By Brian Patrick

In what is truly an international competition, the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) board, in conjunction with attorney, LGBT activist and fellow swimmer Nate Freeman, brought nine LGBT Ugandan swimmers to participate in its annual international championships. The IGLA 2016 Championships are being held this year in Edmonton, Canada from August 8-14. And in addition to the nine Ugandan swimmers representing Ug Kuchu Aquatics, athletes from North America, Europe and Australia are already signed up and ready to get wet.

Behind this great event is a powerful story of paying it forward. Last August the Washington Blade ran a story on Freeman’s 7,6000-mile bike ride from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa to find and connect with LGBT activists along the way. Kevin Majoros, sports reporter for the Blade and a Compete Magazine contributor, wrote a story for the Blade in April 2016 giving an update on Freeman’s continued work with the Human Rights Awareness and Promotions Forum (HRAPF) that offers LGBT individuals free legal aid services.

Now working in Kampala, Uganda and finding a “fledgling LGBT sports community,” Freeman says that “Gaining acceptance for LGBT people requires a multi-pronged approach and it will focus on the arts, business and sports in addition to the legal and health issues that the communities face.”

Hoping to send Ugandan athletes to the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, Freeman was looking for a test case to smooth the way. His efforts to include swimmers in this year’s IGLA championships made its way from IGLA member Majoros to fellow member and IGLA co-president Kristopher Pritchard. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to the IGLA board’s pledge of $6,000, as hosts for the event, Edmonton’s Making Waves Aquatic Club has waived registration fees and secured housing while the District of Columbia Aquatic Club (DCAC) serves as a pass-through for all donations raised. And generous donations have been made by members of the Liquid Assets New England Swimming team and from additional U.S. and Canadian swim teams, especially DCAC, San Francisco Tsunami and Team New York Aquatics, according to an article by Pritchard and Freeman for the IGLA website.

Prior to Justin Trudeau’s election, Canadian visas for LGBT Ugandans had been difficult to obtain. But now the nine swimmers attending the IGLA championships have been granted visas, thanks too, to special help from MP Randy Boissonnault from Edmonton who recommended admitting them.

Not all the people pictured  below are identified; only the swimmers have given permission for their names to be printed. Included are Diane Bakuraira, an administrative officer at Sexual Minorities Uganda, a long-running Ugandan organization focusing on LGBT rights. Diane swam with the Ugandan national team when she was younger but as a gender non-conforming person, she (who also uses the pronoun he) was increasingly denied opportunities to compete.

Clare Byarugaba was co-coordinator of a group instrumental in overturning the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law passed in 2014 that criminalized homosexuality and mandated life sentences for convictions. Currently working with Chapter Four Uganda, a legal organization that protects civil liberties, Clare is eager to travel to Canada as an athlete.

Phiona Katiti, also known as Adebayo is a physical trainer who has worked at health clubs and as an educator at schools. Adebayo is also an active footballer and was named Mr. Pride Uganda in 2015. He’s excited to add competitive swimming to his activities.

Another team member works for a well-established activist group for LGBT people and is thrilled to be going to Canada to compete. The group can’t wait to meet everyone.

Photo courtesy of Nate Freeman