Flee Or Die: Olympia Quakers Support Uganda's Underground Railroad
In August, Uganda struck down a law which punished homosexuality with life in prison – but only on a technicality. Talcott Broadhead, who helps run the Friends New Underground Railroad that ferries LGBT people out of the country, said the celebration that followed was premature.
She said many were put into direct threat, beaten or killed after the repeal of the law. Some areas of the country are even seeing a movement of vigilante justice. “So the fear was no longer imprisonment so much as it was mob justice,” Broadhead said, returning to KUOW’s The Record with an update.
Although the Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down, the Ugandan parliament is set to replace it with a more far-reaching bill by Christmas. As such, the Underground Railroad’s work continues, and so far the organization has helped 708 people escape.
But the process is just as dangerous as ever. Tony, a conductor in the organization who helped ferry 280 people, recently died. Because he was gay, his family would not claim his body, so another conductor buried him.
In March, Talcott Broadhead received a call from a friend. Weeks earlier, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law, and a crisis was emerging in the small nation in East Africa.
The act calls for the imprisonment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people, and was inspired in part by three American evangelical Christians
“Unfortunately, with the law itself came the message that violence against these individuals was now state sanctioned. What we are finding is not so much imprisonment being the gravest threat, but rather this mob mentality,” Broadhead said.
“Many of them have been, as I say, somewhat manipulated by the rhetoric of these evangelical pastors to believe that they’re actually doing God’s work by ridding the communities of queer folks. So there’s been brutal violence and attacks.”
Broadhead received a call from someone doing humanitarian work in Africa who had been contacted by activists in Uganda. “Together we recognized that this was a crisis that required crisis intervention and response,” she said.
Broadhead, a Quaker, took her concerns to the Olympia Friends Meeting. Though she said Olympia tended to be more liberal, the Quaker tradition operates on a consensus. Sometimes that can mean that making a decision takes years.
“In this case, when we brought the request for support of LGBT Ugandans who were wishing to flee the country for safety to our Olympia Friends meeting, the support was absolutely overwhelming – and it was unanimous,” Broadhead said, noting that there was one vote abstaining.
The issue was adopted as a cause for support by the meeting, and from that grew the Friends New Underground Railroad.
Broadhead said the real work is being done on the ground in Uganda by queer and straight African allies.
The coalition has “conductors” who help ferry passengers out of the country by a series of verified safe houses – sometimes in the form of an abandoned barn.
Broadhead said the people leave through legal means, but often without a lot of planning.
“What we’re finding is when the passengers find our conductors, they have actually fled for their lives. They frequently have nothing but the clothes on their back,” she said.
At the beginning of July, one passenger went to retrieve his passport from his home, but was caught and burned to death.
The conductors face the same danger as those fleeing. Broadhead said that one was recently the victim of a brutal beating when his involvement in the underground railroad was discovered. Though he was in dire condition, none of the hospitals would serve him because the law extends to those who aid and abet LGBT people.
The coalition was able to get him to a neighboring country where he is recovering while working on asylum. Broadhead said it’s no longer safe for him to return to Uganda.
The group has managed to ferry 159 people out of Uganda. Nine people have resettled in Sweden, 20 to other European nations, nine in Canada, six in South Africa, and the rest are pending asylum according to Broadhead.
Some countries, including the U.S., have threatened to cut aid to the country in response to the bill.
“While those sanctions are perhaps being threatened, and while the policy is being called into question and disputed, the reality is that gays, lesbians, bisexual people and trans folks are being hunted,” Broadhead said.
“I know that lifting people up out of a crisis like this is definitely not the answer to gay rights and trans rights in Uganda. It’s an emergency situation that we can’t ignore. We wish we didn’t have to do it, but it’s what we can do right now.”
Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.
This segment originally aired July 17, 2014.