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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Somali refugees in Kenya
Somali refugees line up at a registration center in one of northern Kenya's refugee camps to receive aid after having been displaced from their homes by a famine that is ravaging the horn of Africa region. Ugandans like Alex and Michael make up a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the camps. (Tony Karumba/GlobalPost)

The gray area of gay refugees

A Ugandan couple flees to a Kenyan camp, finding little relief.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The two tender, soft-spoken Ugandans shared a circle of good friends back in their hometown of Kampala. They were close with their families and they started a restaurant together. Life was good.

That was before everything went wrong. They were disowned by their families. Their restaurant was burned down. Their car was stoned and set ablaze.

And so they fled Uganda and came here, thousands of kilometers east with little more than the clothes on their backs. They came as brothers to live in a scorching refugee camp in northern Kenya. Surrounded by thousands of others who have fled wars and drought in neighboring countries, they came here to save their own lives.

These two men are not rebel soldiers. They are not fleeing war or drought, and they aren’t really brothers. They are lovers, and they came here to escape what they feared would be certain death after being outed last year in a country where homosexuality is widely considered a mortal sin, as "unnatural" as it is "un-African."

Alex and his partner Michael — whose real names cannot be used because of a continued threat of violence against them — were the target of a series of violent attacks inspired, they say, by an American evangelical campaign that began in 2009, and inspired legislation that, if passed, would have made gay acts punishable by the death penalty.

“We ran because we feared death. But what sort of life do we have here?”
~Alex, a gay Ugandan refugee in Kenya

“I’m not a fighter,” said Alex, a former youth and community leader back in Uganda.

He is timid, unwilling to throw his elbows against hardened Somalis and Sudanese in the food line at the camp. As a result, he now shows signs of malnourishment.

Today the men have been pushed to their limits, living as refugees far from their friends, family and allies. Although they had hoped for a better life in a new land, the camp has proven to be yet another dangerous place for the two polite young Ugandans.

“LGBT people are perhaps the most persecuted group in the world,” said Neil Grungras, founder of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM). “They are persecuted in countries of origin, but neighboring countries share similar cultural values. If you go across the border, you’re not any less likely to be persecuted.”

After all, homosexuality is illegal in Kenya too.

Flight over Fight

David Kato, a leading young gay rights activist in Uganda, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his own apartment in January. Months earlier a local tabloid newspaper had published the names, photographs and addresses of Ugandans believed to be gay, including Kato. A banner on the front page read: “Hang Them.”

Alex and Michael were good friends of Kato’s, but they continued to live their lives as homosexuals in private — not as activists, just as normal albeit closeted gay citizens. But even that proved untenable.

They were followed, called out on the streets, and after their restaurant went up in flames in April, one of Alex’s relatives finally gave him a grave warning.

“If you have any money, leave the country,” she advised. “You know, they are planning on killing you. You are putting shame on the family, and even the whole clan. They are planning for your death.”

A month later, the couple entered a supermarket, and came out to find their car engulfed in flames. In one of the hardest decisions of their lives, they packed their life belongings into two suitcases, and boarded a bus to Nairobi. Only one bag actually made it, and they arrived in Nairobi desperate for help.

Life as Refugees

After six months in the refugee camp, Alex and Michael have become accustomed to the whispered taunting of the other refugees. “Here comes Miss Uganda ... ” is a familiar refrain.

Life in the camp hasn’t been much of an improvement for either of them, and this month they marked their six-year anniversary as a couple without any kind of celebration.

The Kenyan government does not grant asylum to LGBT refugees because of its law barring homosexual acts, leaving people like Alex and Michael in legal limbo.

Although the couple has been in touch with a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counselor, they feel they are not receiving enough protection. They have been told there is little that can be done, and that their only

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