Over the next week, we’ll be shining the spotlight on Rainbow Riots, an important group supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda and East Africa, through a series of interviews with people involved in the organisation and the good work it does.
Since its launch by founder Petter Wallenberg, Rainbow Riots have released music and their own podcast series in a bid to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights.
During Uganda Pride in August 2016, members of the Rainbow Riots were held hostage in a police raid which shut down the Pride event. Not prepared to give up the fight, the group have held secret celebrations in Uganda for the LGBTQ+ community.
The group are currently seeking donations from the public to help them reach their goal of setting up a community centre which will provide resources and support to the LGBTQ+ community that live in a country still full of homophobia and outdated laws.
We spoke with Swedish artist and activist Petter Wallenberg to talk about why he started Rainbow Riots and what life is like for the LGBTQ+ community in East Africa.
Hi Petter! Can you tell us a bit about the Rainbow Riots and what the message of the group is?
I founded Rainbow Riots as a creative international movement for equal rights, and I am an artist and musician, so it came naturally to me to use music and arts. Music is a powerful form of communication and with Rainbow Riots, I wanted to create a platform that would give voice to LGBT people around the world. People whose voices have been taken away.
We fight hatred with beauty. Culture and creativity are extremely powerful weapons because they change the most important thing – people’s minds.
What I want to say is that: We as LGBT people are human. We exist in every culture. We have always been here. Homophobia has not.
What is it like being part of the LGBTQ+ community in East Africa?
Being queer in Uganda is like being in an underground resistance movement in a war. A war where any display of rainbow flags or anything else associated with LGBT culture can put your life at risk.
As a gay man, when I went to Uganda for the first time I didn’t know how it would go. But when I arrived I found my way into Uganda’s underground LGBT community. In the face of danger, they are brave enough to fight to live their lives. I just clicked so much with them all – it felt like I already knew everyone.
…We couldn’t help but think that we were going to die.
One of the defining moments of my journey with Rainbow Riots – if not my life – was in 2016. Me and my Ugandan friends were celebrating Uganda Pride in a venue with a few hundred LGBT people. Suddenly, the police stormed in with machine guns and ordered us down on the floor. No one could leave the venue and they held us all hostage for two hours. This was only weeks after the massacre in the gay club in Orlando so we couldn’t help but think that we were going to die. Everyone was silent. All you could hear was someone crying. Later, we found out someone had jumped three stories to escape and broke their spine. I’ll never forget that night.
That event made me dedicate my life to fighting for change. During the raid, I looked at rainbow flags torn down and thrown on the floor and I looked into the eyes of a stranger – it was the saddest pair of eyes I have ever seen. But, in the middle of that sadness and chaos, everyone stuck together. When you are in a situation like that, the things that matter in life become very clear. I have taken that feeling with me.
We all need to get together to stop the hatred. People might not always understand or agree with each other, but we should all live side by side. We need to stop the violence and hatred and create a world where no human lives in fear just for being who they are.
With homosexuality and same-sex relationships being illegal, what challenges face you in creating Uganda’s first community centre?
In Uganda, it’s illegal to be gay. Queer people live in fear of being arrested or getting beaten up or killed. There is no safe space: LGBT people get attacked at home, at work, on the streets. In that sense, the fear of being attacked is very much a daily reality for LGBT people in Uganda. At the same time, it won’t change if no steps are taken. As one of our Ugandan team members puts it: ”Our lives are already in danger. It doesn’t help if we keep quiet.”
This is why I want to open Uganda’s first LGBT community centre. The centre will be a safe space to welcome queer people, and encourage and support them. To achieve this, we are currently raising funds to cover the costs.
The fundamental purpose is to offer Ugandan LGBT people a safe space where they can be themselves. We will provide opportunities to learn, relax, socialize and will also give advice on health and safety, which is much needed. It will, in essence, be a support system. At the heart of the activities, there will be music and creative expression.
India recently decriminalized homosexuality. Do you think we’ll be at that point with East Africa soon?
Actually, for the last year, I’ve also been working on a new Rainbow Riots project in India. I am making music and art with the LGBT pioneers who were instrumental in abolishing the law that criminalized gay sex. After 157 years of criminalization, it’s no longer illegal to be gay in India! I’m right in the heart of that movement in this historic time and victory for our rights, it’s very exciting. It’s gonna be launched next year, so watch this space. Rainbow Riots is part of a global revolution!
I have seen with my own eyes how things can change if we fight. When I was born in Sweden, gay people were classified as mentally ill – how things have changed in my lifetime. So, of course, I think a change will come. In the four years I have worked with Rainbow Riots in Uganda I can definitely see small positive changes, mainly in that there is a tendency towards more voices being heard on this topic, and allies of the LGBT community speaking up.
I have seen with my own eyes how things can change if we fight.
Social media is playing a big part in it. Some of our trans members are pioneering a new visibility, using social media as their tool. It’s a sign of hope that times are changing one small step at a time.
Why is it important for people living outside of Africa to understand how bad it can be for LGBTQ+ people in the country and work together for change?
Remember that we, as queer people, are still the number one targets of hate crimes around the world. We are all affected by anti-gay laws wherever they are – it’s our human rights. We can’t sit back and think that just because things are better in some places right now, the fight is over. It’s far from over. We must never forget that our rights didn’t come without a fight.
Let’s stick together and work for a world where none of our brothers and sisters will be in danger for simply being who they are.
Homophobic forces all over the world may have opposing views on many things, but they unite in their hatred of gays. So we need to unite and fight back. If we all band together we will be a strong force. Let’s stick together and work for a world where none of our brothers and sisters will be in danger for simply being who they are.