Q & A with Ugandan LGBTI Activist Richard Lusimbo

By Benetech, posted on

This interview has been partially edited for clarity.

I had the chance to sit down with Ugandan LGBTI activist Richard Lusimbo earlier this month at RightsCon, a human rights and tech conference that brought together tech executives, policy advocates, human rights activists, and security experts.

Photo of Ugandan LGBTI activist Richard Lusimbo.Richard was at RightsCon representing the LGBTI community from Uganda. He has been a tireless advocate, despite living in constant fear since the signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in February. I spoke to him about a range of issues: from what he enjoyed most about growing up in Uganda to how he finds the strength to be so outspoken.

There is no question Richard loves his home country. He explained his favorite parts to me: “the people are really warm and welcoming. The food is so natural. And the closeness of the whole family from aunties and uncles and cousins…it is one of the best things for me.”

But since the signing of the Bill, Richard’s life has been turned upside down. Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper published his photo and outed him on the front page, forcing him to confront his family and friends on the media’s terms, not his own. Despite all this, Richard is still determined to speak out and give a voice to those who need it most: “I think about the people who can’t speak for themselves and that in itself gives me the courage to do so.”

Below is the rest of our conversation.

Graphic of Benetech's logo, a globe with a binary code.

Q: Where do you work, and how and why did you get involved?

A: I work for SMUG, Sexual Minorities Uganda. I volunteered in 2011 to help organize a conference focused on health issues within the LGBTI community. And that was the first time I had come into contact with a large number of LGBTI people, because the conference was over 60 people. It was an amazing time for me. It was from there I felt I could contribute to my own community and associate myself with activities to build the community. In 2012 I was officially given a job as a researcher and here I am, still working for SMUG.

Q: What challenges are you currently facing?

A: Right now it is outing by the media that is putting everyone—including myself—at risk as a gay man or LGBTI person in the country. This has created a lot of fear— people are scared of what the community could do to them.

The signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill by President Museveni has also made our life difficult, because it means the work we do under this law is criminalized, as it will be taken as supporting homosexuality. So with this kind of law in place, it is really difficult for us not only to operate as an organization, but also live as Ugandans.

Q: You recently said in a Washington Post article that the Internet is 50% curse and 50% blessing. Can you explain what the curse is and what the blessing is?

The blessing is that the Internet has given us a platform where we have been freely sharing information; where we are freely connecting with each other. The world knows what is happening and what we are doing because we are sharing this on the Internet. It is very difficult for us to access local media and get them to report positive stories. But through the Internet we have been able to do this.

The curse is where the same information is taken from the Internet and used against us. Now we are seeing pictures taken off people’s profiles on Facebook and being published in the Red Pepper [local Ugandan tabloid], which is putting people’s lives at risk. So that is where the cost and limitations of the Internet comes in, in terms of the LGBTI community.

Q: How has Benetech helped you?

A: We use [Benetech’s secure information management tool] Martus to document cases of violence and discrimination. In the past, it was very difficult to have these cases documented, because people were afraid to speak up. They didn’t know where this information would end up. But Martus provides a platform whereby the information is secure and cannot be easily accessed. It also backs up the information, so we don’t lose it.

Q: Can you tell us about a time when your information was compromised and how Martus protected you?

A: In December 2012, our offices were raided and we lost a lot of digital equipment. This gave us a wakeup call, because some of that information and pictures were stolen and published in the Red Pepper. This was scary, and that is why since then we have decided to document cases of violence and discrimination through Martus. With Martus it automatically encrypts the information, so now even if it is stolen, it cannot be read and we have it all backed up.

Q: How did you learn about Martus?

A: Through the State Department. We have had a long-standing relationship with the State Department and through the American Embassy in Kampala. They’ve been very supportive and passionate about LGBTI rights: you’d see in the past Secretary Clinton talk openly about these issues, as did President Obama. So it is through this connection and the work that we do, and also the goodwill from the State Department, that we were able to learn and understand what was happening globally. Through that kind of relationship we expressed our need to do documentation and reporting in a secure way. And that is when Benetech was introduced to us and came on board.

Q: What advice would you give other activists?

A: Digital security is very important. And if the tools that we use aren’t secure, we have to take this seriously. It’s very important because while we are working to save lives, let’s not leave a loophole and actually put the same lives we are saving at risk.

Q: You underscored the importance of on-the-ground training in your RightsCon session. Can you elaborate how Benetech has helped you in this respect?

A: I took on that challenge when we had Annie [Wilkinson, Human Rights Project Manager] and Collin [Sullivan, Human Rights Program Associate] in Uganda. We did our first Martus training and it was then I understood the importance of continuing this kind of work and learning. They provided this platform. I asked a lot of questions, and there was a lot of follow-up training and discussion. This helped me understand the entire concept of information security training. You can’t just pick up software and try to implement it. Through the Martus Field Team’s training, I was able to learn the ins-and-outs of digital security and I also have an authoritative voice in terms of what kind of design would be better in the future, based off some of the challenges we face. Without this open dialogue and in-field training, our efforts to implement Martus wouldn’t have been helpful at all. And it is because of this back-and-forth discussion that today I’m able to speak about Martus the way I do.