A Mother’s Letter

Since colonial times, homophobic laws have existed in Uganda. The 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act is just the newest iteration of these laws. The last time the government attempted to update these laws was in 2014, when Rihanna was just 19 years old and was arrested and brutalised in prison for being trans.

“Time has passed, but my wounds are still fresh. ” – Rihanna

Before 2014, people in Uganda had been arrested under anti-homosexuality laws within the 1950’s Penal Code Act. Rihanna and her friend Kim were the first officially brought to court to answer for the crime.

“My friend was telling me you can’t be guilty over something you have not done. He told me, ‘When they read your charges, please don’t say you’re guilty.’” – Rihanna

In the podcast episode, Rihanna is interviewed by Ugandan reporter and editor of Kuchu Times, Ruth Muganzi.

Radio Workshop uses radio broadcasts and podcasting to address issues affecting youth across Africa. Our award-winning podcast produces documentary-style, long-form audio stories that bring listeners close to youth narratives and experiences. Radio Workshop trains, mentors, and supports young reporters like Ruth through every stage of production, from conceptualization to reporting the story.

This is the second of a two-part series on LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda.

Radio Workshop’s editor Lesedi Mogoatlhe says, “It’s important to have stories that humanise queer people. There’s a desensitization that happens when the only lens we experience queer stories through is one that ignores nuance and complexity and only focuses on violence.”

Rihanna spent nine months in prison. Much of what she experienced through the legal system was illegal. She was thrown into a legal blackhole that’s come to be expected with queer cases. It is painful for her to recount what she went through and the details are harrowing.

Rihanna’s family found out she was queer through the media reporting on her case. She spent months not seeing her family. When her mother finally agreed to come to court and guarantee bail, she fainted at the sight of Rihanna, whose body had been ravaged by months of illness in prison.

“I cried. She also cried. But that was okay. I would not stop holding her.” – Rihanna

Two months before the Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law, a group of eight Ugandan mothers wrote a letter titled “Open Letter to President Museveni from Mothers of LGBTQ+ Individuals.” The mother’s names were listed at the bottom of the letter, with Rihanna’s mother listed first. Rihanna feared for her mother’s safety but her mom stood steadfast in support of her daughter.

“I am not afraid. It is you that is afraid.” – Rihanna’s mother

As many people in the LGBTQ+ community are forced into the shadows, Rihanna and her mother are doing the opposite. Rihanna runs an organisation that helps Ugandans adjust to life after prison, while her mother is a member of multiple activist groups fighting for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ individuals.

But threats to their safety are ever-present. Rihanna says her work as an activist will only be done when she is able to wear her high-heeled shoes in Kampala without fear.

“And when I can see my trans girls moving freely that means I’ve done it all.” – Rihanna 

This story wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Outright International, Clare Byarugaba, Stephen Henderickson, Luminate, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Other Foundation, and the Media Development Investment Fund.

Listen to A Mother’s Letter on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Link to PDF version of the press release here.