Former Utahn leads Ugandan swim team to international victory

A swim team organized by a former Utahn now in Uganda, where homosexual activity is illegal and can lead to life imprisonment if found guilty, brought home the world title in the small-team category at the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics championship in Canada.

Nate Freeman’s journey to Uganda began with a 7,500-mile bike tour from north to south Africa to meet and understand the needs of LGBT people on the continent.

While in Utah, Freeman worked for two years clerking for judges Tena Campbell and the Robert J. Shelby in Salt Lake City. He then moved to Johannesburg, South Africa to clerk for Justice Edwin Cameron on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, before moving to Kampala, Uganda.

Police have twice stopped pride parades in Uganda in the past two months, arresting some of the participants, after a government minister declared the events illegal.

How did you end up in Uganda? In 2015, I rode my bicycle 12,000 kilometers from Cairo to Cape Town to meet with LGBT activists and learn more about the LGBT rights movement in different countries in Africa. I connected with a human rights group in Kampala — the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum — that provides free legal aid services to LGBT people and sex workers. HRAPF offered me a legal consulting position after the bike ride was over and I moved to Kampala in January, 2016.

How did the swim team come about? As part of my activities with HRAPF, I work with over two dozen LGBT groups across Uganda to help them comply with the legal obligations for registered organizations. The goal is to strengthen these organizations against possible governmental interference. Through interviewing activists who run these groups, I’ve met a wide range of LGBT athletes who are interested in using athletics as a form of activism.

Two basketball players, who are both trans men, approached me with the idea of sending a basketball team to Gay Games 2018 in Paris. We thought it would be a good strategy to start attending other international competitions right away and to look at a broader array of sports. We chose swimming because of interest in the community and because of the upcoming IGLA championship in Canada.

In addition, I had contacts with swimmers who had participated in previous IGLA competitions due to my time swimming with QUAC in Salt Lake City. I was impressed with the way that the team functioned as a safe space, a social space, and a space for activism amongst Utah’s LGBT community. I was proud to march with QUAC every year in the Pride parade and to swim with a group of swimmers of diverse ages and backgrounds. I wondered if we could create a similar feeling in Kampala.

What challenges did you face? Forming the team was a challenge. Although we were eventually able to open swim practices to all skill levels, our initial concern was to identify a group who could represent the team at IGLA. Many of the swimmers had never swum competitively, and those who had had been ostracized from the sport for years. We had no time for hesitation — one of the swimmers learned the butterfly stroke within a month.

The final team included several activists. Diane Bakuraira, who survived an assault that was based on her gender identity, continues to work as an administrative officer at Sexual Minorities Uganda. Clare Byarugaba works with Chapter Four Uganda and coordinated successful efforts to overturn the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law which aimed to increase the existing penalties for same-sex sexual activity.

Besides the swimmers who came to Edmonton, we now have around six or seven additional swimmers who attend practices — many of whom have never swum before. A newcomer’s first practice may simply involve getting over the fear of being in the water. Introducing new swimmers to the pool are some of the most rewarding practices for me.

How has the local Ugandan response been? The success of the Uganda Kuchus [an LGBT slang word] Aquatic Team largely went unnoticed in the mainstream press. In contrast, the LGBT community was ecstatic and very proud of the swimmers. The swimmers’ success is especially important because one of the ministers in the government has been cracking down on the LGBT community recently and his actions have been demoralizing. In early August, the originally planned Pride week was shut down after police raided the Mr. and Miss Uganda Pride pageant. Over two dozen people were arrested, including two members of UKAT, who got on the plane to Canada just a few days later. The pride parade was rescheduled, but the same minister threatened to arrest anyone who attended. Over 100 participants bravely came to the festivities anyway only to be greeted by the police, who disbanded the event and sent everyone home.

Unfortunately, these stories of repression dominate the international media. People in the US often hear only about the defeats of the LGBT community in Uganda, rather than the successes. The swim team’s journey to Canada and their first-place finish in the Small Teams Division offers a different perspective that highlights the strength and resilience of LGBT Ugandans. It’s been a privilege to be part of that story. Q

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