No Pride For These Lions

Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Shortly after booking my trip to meet and photograph the lowland gorillas of the misty mountains, as well as other African animals such as the beautiful lions you see here, the country of Uganda passed the most severe and punitive laws on homosexuality in the world, to include punishments such as life imprisonment and, in certain cases, the death sentence.

The fact that you are looking at images of lions that I photographed in Uganda should already tell you how my moral dilemma ultimately ended about whether to cancel my trip, but I will regale you with the details and my thought process nevertheless.

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A friend of mine once told me that as a gay man, you never stop coming out. And indeed, this proved to be true.

I’m pretty sure what he meant by this was that as a gay man, especially one that doesn’t instantly come across as a homosexual by way of dress or mannerisms, you will never stop finding yourself in situations where you must make the conscious decision whether to tell people you are gay. You will have to do this in situations where they probably wouldn’t know otherwise, but where your silence could lead to awkward or unfortunate consequences later down the road.

Regardless of if you’ve already done it once or if you’ve done it a hundred times before, coming out doesn’t get a whole lot easier through repetition. Each time, you still must make all the same decisions. First, you have to decide whether the situation definitively necessitates the need for “coming out again” in the first place. It’s an awkward and emotional hassle of a chore, one you’d prefer to avoid if at all possible. But if you deem it necessary, then you must decide how, when, and where you want to go about doing it. Ugh, just thinking about it is exhausting.

I have found that it is best to get it out of the way as quickly and as early on as possible, especially in high testosterone environments where there is likely to be a good deal of “locker room talk.” In DRUG REHAB, for example, I made the mistake of sitting through weeks of our Men’s Group therapy sessions before finally deciding to tell the group I was gay. If I had come out immediately, on the first day, it would have been no big deal; but by waiting, I made things awkward and even sparked feelings of betrayal. Because by this point, they had been talking candidly and honestly in our group for weeks, saying things (both homophobic and misogynistic) that they probably would have never said otherwise, had they known. They weren’t horrible people, they just read the room and spoke accordingly, using discourse they thought was acceptable rhetoric. Or at least, they thought they read the room, but thanks to my secrecy and silence, they had read it wrong. And now, with me announcing my homosexuality after two full weeks of tacitly misleading them, it was like I’d gone and changed the locks. And these guys were none too happy about it.

I sheepishly took full responsibility for the… omission (they preferred to call it a deception), and I admitted it was totally my fault for not getting it out of the way sooner. I agreed that they had every right to be mad. But you live and you learn.

And one of the things I’ve definitely learned is that yes, it’s true what my friend said— as a gay man, you never stop coming out. And I want to add to that statement that, no, it never gets any easier.

However, there is one other thing that my friend should have warned me about, but how could he have thought there’d ever be a need? It was the late 90s when he was sharing all this prophetic advice with me, so I was barely out of high school, the gay rights movement was in full swing, and it looked as if there was nowhere we could go but up! So my friend would have had absolutely no reason to give me such absurd and unlikely advice. No, he never thought to tell me that there might be an occasion in a gay man’s life where— at the ripe old age of 44– he might find himself needing to go BACK IN.

UGANDA

Yep, suddenly at 44 years old, after living as a gay man for close to three decades, I was confronted with a new and unexpected dilemma. The country I was set to visit (and give a great deal of money to in the process, I might add) was behaving in a politically and morally reprehensible way. There was a regime in power enacting laws that were not only offensive to my sense of right and wrong, but which were violently antagonistic to me as a person.

After doing an extensive amount of research about the unprecedented and deadly new anti-gay legislation that had just been passed in Uganda, it became clear that “back in the closet” would probably be the best and safest course of action for me while traveling abroad. It basically just meant that I wouldn’t be offering up more personal information than necessary to the people I met on the streets of Uganda. Which — hey, was fine by me— I just told you that coming out to strangers isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do in the world anyways.

In trying to decide what to do about this new legislation and how to proceed—whether to cancel my trip on principle or continue forward as planned— the next thing I had to ask myself was, “Ryan, do you feel safe going there?”

The answer turned out to be instantaneously “Yes.” And in answering that question for myself, I simultaneously solved all my other moral dilemmas as well. Not only do I regularly travel to places with laws and systems of belief that I strongly disagree with, but I continue to live in a country that systematically enacts laws on a regular basis which I find reprehensible! Take abortion rights, for example. If ever there was a time when I was going to express moral outrage at something and stop financially supporting a misguided regime, I should have moved to Canada the second Roe vs Wade was overturned and America’s women were sent spiraling back towards the Dark Ages. My point is, there are plenty of minority groups, gays included, that have their work cut out for them right here at home in the United States.

As my trip grew closer, my partner, SETH, took to forwarding me news stories about Uganda on a daily basis, and eventually just asked me point blank if I honestly thought it was a good idea to go. I assured him that I didn’t feel any more or less “safe” going to Uganda than I would before traveling to any other place in the world where there are disenfranchised minorities and political unrest, so he then asked me a new question. He said, “Yes, but why would you even want to go to a place that doesn’t want YOU there? A place that hates gays?”

And to this, I answered him not only as someone who really wanted to justify going to see the gorillas (and the lions and the leopards and all the other animals in Uganda…) by any rhetorical means possible, but also as someone who’s travelled enough around the world to be able to see the underlying truth of many similar situations.

I told him, “Seth, just because a law is passed, or a despicable, venomous ruler is in power... that doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole county agrees with him or feels that same way about homosexuals. Their ruler could be similar to Trump! He could be a delusional man who most of the country disagrees with but can’t seem to get rid of, someone who will soon go down in the archives as being a malevolent sociopath on the wrong side of history.”

“That’s a good point,” Seth admitted.

“Besides,” I said, “it’s not like I’m going there to throw a gay pride rally or get involved in their politics in any way. I’m going there to photograph animals, plain and simple. And I defy you to show me one African animal that gives a flying f*ck about me or that I’m gay.

With this guy,  I just want to share that of all the times I've photographed lions, this sticks in my brain as the one instance when I felt we got too close. We paid a local man to track this lion for us and get us "as close as possible," but then it seemed like the man wanted to be sure and give us our money's worth, and so he all but put us in this lion's mouth. Choose your words carefully.
With this guy, I just want to share that of all the times I've photographed lions, this sticks in my brain as the one instance when I felt we got too close. We paid a local man to track this lion for us and get us "as close as possible," but then it seemed like the man wanted to be sure and give us our money's worth, and so he all but put us in this lion's mouth. Choose your words carefully.

“Not to mention,” I continued, “that with lions, they…

Lions have…

Lions are known for their abundance of… no, hold on…”

“Ugh, Seth groaned. “Oh my God, Ryan, you’re already writing about this in your head, aren’t you?! And you’re trying to figure out some way to jumble up 'gay pride' and 'lion prides' into some lame double entendres for an article. You’re so predictable!”

“No I’m not! Or maybe I am. Okay, yes! But I haven’t figured it out quite yet. Avoiding the plural form of “prides” is throwing me off. Don’t worry, though. I’ll get there.”

“I’m sure you will.”

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An addendum:

The entire time I was in Uganda, I felt nothing but welcoming kindness from almost everyone I met. The most worry I ever felt about their recent anti-gay legislation was when I listened to the story about it on NPR, before ever leaving America. Judging solely from my interactions with the people and my subjective, personal experiences in Uganda, I would have never known that such laws or sentiments existed.

I have experienced and felt more hatred and bigotry towards gays when traveling in several parts of the southern United States. Or even in my hometown of ROWLETT!

But shortly after I returned home, I learned that the Ugandan police arrested a twenty-year-old gay man and charged him with "aggravated homosexuality." He is the first person to be charged with this crime under the new law, and he faces the death penalty.

The story is still unfolding.

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You can read more about shooting lions, possibly with a gun and from a helicopter, HERE