This is How The Heart BeaTs

Jake Naughton

2015 - Ongoing

Kenya; Uganda; United States

In Uganda, the notorious “Kill the Gays” bill caused an international uproar. In its wake, LGBTQ activists received funding and a global platform that would have been unimaginable without the bill. But the visibility created a grassroots allergic reaction, and though the rhetoric has died down and the bill has been defanged, attacks and abuse are on the rise, and to be gay in Uganda today may be more dangerous than ever before.

In the months after the bill’s passage, Sulait and his boyfriend were tortured in a Uganda prison, and so they fled to Kenya only to be attacked by a mob of men with machetes there. Hundreds of others from countries around the region fled to Kenya to escape homophobia too. They hoped for peace, but instead, found only more persecution.

After years of waiting in hiding in Kenya, many resettle in the US. But America is not the paradise they imagined. Persecution and fear are replaced by isolation and anxiety about an unknown future.

This is How the Heart Beats is a record of LGBTQ forced migration unlike any other, following this community from its darkest moments to an uncertain future. At a time of great uncertainty for both LGBTQ and refugee rights, this work illuminates the stakes for those at the center of a firestorm.

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  • Shamim, 19, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait at Ice Breakers Uganda, an LGBT health-services organization which also runs a safe room, where she has been staying for the past four months, according to IBU workers. Previously, she was arrested, beaten and harassed by police, angry mobs and her family on three separate occasions, according to her.

  • Cameras outside of the offices of Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, an advocacy organization for transgender women sex workers. Their landlord is a family friend of RMU's executive director, but thinks they are an HIV advocacy group. Nevertheless, she installed the cameras for the safety of the members and clients of the organization, according to RMU's director.

  • Hajjati, 22, a transgender woman and the executive director of Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, a transgender sex workers advocacy group, shows off her heels while posing for a portrait in the RMU offices. For the most part, she feels unsafe dressing according to her gender identity in public, and is forced to only do so in safe and private places.

  • Didien, 23, a gay refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poses for a portrait. According to Didien, neighbors in the DRC killed his father when Didien was nine because they knew Didien was gay. He then fled to Burundi before ultimately coming to Uganda. Since arriving in Uganda, he says has been evicted three times, beaten "so many times," including once by a mob of boda drivers that left him unconscious on the side of the road.

  • Sweet Love, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait in the bedroom of the Children of the Sun safe house with her partner Kenneth, with whom she has been in a relationship for two years, according to the two of them. Sweet Love co-runs the organization Children of the Sun, which provides shelter for young LGBTQ people in Kampala.

  • Worshippers sing at a Sunday service at Watoto church, an English speaking Pentecostal church, in downtown Kampala. Activists say Watoto, led by American pastor Gary Skinner, has been instrumental in spreading homophobia, including through hosting American evangelical Scott Lively.

  • Javan Mugisha, 19, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait near her home in Kampala. She spent six months in Kenya as a refugee there after a gang of men beat and stripped her naked near her home, and then forced to walk home naked while the mob chanted, "She's a homo" behind her. She returned to Uganda, but now faces frequent abuse from the general public.

  • A cross hangs at the safe house of Children of the Sun, a group that shelters at-risk and in-need LGBTQ persons. Though activists say religion has exacerbated and inflamed homophobic violence in Uganda, many in the LGBTQ community there are themselves deeply religious.

  • Young LGBTQ people gather in the living room of the Children of the Sun safe house. At the time this photo was taken, there were 8 people sleeping in the two room apartment, though the number fluctuates daily from six to 12. The organization had been paying the rent with earnings from a market stall, but on the day this photo was taken, the market was shut down and so the tenants resorted to sex work to pay the rent, according to one of the group's founders. Many were chased away from their families because of their LGBTQ identity, though others stay at the house for the company of others like them.

  • The dance floor at Ram, a bar in Kampala which hosts LGBTQ nights on Sundays and has become the de facto gay bar in the city. It was the only openly LGBTQ space in the country, but it was shut down a few months after this photo was taken, leaving the LGBTQ community there without a dedicated bar where they can go out and be themselves.

  • Javan, a young transgender woman, sings along to the music during a night out at Ram.

  • Sweet Love, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait wearing a necklace from her partner.

  • Cynthia is a lesbian activist and refugee from Burundi. She fled her country after authorities beat her and cut her with machetes for being gay. Here, she lays in bed with her Kenyan girlfriend in the apartment the two shared in Nairobi, Kenya. She has since been resettled in the United States.

  • Soon after arriving in Kenya, S. was attacked by seven men with machetes. Here, he poses for a portrait in the apartment he shared with his boyfriend, with one scar from the attack clearly visible. Others on his face and chest are not seen. Both he and his boyfriend have since been resettled in the United States.

  • J. and Y., both LGBTQ refugees from Uganda, pose for a portrait outside the home they lived in in a town just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. More than a dozen LGBTQ refugees from Uganda had gathered together in this house for safety and camaraderie, but after a few months, the house had to be evacuated due to threats from neighbors and the police, according to residents of the house.

  • A text message a gay refugee from Uganda received from an unknown number soon after he arrived in Kenya. The sender threatened to kill him that same day, and so he went into hiding. Because he was unsure who sent the message, he lived in constant fear. He has since been resettled in the United States.

  • An HIV-positive, gay refugee from Uganda poses for a portrait outside the house he shared with dozens of other LGBT refugees on the outskirts of Nairobi. As a refugee, he received a small stipend each month from the NGO Hias, but said it was hard to make ends meet and that he often lacked sufficient food for his anti-retrovirals. He has since been resettled in Europe.

  • A gay refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo poses for a portrait near his home in Nairobi. He was kicked out of his previous apartment by his landlord and beaten by a band of thugs, he said. Now, he lives in hiding.

  • The bed a gay refugee shares with three straight friends. He moved in to this apartment after he was attacked at his previous one. His bedmates don't know he is gay and he lives in constant fear of being discovered.

  • A religious pendant from a gay Ethiopian refugee. He is deeply religious but had been kicked out of the Ethiopian churches in his neighborhood in Nairobi because they know he is gay. He lives in constant fear that they will find him and beat him, or worse.

  • Some 100 LGBTQ refugees live in the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya's inhospitable northwest. The UNHCR placed LGBTQ refugees in their own compounds for their protection, though they experience regular threats and the solution has had mixed effects in practice. S., a lesbian refugee from Uganda, lives in one such protected compound. A few of the women in the compound have children, and here, six kids pass the time in one of the mud-hut homes the refugees share.

  • Men cook at a restaurant in Kakuma. The cafe is owned by a gay refugee from Uganda, and all of his employees are also gay Ugandans, according to him.

  • Bibles for sale on the streets in Nairobi. Advocates say that the increasing prevalence of evangelical christians has led to an increase in homophobia.

  • LGBT refugees attend a church service in one of their compounds. They have been kicked out of or barred from other church services in the area, but most of the LGBT refugees are deeply religious. One of the Ugandan refugees in the group was an Anglican minister in Kampala and he leads the group's service each Sunday.

  • Bonny, a gay refugee from Uganda, poses for a portrait in the mud-hut he shared with four others in the Kakuma. He fled violence and persecution in Uganda and spent a year and a half at Kakuma. He has since been resettled in the United States.

  • The dance floor at Gypsies, a bar in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday night. Though the city lacks any official gay bars, Gypsies is perhaps the best known unofficial gay bar and caters to expats and Kenyans alike. It is the rare place in Kenya where the LGBT community feels some sense of freedom to be themselves.

  • Shawn Katusabe, a gay refugee from Uganda, was resettled in California after months of living as a refugee in Kenya. Now, he works some 90+ hours/week at two jobs. Here, he rests at home during his rare day off.

  • Shawn shows off a shirt a friend brought him from Uganda. Above him is a rosary and a hat from Los Angeles. He misses home and his family desperately, and wishes things were different so he could return to Uganda.

  • Shawn was settled in California with the assistance of St. Luke's, a church in Long Beach, California. Here, paper cranes are suspended above the altar at St. Luke's.

  • Shawn shows off a tattoo on one of his arms saying "God is Great." His father is a pastor, and though much of Shawn's hardship came at the hands of religion, he is still deeply religious.