The Pollyanna-esque voices behind the “It Gets Better” campaign would have a hard time pushing their rhetoric of organically deferred happiness with a straight face in the Uganda of Call Me Kuchu. Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s documentary reveals a state of affairs so nightmarish that the fight for marriage equality may seem like a perverse luxury by comparison: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups are publicly accused of links to terrorist networks; their faces and personal addresses are printed in weekly newspapers; they’re victims of “curative rape” and forced abortions; and those who know a gay person and don’t report them to authorities can be charged with a three-year prison sentence.
It’s easy to watch Call Me Kuchu and comfortably accept these horrors as an essentially African tragedy. The difficult task, yet one this gripping film lends itself to, may be to realize how the eagerness to repress queerness in our own neighborhoods can be horrific and relentless in its own right. And even if the investment in bringing queerness out of sight tends to be much more insidious and well mannered in Euro-American contexts, this isn’t always so. Examples of spectacular modes of homophobia abound, from south London to the heart of gay New York City. If, in this film, a local newspaper is so unabashedly invested in outing “top gays in the city” (with sophisticated spying technology and all), we cannot forget how easy it would be to find an American version of such a tabloid. And if the language and techniques applied to annihilate queerness seem so in your face in Uganda, it doesn’t mean “the West” is any less interested in similar kinds of effacements—from cyber bullying to institutionalized assimilation. Let’s also not forget that it was Great Britain that introduced homosexuality as a crime in Uganda.
Call Me Kuchu provides welcome context for the semi-hysteria that recently took over the U.S. media in regard to Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill. It follows a small community of gays, lesbians, and trans people, including David Kato, the late LGBT rights activist, whose death announcement in the end of the film—a punch to the gut even if you’re aware of his fate, though certainly not as painful as the axe that hit his head—is followed by a tour-de-force montage of gay karaoke and news stories about the murder. There’s impotence, there’s nausea, there’s survival, there’s indignation.