and I have a special bond. If I am struggling with a problem, I ask him for advice, and he does the same with me. He seems to get me more than my other siblings. He still doesn’t know about my sexuality—it is the one topic that is off-limits—and that makes me sad. I honestly don’t think he could handle the truth, even though he loves me dearly. Maybe that will change one day, but for now I must keep my sexuality hidden.
My elder sister and I also have a strong relationship. We are close in age and have always been there for one another. I still help her as much as possible, such as by sending money for her children’s school fees. Even though we care deeply for each other, we rarely talk about my private life. If she ever asks me a personal question, I find a way to change the subject.
Despite being close to my siblings, I have always known that I am different. I was young—around five or six—when I started to have feelings for other boys. It wasn’t necessarily a sexual attraction. There was just something that drew me to them. As I grew older, the feelings became more intense. I soon realised that other boys my age weren’t experiencing the same desires.
The Class Clown
My parents were relatively well off and were able to send their children to good schools. I have great memories from that period of my life. I was well liked by the other students because I could make people laugh. I was never that interested in the academic side of things, but I loved being creative. The highlights for me were music and sport, both of which I excelled at.
I was never bullied or excluded at school. Ugandans tend to be private people—we rarely share our innermost thoughts—and that helped me hide who I am. I buried my sexual attractions deep inside me and tried my best to act like other boys. The only hint I might be different was my close friendships with girls. I was reasonably popular with both boys and girls, again because I was good at making people laugh, but my strongest relationships were with girls. They liked me because I was nicer and more approachable than other boys. I will never know if they suspected I was gay, but they certainly didn’t say anything. Homosexuality wasn’t mentioned back then and so I doubt it was on anyone’s mind.
I quit school after Standard 4, when I was sixteen years old. I wasn’t keen on academic subjects and didn’t see much point in carrying on. What I craved was independence and real-world experience. So, once I had written my exams, I set about looking for a job.
As I said, I was very young when I was first attracted to other boys. That is how I know my sexuality has always been there. Because I was so young, I didn’t understand what was happening or why. If I shared a bed with a male friend—in the normal way that children do—I would get a special feeling inside. It was a warm, fuzzy sensation and it would make me feel both excited and nervous. These feelings grew stronger as I became a teenager. Suddenly I found myself thinking about kissing boys.
Hearing my brothers talk about girls made it clear that I was different to them. It was confusing because my desires felt natural to me. I had felt like this, in some form or another, my whole life. Still, I was scared about telling people. Difference is not always welcomed in Uganda, and I knew better than to disclose what I was feeling. The best thing to do, I decided, was to stay silent.
Independent, But Not Free
After leaving school, I got a job in Munyonyo, on the northern shores of Lake Victoria. It is an upscale part of Kampala, with lots of resorts and function centres. I was employed as a housekeeper at a hotel. I loved interacting with the foreign guests. They would all compliment my bubbly personality and high standard of work. I have always been a tidy person—some might call me obsessive—so housekeeping was the perfect job for me.
It was around this time that I had my first relationship. I met Emmanuel, my boyfriend, at a restaurant. He saw me waiting for my dinner companion and decided to introduce himself. I liked him straightaway: he was cute and a sharp dresser, just like me. We chatted and flirted and soon made a plan to hang out again. We ended up dating for over a year, right up until I left for South Africa. He was a simple, easy-going guy, the type who never fights or causes trouble.
I quit my housekeeping job not long after meeting Emmanuel. I have always had an entrepreneurial mind and decided to start my own business. I began travelling to Tanzania to buy goods at different markets and then transported them all the way to the border with DR Congo. It didn’t take long for my business to grow, and after a few months I had saved enough to buy a small plot of land. I should have been happy at this point—I had a great job, a loving partner and a supportive family—but I felt miserable. I knew I could never be free in Uganda; the thought of being in the closest forever was suffocating.
Very few of my friends knew about my sexuality or my relationship. I mainly hung out with straight people and didn’t feel comfortable telling them about my private life. The one person who knew was my gay friend, Isaac, and that was only because he had confronted me. One day, out of the blue, Isaac asked if I had ever slept with a woman. I told him off for asking such a question, but Isaac stood his ground. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You are my friend and it is only right that you tell me about yourself.’ He then opened up about his own sexuality, revealing his feelings for me. After much prodding, I divulged my secret, but I emphasised that I was already in a relationship. It felt good to tell someone, but I was nervous about what would happen if others found out. I guess I trusted Isaac because he was living with the same secret.
I didn’t come out to others because I hated the idea of being the subject of gossip. Perhaps my friends would have come to accept my sexuality, but I definitely couldn’t risk my family finding out. I knew how LGBT people were treated in my country and was scared of being rejected or arrested.
Ugandans are not as accepting as South Africans. My country can be a dangerous place if people discover your sexuality. LGBT Ugandans face all sorts of problems: they are beaten, ridiculed, extorted, even sent to jail. The police and government make life very difficult. That is why most LGBT Ugandans keep to themselves. If you stay hidden, you are less likely to end up in trouble. I don’t want to think about what could have happened if my sexuality was revealed.
Most Ugandans think homosexuality is a sin. People say that two men can’t make a baby and therefore being gay is against God’s natural order. They only think about sex, never the love between two people. Uganda is a Christian country and people take their faith very seriously. When a priest or pastor says that LGBT people are against the Bible, he is believed. It only takes one powerful person to say something prejudicial for people to get into a frenzy. However, most of the time people don’t think about LGBT issues. It is not a topic of conversation, especially among regular people. It only became an issue when the president changed the law in 2014. After that newspapers started publishing photos of LGBT people on their front pages. That caused a lot of pain and suffering. Some LGBT people were even killed. The most famous case is David Kato. I am thankful I was able to get out when I did.
Pretending to be something you aren’t is exhausting. It was a bit easier for me because my income gave me the luxury of privacy. As time went on, I found it harder to cope with the stress of hiding. Living in a state of anxiety is unhealthy. I was never able to relax because I was always worried about being caught. That is why I decided to leave Uganda. It wasn’t an easy decision because I loved my boyfriend and my family, but I also had to consider my future.
A Long Journey
I chose South Africa because I knew it was legal to be gay. For LGBT Ugandans, South Africa seems like the Promised Land. People are aware of the Constitution, but know little of the violence and discrimination that happens here. Personally, I knew nothing about the negative side of things.
The first person I told about my plan was my father, although I didn’t share my real reason for wanting to leave. Instead, I said that I had a school friend in Johannesburg who could set me up with a job. It wasn’t a total lie: I did have a school friend here, but I didn’t have guaranteed work. My father was reluctant at first, but I assured him that everything would be okay. The South African economy is strong, I explained, so moving makes sense financially. In the end my father gave me his blessing. He knew me as an honest, trustworthy and hard-working son, and he had confidence in my abilities. He even offered to cover some of my transport costs.
The next step was breaking up with my boyfriend. That was much harder. I cared for Emmanuel very much and didn’t want to abandon him, but I also knew this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
I set off for Johannesburg in November 2012, when I was twenty-five years old. The journey was long and boring, but my excitement made it bearable. Whenever I felt exhausted, I would imagine the new life waiting for me. I travelled the whole way by bus: I caught the first one to Kenya, then another one to Tanzania, and so on through Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As a Ugandan, I didn’t need a visa for the transit countries and so I could cross the borders without drama. The entire journey took ten days, and more than once I felt alone and afraid. There were even times when I thought about giving up, but then I would dream of being free.
Things turned bad when I arrived at Beitbridge. I didn’t have a visa for South Africa because I was planning to lodge an asylum claim. I was unsure about the process and must have looked lost. Some locals asked if I needed assistance, but they turned out to be criminals and robbed me. It was dark and they were armed. I had no choice but to hand over my belongings. I lost so much: clothes, shoes, jewellery, money. I remember feeling helpless and scolded myself for being so stupid. My only comfort was that I still had my most valuable possession: my passport.
When I finally made it to the immigration counter, I told the South African official about the robbery. He was sympathetic but said there was little he could do. I was granted a transit permit and told to lodge an asylum claim once I got to Pretoria. I have heard stories of people having a tough time with border officials, but the guy I had wasn’t mean or corrupt. I think he took pity on me because of how upset and exhausted I looked.
By now it was early morning. I was tired, hungry and afraid; I had no plan, no friends, no food and barely any money. I stood on the street, not far from the border, and cried. After a while, a kind woman asked if I was okay. She was very generous and took me back to her place. After I had washed and eaten, I explained what had happened.
That woman had the heart of saint. She said I could stay with her for as long as I wanted. I think she was lonely and wanted a son, but I didn’t want to live in the rural areas. I needed to get to the city so that I could earn money and build a life. The woman helped me make contact with my father, who agreed to send more money. Once it had come through, I repaid the woman and boarded a taxi to Johannesburg. I am not sure I would have made it without her generosity.
As we pulled into Park Station, I was overcome with excitement. I had finally made it! The first thing I did was phone Victor, my old school friend, but my calls went unanswered. I tried again and again, but the same thing kept happening. Victor and I had spoken before I departed Musina and so he knew I was on my way. By now I was worried. With no other option, I sat on a bench outside of Nando’s and prayed that he would make contact soon.
I waited and waited and waited. Eventually, my phone rang. To my surprise it was Charles, not Victor. I knew Charles from back home, but considered him more of an acquaintance than a friend. He explained that Victor was no longer willing to ‘babysit’ me. Charles thought it was wrong to abandon a countryman in this way and decided to collect me himself. He told me to wait where I was until he could make it to Park Station.
Charles turned out to be a lifesaver. He let me stay at his place in Rosettenville and helped me get a job. In all honesty, I wouldn’t have survived without him. We became close friends, but that also meant going back into the closet. Charles knew my friends and family back home and so I couldn’t risk divulging my secret.
Finding a Community
When it came time to get my own place, I found a room in the southern suburbs. I was sharing with other migrants and had to keep quiet about my sexuality. I busied myself with work and tried to save as much as possible. My life at that time wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I had dreamed of. I certainly wasn’t happy or free.
In 2015, I moved to Johannesburg CBD. Living downtown allowed me to explore LGBT places and meet new people. This is how I made my first gay friend, Daniel. We met at Buffalo Bills, a bar at Park Station that used to be popular with gay guys. I was having a drink at the bar, minding my own business, when Daniel came up and asked if I was alone. He flashed a big smile and said he would be my friend. We ended up getting very drunk that night. What I liked best is that he didn’t pry into my background. I knew instantly that we would become good friends.
It was only later that Daniel asked about my sexuality. He had invited me over for dinner and the conversation turned to love. I was still scared about disclosing my sexuality and denied being attracted to men. Daniel could see I was uncomfortable and didn’t push the issue. It took a few more weeks before I trusted him enough to come out. Looking back, I am not sure why I was so scared—Daniel was openly gay and wasn’t in any way connected to Uganda. We became very close friends after that. It was only when Daniel moved home to Durban that we lost contact.
Since then I have met many more LGBT people. One important friend is Thabiso, whom I met while working at the KFC in Park Station. He had come in a few times and was always very nice. One day, after leaving a good tip, Thabiso said he wanted to be my friend. We exchanged numbers, and the next weekend he invited me to a party in Hillbrow. That was my first time attending a gay party—and I loved it!
A few weeks later, Thabiso took me to a party in the northern suburbs. It was like being on another planet. Everyone seemed so comfortable and happy. When we first arrived, the host gave me a Hunter’s Dry and told me to enjoy myself. It didn’t take long for me to join in the fun: I sang and danced and flirted all night. I finally felt like I had the freedom I had been craving. Later, after we had left the party, I thought to myself, ‘If only my country was more like South Africa.’
Isolation and Insecurity
South Africa is great because you can be yourself, but life is still hard. My biggest challenge has been employment. I have had a number of jobs since living here—some were only ever temporary, while others I quit due to mistreatment. There have even been times when I was forced to work without pay. If you complain, you are threatened: ‘Do you want this job or not?’ the manager will say. ‘There are plenty of others who will do the work.’ Employers exploit foreigners because they know we are desperate. There have been a few occasions when I have stood up for my rights, but this usually means getting fired. Finding a new job is a headache. It can take four, five, even six months before you have an income again.
Unlike other LGBT migrants, I haven’t faced direct violence. I am a very discreet person and like to keep to myself. Growing up in Uganda, I learnt to hide who I am, a skill I still use today. I have to really trust someone before I open up about my sexuality.
Still, the negatives of life in South Africa don’t outweigh the benefits. I am freer here than I ever was in Uganda. I miss aspects of home, but I am not willing to live a lie. Even if the law back home were to change, people’s attitudes would remain the same, at least for the foreseeable future. Change is slow in my country. That is why I want to stay here in South Africa.
A Life on Hold
I applied for asylum back in December 2012, just after I arrived. One of the hardest parts was getting to the Refugee Reception Office. I was still struggling to navigate Johannesburg, let alone make it to Pretoria on my own. When I finally got to Marabastad, I was given forms to fill in and told to wait. The guy interviewing me asked lots of questions about why I had come to South Africa. I told him I couldn’t stay in my home country because of my sexuality. I explained that Uganda doesn’t have the same protections as South Africa and that it is very dangerous for LGBT people. ‘I was scared for my safety,’ I said. ‘That is why I came here—for protection.’
Surviving on an asylum permit isn’t easy. The renewal process is usually a nightmare: the guards demand bribes, or the tsotsis rob you, or the computer system is offline. I am lucky, though, because I haven’t encountered homophobia. Some of the Department of Home Affairs officials have been rude and inefficient, but none have said anything mean about my sexuality. Perhaps they know how bad the situation is in Uganda. My friends have been less lucky. Some have had personal information shared without their consent, or been called names like ‘moffie’ and ‘stabane’. One was even accused of lying about his sexuality in order to get special treatment.
It is been over seven years that I have been on my asylum permit. Not having any certainty is exhausting, and it is a real hassle travelling back and forth to Pretoria. I have no idea when a determination will be made on my case. All I can do is hope that I will soon be classified as a refugee.
- John Marnell is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University. His work uses various forms of storytelling to interrogate the lived experiences of LGBT migrants on the African continent.
‘Marnell brings together moving stories of LGBT African migrants and refugees in a book that shows rather than tells. Seeking Sanctuary reveals the nuance, complexity, contradictions and paradoxes that exist at the intersection of ‘faith, belonging, identity and mobility’ and does so by grounding itself in the first-person narratives of individuals who too often are the ‘objects’ of academic study, rather than self-determining subjects. Marnell gives us access to worlds and experiences that rightly challenge dominant and false assumptions about the lives of LGBT African migrants and refugees of faith. It’s an important read.’—E Tendayi Achiume, Professor of Law, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
‘This book testifies to the power of life storytelling, specifically in relation to sexuality and faith in the lives of LGBTQI migrants in South Africa. Instead of reinforcing narratives of ‘African religious homophobia’, or simply presenting religion as panacea, the collected stories offer an intimate insight into the lives of queer migrants and help to unpack religion as a site of multiple, and often conflicting, possibilities. Seeking Sanctuary elucidates the liberating potential of religion in signifying human life and working towards social justice.’—Adriaan van Klinken, Professor of Religion and African Studies, University of Leeds, and author of Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa
‘Precisely because of its grounding in personal narrative, and the clarity of its prose, Seeking Sanctuary is a book that will be of deep interest and great use to general readers, faith communities and activists.’— Mark Gevisser, author of The Pink Line
Seeking Sanctuary brings together poignant life stories from fourteen lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) migrants, refugees and asylum seekers living in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The stories, diverse in scope, chronicle each narrator’s arduous journey to South Africa, and their corresponding movement towards self-love and self-acceptance. The narrators reveal their personal battles to reconcile their faith with their sexuality and gender identity, often in the face of violent persecution, and how they have carved out spaces of hope and belonging in their new home country. In these intimate testimonies, the narrators’ resilience in the midst of uncertain futures reveal the myriad ways in which LGBT Africans push back against unjust and unequal systems.
Seeking Sanctuary makes a critical intervention by showing the complex interplay between homophobia and xenophobia in South Africa, and of the state of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) rights in Africa. By shedding light on the fraught connections between sexuality, faith and migration, this ground-breaking project also provides a model for religious communities who are working towards justice, diversity and inclusion.