When Adebayo Katiiti attended Mr. Gay Pride Uganda in 2016, he had to give up his crown from the year before and give a speech. Just as he got onto the runway, the event was raided by police.
“Cops came in, and they started arresting everybody, beating up everybody,” says Katiiti, who explains that homosexuality is illegal in Uganda.
Attendees were willing to do anything to avoid the police.
“I witnessed friends [and] I witnessed community members scared to the extent that two of them jumped off the eighth floor to the ground to escape cops and to escape brutality,” he says.
It was experiences such as this that highlighted how unsafe life in Uganda was for Katiiti, who is a transgender man.
As a result, the best option for Katiiti was to leave the country.
Thanks to a swim competition that took him to Edmonton, he was able to seek asylum in Canada. But his new life in Alberta has not signalled an end to injustice and his fight to make things right.
Katiiti’s lifetime of injustice started in his home country. A study done in 2013 by the Pew Research Centre showed that 96 per cent of Ugandans believed homosexuality should not be accepted in society.
“You’re queer, and people can attack you on the streets and beat the hell out of you. Stone you to death. I’ve had friends who have passed away,” says Katiiti.
However, homophobia in Uganda is not limited to just citizens – it’s present in the police force and can result in a life sentence in prison.
“If you knew somebody who’s gay, and you don’t report them to the police, you are going to jail for like three to seven years. And if your parents knew that you were gay and they didn’t tell the authorities, they go to jail,” says Katiiti, whose parents did not know of his sexuality at the time. “So they took my phone, and I was so worried and so scared for my friends, I just made a post on Facebook saying lose my number if you know me.”
Despite all the homophobia, the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda still hosts Pride events – with Katiiti being arrested when police raided the Mr. Gay Pride Uganda event in 2016.
In a place where it is illegal to be yourself, members of the LGBTQ+ community are often forced to look to other avenues to freely express themselves. For Katiiti, sports, namely soccer, acted as exactly that – an escape. It was much more than simply a game or a pastime.
“I’m this resilient human who, if I want to play soccer, you’re not going to take away my right to play. I used to play with a bunch of boys. My brother could stop me, but he couldn’t stop the passion that I had for it – to express myself and to play the game and be myself. I used to also steal my brother’s pants, trousers, and shorts. And that was taboo like, ‘Yo, you can’t wear my things. You’re supposed to be wearing dresses.’”
Another sport that has played a vital role in Katiiti’s life is aquatics.
“I learned swimming when I was 20, after one year at the university, because I did a course unit on swimming and I fell in love with it,” he says.“I kept swimming and made it to the university team and then made it to the national team. Then we had this competition coming up, the IGLA swimming competition.”
The IGLA, or International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships, were held in Edmonton in 2016. Four days before Katiiti and his team arrived in Canada, he had been arrested at the Mr. Gay Pride Uganda event. News then got out about the raid while Katiiti was in Canada and his name was released to the Ugandan public as a homosexual.
“A lot of friends were like, ‘No man, you’re gay, you’re no longer my friend, God doesn’t want that. You can’t be in my circles.’ I lost a lot of friends too, but those were not my friends. If you’re my friend, you’re going to be there for me. You’re going to accept me the way I am,” he says.
His friends were not the only people he was getting backlash from.
“My family kicked me out. This time they disowned me. My sister sent me a lot of messages–a lot of threatening messages calling me evil. You don’t belong. You can’t be with us. You’re not part of our family.”
All of this was on Katiiti’s mind during the games, and he made the decision to apply for asylum in Canada since he did not feel safe going back to Uganda. The process was not an easy one, and Katiiti had to overcome many obstacles in his path.
“During all this time, it was an entire trigger, writing my story down again, going through everything that happened and putting it down, it was a trigger,” says Katiiti. He added that Canadian immigration did not offer mental health services at the time, and as a result, he says he almost took his own life.
“I almost took my life during the process, because I feel like I’ve lived an independent life from home, so getting help is really hard for me.”
This motivated Katiiti to start up Rights for All Refugees In Canada Now (RARICAnow). The organization creates awareness and shares the struggles and stories of LGBTQ+ refugees in Canada.
Katiiti says he personally reaches out and opens his doors for refugees who were kicked out of the house by their parents.
“It’s still a taboo, even though parents are here they hear about diversity, LGBTQ and stuff, they still kick their kids away.”
Although he extends a hand to others in need, Katiiti still deals with his own struggles.
Katiiti was arrested in his friend’s house in Edmonton, where he lives.
“We were just hanging out playing dominoes and the voices went a little bit high. We couldn’t control the voices, some of those games really hype me up,” he says.
As a result, somebody called the cops on them.
“They entered and I was literally seated down and he [the cop] came to me,” says Katiiti. “So, I was in a freeze mode because by then I still had a lot of phobia for cops. I was so scared so I started feeling really anxious and I just froze in one space.”
In the aftermath of the incident, Katiiti was very triggered.
“I went into a depression mode, you know, I couldn’t even work. I support people, but I really couldn’t even do anything,” he explains. However, after the death of Tony McDadde — a black transgender man shot to death by a Florida police officer in May 2020 — Katiiti decided to take action.
Katiiti took offence to the way McDade was portrayed in the media and the reaction from the black community.
“I just felt this wave of reclaiming, of calling for justice,” he says.
Katiiti wants to reclaim and help empower his body and the bodies of other black LGBTQ+ members from the system.
“Our community needs more than this and our black LGBTQ+ community needs more care, more attention, more resources, more support that the system doesn’t actually want to provide to them,” he says. “We’re free, but we’re prisoners of our freedom in these kinds of systems.”