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Commentary: How things quickly turned wrong in Uganda

(Editor's note: JP Conly of San Diego has returned from two weeks in Kampala, Uganda, working as a nurse and a Good Samaritan Consortium volunteer. He is writing a series of articles about his experiences. Part I was “My story: Volunteering in Uganda and grateful” in which Conly shared how he worked with an amazing volunteer, Maxensia Nakibuuka Takirambule, and her Lugunjja Community Health Clinic. Read his first-person account HERE.

But since Conly has been home, some dreadful things have happened in Uganda. Late Friday, Parliament voted to approve the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that creates harsh prison sentences for anyone convicted of being a "repeat offender" and sends people to jail for not reporting LGBT Ugandans to authorities.

The shocking developments, conducted in secret without public notification and amid accusations that Parliament acted without a proper quorum, has shaken Conly to his very core, especially after he witnessed positive changes during his visit to Kampala.

Part II of Conly's series was already written and ready for publication last Friday when the article was held due to the breaking news out of Uganda. Here are Conly's thoughts about what has happened since he left Uganda. Part II will be published later.)

The title of my first story is written under the term "grateful" because gratitude is an essential part of my life . When I went to a Uganda, I went with optimistic eyes, which at times can be difficult when trying to share their experience through my eyes. I am trying to shed light on the plight of the LGBT community in Uganda, and I was asked to write about positive changes in Uganda.

I woke up last Friday morning to the news that the anti-gay bill had passed, and I was in shock. I became worried that some of the people I had contacted might be in jeopardy because they had spoken with me. I have been told that this was not the case. I was warned before I traveled to Uganda that my phone could be tapped and that my conversations in public were probably being listened to, and that my every move might be watched. I had an escort with me at all times except when I was alone in my hotel room. At times I thought this was absurd, but this is fact hanging over most LGBT Ugandans today. They cannot meet in public places, they have been advised to remember the phone numbers of several of their trusted friends, they have to remove all content from their computers and phones that may indicate that they are LGBT or allies.

Since the passage of the draconian bill, I have had contact with one of my new friends. I will call him "Bob," to protect his anonymity and for safety reasons. Bob and I spoke on the phone recently, but our conversation was short and awkward. While in Uganda, we spent time together but we never identified our sexuality to each other because we couldn't. Our Internet conversations have been filtered. We both have to use general language such as human rights, not LGBT rights, or organizations that support inclusion, not LGBT rights. These non-identifying terms are terms that I also had to use while in Uganda.

In our conversation, I asked my friend if he would leave Uganda if he had to. He changed the subject, speaking about having a dog in his home village. He told me that he was followed and that he could "feel it in his heart." It is surreal to have such experiences. I have heard, like we all have, stories of people who have had to live under this type of rule, but I never thought I would know it. I don't know if my friend is gay, but he supports basic human rights and this is how he has to live.

In addition, he informed me that some of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that usually fund and support educating, decriminalizing sexuality and providing counseling to HIV/AIDS and the marginalized now have to or will soon have to stop aid. Any organization that is thought to promote or help the marginalized will be criminalized.

I am left feeling as though the rug beneath me has been pulled out. Today, I wouldn't be able to have a meeting as I did a month ago in Uganda with members of a group that want to support, protect and educate the "marginalized" on health and HIV/AIDS matters. How awkward and backward that on my trip doors were opened by faith community for the inclusion of all people for the first time, only to be shut by the government. I sit with an empty feeling of powerlessness. I sit with a guilty grateful heart.