Love Thy Neighbor
American evangelicals’ antigay gospel forced him to flee Uganda. Then Christians in California offered him a home. A refugee’s story in words and pictures.
Shawn Katusabe stood in the watchtower clad head to toe in body armor, a rifle in his hands. A slender, 24-year-old private-security contractor from Uganda with thick eyebrows and a winning grin, Katusabe had manned the tower in southern Iraq for five months. Every morning for several hours he peered beyond the walls, looking for movement. It was 2011, and Katusabe was accustomed to the realities of war. Three years prior, on the first night of his first tour in Iraq, Katusabe’s base had come under a mortar attack. He’d taken shelter in a bunker, “scared as shit.” His latest deployment was quieter: Scarcely anyone approached the perimeter he was tasked with protecting.
Katusabe’s partner on those watchtower shifts, he later recalled in an interview, was a friendly U.S. soldier from Michigan. The man was tall, well built, and attractive. They talked constantly. “Only two people worked in the tower,” Katusabe told me, “so we shared everything.” Or almost everything: On this particular day, Katusabe recounted, he finally got around to asking, casually, if the soldier had a girlfriend.
“No, I don’t have a girl,” the man replied.
“What about you?”
The pair exchanged small talk about American and Ugandan women for a few minutes. Then, Katusabe later told me, the U.S. soldier blurted out, “I love men.”
Katusabe was stunned. Did the other soldier know his secret?
His entire life Katusabe had been conditioned to guard the fact that he was gay. He was born into a family; katusabe means “let us pray” in his native language of Luganda. As a child, he would sometimes dress up in his sisters’ clothes at home. “To my parents, it was just a joke,” he told me. As a teenager, he secretly dated boys. To deflect suspicion from his family, he pretended to have a girlfriend.
There was ample reason for secrecy: During Katusabe’s adolescence, foreign evangelicals, including prominent American figures like Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, began visiting Uganda and spreading an emphatic antigay gospel. They proselytized that homosexuality was an abomination promoted by a nefarious international movement to upend traditional African values. It was dangerous to human survival. In Katusabe’s recollection, a central message was, “How are you gonna create if you have a girl and a girl or a man and a man?” The message seeped into Ugandan politics—Lively even issued a five-hour address to the country’s parliament in 2009—and conservative bureaucrats were eager to embrace it.
By 2011, the situation for openly gay Ugandans was dire. The government was considering the infamous “kill the gays” bill, which earned its moniker because an early draft called for executing people for the crime of homosexuality. That January, David Kato, a prominent gay-rights advocate, was beaten to death with a hammer in Kampala shortly after he won a lawsuit against a newspaper that had published the photos and names of alleged homosexuals under a directive: “HANG THEM.”
But perched high above the desert in Iraq, Katusabe was a long way from this cultural hostility and his religious roots. He trusted the U.S. soldier, because they’d spent so many long mornings in tight quarters. With barely any hesitation, Katusabe admitted that he liked men, too.
Things took off fast from there. The duo started working out at the base’s gym together. Before long, Katusabe told me, they were hooking up on their days off and in hours stolen between work shifts. They were careful to keep the relationship secret. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which banned openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, didn’t go into effect until September 2011.
When his tour ended, despite the harsh climate that awaited him, Katusabe returned to Kampala. The relationship with the man from Michigan ended, too, though they kept in touch on Facebook and WhatsApp. Katusabe fantasized about moving to America one day. He was infatuated with hip-hop culture and Hollywood action movies like Black Hawk Down. He settled instead for opening a boutique where he sold American-style clothing and an internet café where clients could watch American music videos on YouTube. He earned enough money to rent a small apartment. He also started dating a new boyfriend.
The men were discreet, but gossip bloomed quickly, eventually finding its way to the authorities. Occasionally, police would arrest Katusabe for his rumored lifestyle and force him to pay a bribe before releasing him. One day his mother called him crying. A family friend had ratted him out to her. Katusabe insisted that he wasn’t gay: It was a vicious lie, he told his mother, just “people talking shit” because they were jealous of his businesses.
In December 2013, Uganda’s parliament passed the antigay bill, with a prison sentence substituted for the death penalty. Local newspapers published more photos and personal information about people they’d decided to expose as being gay. That’s how Katusabe was betrayed—this time for good. “A friend called me up and said, ‘Hey man, you’re gay? It’s in the newspaper!’” Katusabe recalled. He was powerless to stop word from spreading.
Police ransacked his shop. A few days later Katusabe was riding home on a boda boda—a motorcycle taxi—when he spotted flames. His apartment was on fire. Rather than assess the damage, “I told the boda boda to turn around,” Katusabe said. If the people terrorizing him could find him where he worked and lived, they could find him anywhere. He realized that he had to escape Uganda.
Katusabe’s mother is from South Sudan, so he headed there, first to the capital, Juba, where he stayed with a cousin, and then to the town of Yirol, where he got a job at a bakery. One day a coworker asked if Katusabe was gay. In Iraq, Katusabe had heard the U.S. soldier’s confession before sharing his secret; this time he miscalculated. “I told him,” Katusabe said. “He was acting like a gay man.… How stupid I was.” The man told the bakery’s manager, who called the authorities. When they arrived, they beat Katusabe with the butts of their rifles and cut off his dreadlocks with sharp glass from a broken bottle.
No longer safe in South Sudan, Katusabe went back to Kampala, where he stayed with his sister. It was just a stopover: He’d been in touch with a representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi. If he got to the Kenyan capital, the UNHCR told him, he could apply for asylum in the West. Katusabe’s sister helped him pay for a bus ticket, and he realized that he might never see her again. “I cried all the way to the bus,” he told me. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye to his parents, so he messaged them instead. “Please pray for me,” he typed. “I’ll be alright, and one day we’ll meet.”
Katusabe arrived on a deserted Nairobi street late one night in mid 2014. It was cool and raining. He had just 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2.50) in his pocket and the phone number of a UNHCR officer. He called and she answered. “I felt so good, like someone was waiting for me,” Katusabe told me, “like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
After briefly staying in a dirty, crowded transit center with other refugees, Katusabe qualified for a small living stipend and moved into an apartment with five other gay Ugandans. Kenya wasn’t necessarily safer for them; homosexuality is illegal there, too, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Police routinely extort or blackmail people they identify as homosexual.
Katusabe vowed not to repeat the mistake he’d made in South Sudan, outing himself to a stranger. For more than nine months he laid low. He and his roommates told neighbors they were students, and Katusabe even got a false ID card to prove it. “Every time we’d go to the UN for appointments, we’d say we’re going to school,” he recalled. “Everything was fake.”
While his asylum application was under review, a process that required numerous interviews and long stretches of anxious waiting, Katusabe received bad news from his sister. The police had visited his family’s home in Kampala and asked his younger brother, who was 20, where Katusabe was. He told the cops he didn’t know, though he did. “They said, ‘Well, you’re gonna go to jail until you figure it out,’” Katusabe told me. “He spent six months in jail. Every day they’d ask him if he figured it out.”
Up until then, “it was me who was suffering,” Katusabe explained. “I don’t want people suffering on my behalf.” He thought about going back to Uganda to give himself up in exchange for his brother’s freedom, but he worried about what the police might do to him.
There wasn’t much time to dwell on his guilt, though: Katusabe’s asylum request was approved in early 2015, and he was told he’d be moving to the United States. He was ecstatic at the thought of living in America but disappointed when he learned the precise location: Greensboro, North Carolina, a midsize city in a historically conservative state. “When in Uganda you talk about America, you see Manhattan,” Katusabe told me. “You see Disneyland, you see Hollywood.”
Katusabe boarded his flight to the United States that May, touching down in the Carolina Piedmont just a few weeks before the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. Despite the goodwill surrounding the ruling, Katusabe was wary of being out: ministers from the U.S. had helped soak Uganda in the homophobia that had forced him to leave, and now he was a foreign, black, gay man in the American South.
Some of his cruelest critics, though, were fellow refugees. Katusabe enrolled in an evening class where he practiced his English skills for job interviews. Two other students, refugees from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began harassing him. “They were like, ‘Gays are not right, it’s not good. And if you’re an African you’re not supposed to do that, it’s not part of our culture,’” Katusabe said. Outside of the classroom he never felt safe, in part because he didn’t meet other gay people in Greensboro. He found the city lonely. Scanning the social-media photos of refugees who’d been resettled in larger, more vibrant cities didn’t help.
Those same digital networks provided Katusabe with an unexpected salve. He connected with gay Ugandans who had resettled in Long Beach, California, and they described how good life was near the shore. Everybody seemed to mind their own business. The city had a prominent pride parade, an openly gay mayor, and crosswalks painted to look like rainbows.
A network of local Christians had resettled these Ugandans. Many religious organizations across the United States support refugees, but this group was different. It was motley, for one, and its goals were highly specific: Working across denominational lines—evangelical, Episcopalian, Jewish—it was on a mission to aid the same gay people whose lives some U.S. religious leaders had helped destroy. Maybe, Katusabe thought, they could help him, too. He got in touch with a resettlement volunteer in Long Beach. Before he knew it, his case had been transferred and someone had bought him a plane ticket to California.
Katusabe was finally going to the America of his dreams. That’s what he hoped, anyway, as he soared westward over the country toward his new, unfamiliar home.
The first thing Katusabe noticed about Southern California was the cars: Everyone drove everywhere. It was the afternoon when a volunteer picked him up at the airport, and he experienced Long Beach for the first time as it fleeted past his car window. He saw sleek, enviable sports cars and SUVs cruising around town. He wanted one of his own—preferably his favorite, a Jeep Wrangler. Katusabe knew he’d need to find a job in order to buy a car.
But he had more basic things to sort out first, like a place to live. When he arrived in California, Katusabe didn’t have a home.
Amy Valenzuela-Mier, 47, is a parishioner at St. Luke’s, a liberal Episcopal church in Long Beach. By the summer of 2015, she’d already helped resettle half a dozen gay Ugandans as part of the Christian network. Katusabe, though, posed a challenge. Because he had been in North Carolina originally, the federal funds provided to support him—about $1,125 for the first 90 days after arrival in America—had been exhausted. That made housing hard to nail down. “We’re in Southern California. It’s expensive here,” Valenzuela-Mier told me. St. Luke’s agreed to let Katusabe live at the church for 90 days, sleeping on the floor of an office while he looked for a job.
His first morning at St. Luke’s was a Sunday. When Katusabe woke up, he headed to the bathroom, which was in a community area where homeless people could eat and shower. Dozens of adrift men and women showed up on weekends. Katusabe could barely make his way through the crowd. “It stressed me out,” he told me. “I have no family, nobody. I felt like maybe me too, I’m homeless.”
Katusabe also saw an opportunity to prove his worth: He volunteered to keep the community space clean and to organize a shower schedule. Reverend Ricardo Avila, the interim rector at St. Luke’s, described the new arrival as friendly and helpful. “But he seemed a little lost,” Avila added. “It must have been lonely and hard for him. He just longed to be somewhere settled.”
Still, staying at St. Luke’s brought hints of the America Katusabe had been looking for. During his second month staying there, he and another Ugandan refugee, a lesbian, witnessed a ceremony between two newlywed men. The happy grooms stood at the front of the church to receive a blessing from Reverend Avila. Katusabe was confused at first, then thrilled.
This is no longer Kenya, this is no longer Uganda, he thought. We’re in the U.S., we’re good.
St. Luke’s had a progressive reputation on issues like marriage equality, but the same wasn’t true of every religious group in the coalition assisting gay refugees. Among them was a chapter of World Relief, the charitable arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE espoused antigay rhetoric around the globe for many years, including in Kenya. In 2006, infamously, a male escort revealed that NAE president and megachurch pastor Ted Haggard bought crystal meth and engaged in sexual acts with him, earning Haggard a stint in the public spotlight as America’s biggest hypocrite.
By 2015, the NAE had softened its official stance on gay rights, and Sandy Ovalle was a new hire at World Relief’s branch near Long Beach. I asked Ovalle if the gay Ugandans offered her organization something in return: a chance to right past institutional wrongs. We were in her office, where a copy of Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, sat on her desk and Jon Stewart’s America: The Book, a liberal satire of U.S. history, was on a bookshelf.
Ovalle, 31, insisted that aiding gay refugees wasn’t about redemption. “This is what we do,” she told me. “The Christian faith does call you to love people radically, whether you agree with them or not.”
Ovalle worked with Valenzuela-Mier to recruit housing volunteers at four local churches and a synagogue. The most unlikely seeming among them was Bill White, the evangelical pastor of City Church of Long Beach. White volunteered to take the very first arrival, a gay Ugandan man in his late twenties. “I remember thinking, This guy is in the pastor’s house of a fundamentalist church. How does he not think he’s going to be crucified or something?” Valenzuela-Mier said.
What she didn’t know was that White, 49, considers himself an LGBT ally. He has a brother who is gay. When he came out to his parents, they reacted by telling him he wasn’t welcome for Christmas if he had a boyfriend. In that case, White announced, his brother could come to his house for the holiday instead. White’s own son had since come out to the City Church congregation, and White had led discussions among his flock about homosexuality’s place in the lives of evangelical Christians.
When he learned that fellow evangelicals had aided in the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda, White told me, he felt “sick, sad, broken, angry.”
“I don’t know what Jesus you follow, because the one I follow says love your enemies,” he said, “which I don’t think includes killing them.”
Thanks in part to the Christian network, which coordinated rides to recruitment sessions and interviews, Katusabe got a job at an auto-parts company off-loading heavy tires and other supplies from shipping containers. It took him a bike ride and two buses to get to work from St. Luke’s, and he was expected to arrive by 4 a.m. He hated traveling so far to do backbreaking labor for little pay. Within three weeks of starting the job, though, the company laid him off. He was back to where he’d started.
As he struggled to adjust, Katusabe sometimes drank. A slight person, it only took a few beers after work to get him buzzed. One day someone at St. Luke’s said they found him passed out in a stairway. Katusabe maintains that he was in his room—the office—but accidentally left the door open. He also forgot his keys to the church sometimes, which required him to wake up the groundskeeper. Within two months of arriving at St. Luke’s, Katusabe was starting to wear out his welcome.
Finally, in August 2015, Katusabe received good news: a volunteer had found him an apartment on the first floor of an artist’s loft. A few months later, he secured a studio on the ground floor of a small housing complex with a façade painted the color of faded terracotta. He’d have a bed, a bathroom, laundry facilities, and privacy. It was what he needed to feel like he could stand on his own two feet.
Someone in the resettlement network cosigned the lease and chipped in for the initial rent. Katusabe had just gotten a new job as a nighttime security guard at an oil refinery and soon picked up a second security gig at a local DMV. He started working 80 hours a week and paying his own rent.
In a few months, he’d saved up enough money to buy a used car, his dream since riding on California’s freeways for the first time. He asked Reverend Avila to put a blessing on it and to bless all the people he’d encounter on the road.
Katusabe made friends beyond the tightly knit Ugandan and Christian circles in Long Beach and started going out on the town. He didn’t tell his new friends much about his personal life, though. He’d heard too many gay jokes and slurs at work. One coworker even suggested that if his son were gay, he’d kill him. I asked Katusabe if he thought the threat was real. “Man, everybody has a gun over here,” he said of America. “People do stupid things.”
He mostly blended into his new social group, dropping words like “man” and “bro,” commenting on women’s attractiveness, and sometimes even agreeing with homophobic remarks. Once, though, he suggested to friends that they grab a drink on Broadway, a street lined with restaurants, bars, and shops that traverses Long Beach. They laughed at him. That’s the gay part of town, they said. Another time a friend invited him over to drink some Coronas and watch a movie. A third man, a twentysomething student from Gabon, was there. In the movie, two gay characters kissed. “In Africa, they don’t allow that,” the Gabonese guy said. Katusabe suggested that everyone just shut up, watch, and drink.
Among the parishioners at St. Luke’s, however, Katusabe sometimes felt pressure to be more open about his sexuality. They invited him to LGBT community centers and pride events. A woman once asked Katusabe why he didn’t act like he was gay. “I said, ‘So you want me to be putting on high-heel shoes?’” he recalled.
Katusabe grew close with a member of the congregation named Tom Crowe, a six-foot-four, heavyset man in his mid-sixties with gray hair, glasses, and a booming voice. Crowe, who is gay, had been an LGBT-rights advocate for decades. Helping gay Ugandans was just his latest project. “He wore out his Volkswagen driving people to appointments and ended up having to buy a new car,” Valenzuela-Mier, a lesbian and activist as well, told me. Crowe housed two refugees, whom Katusabe started hanging out with. The group would watch TV, drink, and cook Ugandan food: matooke (boiled and smashed green bananas), ugali (made from white corn meal), and groundnut stew.
Crowe didn’t take no for an answer—if employees at local agencies or businesses wouldn’t make exceptions to help the refugees, his go-to line was, “May I speak to your supervisor, please?” Valenzuela-Mier said that because of his tough attitude, she’d heard him referred to as the General. Some refugees call him jaja, which means grandfather in Luganda. To Shawn he became Papa Tom.
Sometimes Crowe overstepped, announcing that the people he was helping buy clothes or attend a doctor’s appointment were gay refugees. He was being supportive—like a proud father embarrassing his kids—but the Ugandans wanted to keep a lower profile. I once heard Crowe ask Katusabe, “What happened to your boyfriend?” Katusabe had never mentioned a relationship in our interviews. “Aw, you know, too much work,” Katusabe replied, shrugging it off.
Katusabe doesn’t fault Crowe for encouraging him to be more open. Crowe, after all, fought to create an America in which being gay isn’t a crime. “In the past, they went through a lot of hell,” Katusabe said of gay-rights advocates in California. “Maybe they felt like we still feel like in Africa.”
One morning, as he sat on the bed in his apartment, I asked Katusabe if keeping his sexuality mostly private bothered him. “I want you to understand this,” Katusabe replied. “I lived in Uganda for 27 years, right? I’ve faked a straight life for over 27 years.” He seemed to be saying that not discussing his attraction to men had become the most normal thing he did.
Would he ever come out to his friends in Long Beach, I inquired, and what would they think if he did? “They will know it,” he said, meaning it’s only a matter of time. But he wasn’t sure when to tell them, or how. Sometimes he felt sanguine about doing it soon; in other moments, he said he needed more time. He imagined one close friend feeling bad upon finding out and saying something like, “Oh Shawn, we’ve been talking all about gay shit all the time and you never said anything!”
To Katusabe, the relationship that ultimately matters “is between me and God.” On a Sunday morning last July, we pulled into the parking lot of St. Matthew’s, a Catholic church located a short drive from his apartment. He still attended mass, despite everything that Christianity—in particular American Christianity—had taken from him. St. Matthew’s welcomed gay parishioners, but unlike St. Luke’s it drew the line at marriage equality. “They talk about how the Bible describes love, how you love each other and respect each other,” Katusabe told me.
After mass I asked Katusabe if he thinks homosexuality is a sin. Catholics, he replied, “don’t teach you how to hate people—they teach you how to love people.”
“We’re religious,” he added. “But we have our own hearts.”
Katusabe wears his faith proudly: On the inside of his right arm, stretching nearly wrist to elbow, is a tattoo that read, “GOD IS GREAT.” On his other forearm, faded to the point of being barely visible, are the words “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR.” Someone on one of his Iraq tours did a poor job of inking that one. Katusabe told me that he planned to get it touched up soon.
I arrived at Katusabe’s apartment one morning to find him talking on the phone with his sister in Uganda. “Family issues, bro,” he said as he hung up. His mom was sick with tuberculosis. When I asked about the situation, he stopped me: “Let’s leave that.”
He doesn’t bear a grudge against his parents, even though his mother once told him she never wanted to see him again. “God didn’t throw you down on earth,” Katusabe said. “You passed through somebody to be who you are right now. Even if she gets pissed at me and curses me, I’ll always be like, ‘Mom, I love you.’”
He said he wanted to go back to Uganda one day, to prove to his family “that even though I’m gay, I can do all these things—take care of them—like a straight guy can do.” He added, “If the laws changed right now, the next week I’d be back.” (In August 2014, a Ugandan court struck down the antigay bill on a technicality, but homosexuality remains illegal.)
Katusabe suggested that Western culture might improve the situation back home. “Americans messed everything up” by nurturing homophobia, he said, but their influence could also be used for good. “Right now people watch American movies. They see gay people kissing each other,” Katusabe explained. Then he waved his arm in the air behind his head as if to clear away any worries. “Maybe someday they’ll hear about gay people and be like, ‘Ah, whatever. Not a big deal no more.’”
He hoped this would happen in his lifetime, citing a vibrant Ugandan LGBT community that’s developed on Facebook. Pride parades also draw supporters, even though they often clash with police. Scott Lively, meanwhile, is the target of a lawsuit brought by a Ugandan LGBT coalition for committing crimes against humanity with his evangelism.
Or maybe change would come in the lifetimes of Katusabe’s kids, hypothetically speaking. “I wanna have a kid of my own blood,” Katusabe, now 30, told me. I asked him if that would require artificial insemination. “That’s so expensive,” he said. There are other options: A lesbian friend had sex with a man before flying to the United States from Kenya, because she wanted to be a mother and decided that was the only way she could afford to get pregnant. She gave birth to a son in Long Beach whom Katusabe sometimes cared for on the weekends. “But if I adopt a kid it’d still be cool,” he added. “I’ll try all the ways.”
Katusabe was happy in California: with his friends, his lifestyle, the volunteers who’d welcomed him into their churches. Yet he craved what was missing and lamented what he’d left behind. “I wish I could just see my family,” he said.
Since he’d arrived in Long Beach, his grandmother had died and a sibling had gotten married. Katusabe wired money for the wedding. He occasionally sent earnings home—when his family told him they needed it or on special occasions.
“Whoever treated me badly, I forgive them,” Katusabe told me. “I’m living a new life.”