Gay man flees to NZ under threat of execution

By Jacqui Stanford

Steven Kasiko escaped to New Zealand after being 'outed'.  Photo / Gay NZ
Steven Kasiko escaped to New Zealand after being 'outed'. Photo / Gay NZ

Steven Kasiko fled to New Zealand after he was one of 100 men a Ugandan newspaper outed as "homos" - with a tagline that exhorted, "hang them". Jacqui Stanford of GayNZ.com discovers his battle to be accepted as a refugee.

Many young men and women struggle to explain their sexual orientation to their parents. But when Steven Kasiko's father tried to make him marry a woman, the young man had to be more circumspect than most.

"I told him I had different interests I wanted to pursue," he recalls hollowly.

His father was unimpressed. He cast his son out of his family.

Growing up in Uganda was a frightening experience for the teenage Kasiko, and it was the daily possibility of persecution by the authorities that gave him strength to refuse when his dad tried to make him marry.

Nothing, though, could prepare him for the front page of one of his nation's leading newspapers, on October 19, 2010. "100 PICTURES OF UGANDA'S TOP HOMOS LEAK," it shouted. "Hang Them."

With the publication of his name, address and picture in the newspaper, Kasiko knew he could no longer safely remain in the country where he was born and grew up.

Threats against his life poured in, he couldn't go to work and so, exposed and fearing for his safety, the 41-year-old packed his belongings. Heavy-hearted, he left his boyfriend, job and friends behind and headed for the other side of the globe.

* * *

The landlocked African nation of Uganda, among the world's poorest countries, is fiercely Christian. It's a country that couldn't be more different from New Zealand when it comes to acceptance. Here, our smiling gay and lesbian celebrities are splashed gloriously in pages of newspapers and magazines, showing off their partners, kids, proud mums, pets, new kitchens.

In Uganda, gay men and women trying to get on with their lives are ripped from the safety of their anonymity and thrust on to front pages, named and "shamed", accused of raiding schools and recruiting kids.

A British colony from the late-19th century until 1962, Uganda still has a colonial hangover in the form of its laws and attitudes.

Western countries such as New Zealand have been through Homosexual Law Reform, brought in anti-discrimination laws and civil unions, but homosexual acts between men remain illegal in Uganda. Lesbian sexual activity was also criminalised in 2000.

Outside what they do in the bedroom, gay men and lesbians constantly face discrimination and harassment from the very people who are supposed to endorse fairness: the media, police and teachers, according to a 2007 Amnesty International report.

Rolling Stone (no relation to the music magazine) outed Kasiko and 99 others, inciting readers to "hang them". Gay rights activists claim many of those targeted have been attacked since the publication of their names.

One of the most high profile, David Kato, was bashed to death with a hammer. A number of other gay men and lesbians named are simply missing, presumed murdered.

The nation's Parliament has also tried to introduce a piece of legislation known as the "Kill the Gays Bill", which would bring in the death penalty for people who have previous convictions or are HIV-positive and engage in same-sex sexual acts.

It even has provisions for Ugandans who have same-sex relations outside the country to be extradited back to Uganda for punishment, and penalties for anyone who supports or even "knows of" gay people.

The bill has been shelved in the face of international condemnation, but it exemplifies the type of hatred Kasiko faced when he was outed by Rolling Stone. He began to receive threatening phone calls and so much unbearable attention that even just going to work became hard.

"It's so scary," he says of being a known gay man living in Uganda. "People all the time are after you.

"Once they realise you are 'one of them' the people are after you and, in your family, no one wants to talk to you at all."

He felt he had no choice but to leave and New Zealand seemed like a safe haven. He has since found out his boyfriend has been arrested, despite the fact he was not named in Rolling Stone.

"I don't know what's happened with him," he says softly. "They arrested him and now we don't know where he is. And even his family members are not interested in knowing.

"So scary, what has happened with him," he says, mumbling, barely audible. "And sometimes it is hard to believe because the way the [Ugandan] politicians talk, it's as if nothing is happening."

* * *

The decision on Kasiko's future in New Zealand is in the hands of the authorities, and Kasiko refrains from commenting on that process. There is precedent for granting refugee status on grounds of homophobic persecution. A handful of gay men from Iran, which has the death penalty for gay acts, have been granted refugee status in New Zealand.

Gary Poole is chief executive of Refugees as Survivors NZ, which helps run the National Refugee Resettlement Centre at Mangere.

He says refugees must demonstrate a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home country. This can extend beyond race, religion and politics to personal characteristics such as sexual orientation.

His organisation's mental health workers and clinicians have worked with gay people who have claimed asylum under the United Nations' Refugee Convention, most of them Iranian.

"The regime in Iran is extreme in its intolerance and their persecution of gay people in particular, and torture and execution have been documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty," he says. "RASNZ clinicians have helped a few gay people who have been torture survivors from Iran, and from countries in Africa. Some of the most terrible cases of torture from African countries have involved attempts to 'exorcise' or 'rehabilitate' gay people."

Though Poole thinks cases like Kasiko's should be straightforward, it must be noted that the Refugee Status Branch of the Department of Labour rejected the most recent such application from an Egyptian man.

That man, a supporter of former president Hosni Mubarak, had been outed as gay and ostracised. His former boyfriend was beaten by his parents when they discovered he was gay, and the man feared he would be arrested and killed in prison.

The department's decision was overturned in April by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, which judged the man was at risk of arrest and persecution if he were sent home.

"His homosexuality now being discovered, there is a real chance of the appellant being arrested and beaten, tortured or otherwise mistreated during detention," the Tribunal ruled.

The danger to gay people in Uganda is, if anything, more extreme still.

Here, in New Zealand, Kasiko is making friends and picking up what casual work he can. He has even visited a gay bar. But it is always under the shadow of what may happen to him if he is sent home to Uganda.

Kasiko had one of the most amazing experiences of his life this year, when he attended February's Big Gay Out, an annual event at an Auckland park for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"I couldn't believe it," Kasiko says. "It was my first time seeing something like this in my life, because it couldn't happen in Uganda."

He has little hope his nation's "Kill the Gays" Bill will remain shelved for long, nor that much will change.

"The mindset in Uganda, for most of the people, is hatred," he says. "That is one thing that is hard to do, to change the mindset of the people so people can live freely."

He fears for his partner but remains full of hope he can be found and will one day be able to join him here, enjoying a life in which he has "no limits".

He dreams out loud: "To be able to walk free with my partner and give him a hug and people won't look at you a different way."

And he laughs happily at the thought.

- Herald on Sunday

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