This is How the Heart Beats is a hugely powerful, intimate series of images by photographer Jake Naughton that looks to raise awareness around the plight of LGBTQ people in the 32 African countries where same-sex relations remain illegal.
Most of these countries, including Kenya and Uganda, were former British colonies that have continued the legacy of the colonialists' anti-gay legislation: in 2014 Uganda introduced a so-called "kill the gays" law that sought to make same-sex relationships punishable by life imprisonment and, in some instances, death. In 2019 Uganda's Minister of Ethics and Integrity called to introduce such a bill once again.
The photobook, designed by Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios, showcases Naughton's portraits of LGBTQ people from Uganda, Kenya, and other East African countries, some of whom have remained in their birthplaces despite the abuse and discrimination they face; some who have fled as refugees to apply to be resettled in places that don't promote such horrific values and legislation.
Published by The New Press, This is How the Heart Beats presents Naughton's images accompanied by texts written by Jacob Kushner, a foreword by Ugandan queer activist Ruth Muganzi, and an essay by Cynthia Ndikumana, a transgender activist from Burundi. Together, these striking portraits and insightful, thoughtful but frequently depressing texts form a narrative of oppression; shifting from moments of darkness to ones of hope as the subjects of the images look to the future.
Jacob Kushner writes at the end of the book that only a small percentage of queer East Africans who apply to resettle in the West are ultimately successful. "Even the very few who win a ticket to a new life will usually have to wait several years before they are authorized to leave. 'Most of the population of Kakuma will be here for life,' a Belgian refugee worker for the UNHCR told me. The result is that the collection of huts where many of the LGBTQ Ugandans live has begun to feel permanent."
In a more hopeful call to arms, activist Cynthia Ndikumana urges East Africans to persevere: "I want to tell all LGBTQ people-the people in Burundi, in Kenya, in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, in all of Africa-to be strong, never to give up. It can be a long and difficult process getting out of the country and finding a place of safety, but there are good, kind people along the way who will help you – in my case, people I can't thank enough for all they did for me. And now I am here, and I am safe."