Earlier this year a group of Quakers from Olympia (Wash.) Meeting started the Friends New Underground Railroad (FNUR), a project to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals living in Uganda leave the country in order to flee terrible persecution resulting from the passage of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act. In February the Ugandan Parliament approved and President Yoweri Museveni signed this new law criminalizing homosexuality, with sentences up to and including life imprisonment. The law also makes “aiding and abetting” homosexuality a criminal offense, carrying a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Since the law was passed, attacks on LGBTQ people have increased, with large numbers of beatings and several murders.
When the September 2014 issue went to print, 450 LGBTQ individuals had been helped to escape from Uganda thanks to FNUR’s support of the Ugandan citizen conductors. The group has three main leaders: Gabi Clayton, Talcott Broadhead, and the anonymous Levi Coffin II (more on him in question two). We asked Gabi and Talcott to answer some questions about FNUR and the work they’re doing.
1. Why did you choose to name the project Friends New Underground Railroad? What is the connection to the original Underground Railroad?
The project’s name was much discussed and deliberately adopted to reclaim an important part of our Quaker history. We are aware that many African Americans consider the term “Underground Railroad” and what it represents to be a sacred part of their history, and so the name isn’t an unthinking appropriation. We also know that Quakers used the term from its very inception in the nineteenth century as a network to help slaves escape to freedom. The historic Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points; secret routes, transportation, and safe houses; and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. By definition, those who traveled by the Underground Railroad were African American, and most of those who provided safe houses, meeting points, and transportation were not.
In the Friends New Underground Railroad, all the conductors are Africans (as are the passengers). We, based here in Olympia, Wash., do nothing on the ground in Uganda, nor do we make decisions about who is helped, how, and when. All the real work is being done by Africans for Africans—by the people we call the conductors. The strongest parallel is that conductors and those who provide the absolutely essential services to keep the Railroad running are both gay and straight. We are astonished by the resolve and courage that they have all shown in undertaking this dangerous venture.
2. Who is Levi Coffin II and why doesn’t he use his real name?
Levi Coffin II is the pseudonym for a Quaker that we work with here at FNUR. This individual has a lot of international humanitarian aid experience in other countries including Uganda and has decided to remain anonymous because of the potential risk to his current work. The original Levi Coffin was a Quaker from North Carolina who appears to have been the lead organizer of the Underground Railroad in the western part of the United States, helping organize links and safe houses.
3. How did Olympia Meeting get involved with this work? Is there an official minute approved by the meeting?
Talcott: Shortly after the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed, I received a call from someone doing humanitarian work in Africa who had been contacted by activists in Uganda. Together we recognized that this was a crisis that required intervention and response. I took my concerns to my meeting, where a number of other members had also been following the worsening situation in Uganda. The support from the meeting was absolutely overwhelming. Collectively we saw the need was big and that we had an opportunity to do something.
Gabi: The issue was adopted as a cause for support by the meeting, and an official minute was approved on April 13. The minute has been shared on the meeting’s website (it can be accessed at fdsj.nl/FNURminute). I think our meeting community generally feels engaged as active participants in the work of the project, rather than as bystanders. Some members are more involved than others, which is to be expected.
4. What specifically is FNUR doing to assist the on-the-ground efforts in Uganda?
We are clear that our mission is to assist in the first step of getting LGBTQ people out of Uganda. Our main role is to provide funds and support to make that happen. We are accountable for the funds we send to the conductors; they send us receipts for the things they have paid for such as transport, temporary lodging, etc. All oversight for the funds is done by us, including help from our meeting’s treasurer. We work only with and through local activists that we have vetted or are known to be reliable and trustworthy. We also verify and keep track of the passengers once they are out of Uganda (the conductors send us names). We have been in touch with some of them as they ask for letters to help with their immigration status. The conductors have connections with some folks in Kenya and other countries who are assisting the passengers with visas and status, but we do not take on that role ourselves.
So all decisions as to pathways and destinations are made by Africans. All uses of funds raised, costs to be reimbursed, and planning are within the purview of Africans (within the limits of funds raised). All way stations, transportation, and safe houses are run by Africans. And much of the funding for FNUR has come from Africans.
5. How does the process work and how are donations to FNUR used?
LGBTQ people find the conductors on their own. The conductors then choose who goes, when they go, and in what order. They also decide on which routes to utilize, the interim destination, the choice of way stations, transportation, and lodging. The conductors are responsible for ensuring that passengers are delivered to a safe place. As for the provision of housing, food, and other services (medical, psychosocial, legal, and visa), the conductors work with other organizations (not us) and individuals who are able to help coordinate such things. FNUR’s role is limited. We are not able to assist LGBTQ people who are in the camps, but we do know that none of the people the conductors are assisting out of Uganda have ended up in the horrid refugee camps in Kenya.
Donations that come to FNUR cover transportation, food, temporary housing while in transit, and sometimes fees for visas. We have covered some emergency medical costs for two conductors who were assaulted based on their real or perceived sexual orientation and this work they do which made them targets. We do not pay for airfare to new home countries—others cover that and other expenses. Our costs per individual range between $55 and $190; there have been some additional, though limited, support costs. No money is taken out for administration by Olympia Meeting or any person. There is a 2.9 percent (or less) plus $0.30 per transaction fee taken out by PayPal when it is used. We deal with currency conversion on an as-needed basis, finding the lowest costs relative to expediency with which funds are needed.
6. What are some of the challenges you have encountered doing this work?
Many people have expressed the concern that simply relocating LGBTQ Ugandans out of Uganda doesn’t solve the larger problem of homophobia and transphobia (which exists in many countries around the world). Others have questioned why we don’t help those who want to stay in Uganda and work to defeat the systems of oppression. We share these concerns, and we absolutely support those who are deciding to stay and fight for their rights to be Ugandan and queer. We understand the passion for that and how important it is to resist. Surviving is resistance!
However, the people the conductors are working with are ones who feel that the risk of staying there now in the worsened dangerous situation is too great, and they need to get out first and then work on the rest. We trust that the people the conductors are assisting know what they need. Helping Ugandans escape is not a win. It is not an answer. But it is what we can do, and we are doing what we can. We are a small project with a very specific focus. We don’t have the resources to also raise funds for other groups, but we try to share information with others as we build our connections with people through our website and eNews mailing list.
7. Some people have said FNUR’s work is “amateur.” As a grassroots project, how do you respond to such criticisms and what motivates you to do this difficult work?
We are quite aware that there is a history of some larger nonprofit organizations opposing or being critical of grassroots organizing. We have been accused of being amateurs, but as our core group is made up of seasoned organizers with decades of experience as activists, we take that to simply mean we are not paid, which is true. We have no paid staff and no support staff. We are not doing this for money; we are doing this because we feel that something has to be done and we are in a position to help. We are figuring it out as we go. What program doesn’t? We did not go into this work lightly, and our meeting didn’t either.
One empowering aspect of the project is that we have a lot of autonomy due to the trust we have been given by our meeting based on the works we have done in the past. This is sacred work to us, and it is work we would prefer need not be done. We are doing it because we were asked to by people who had direct threats on their lives. Names were read out over radio stations, with broadcasts calling for their arrests, imprisonment, castration, and sterilization. Hospitals are refusing to treat LGBTQ individuals. We are called to help mitigate the sorrow this situation in Uganda has caused by hearing it, participating, and hopefully alleviating some of it.
8. Have you received any endorsements by other organizations? Or made any other partnerships?
Yes. As American meetings have heard of the work, we are being contacted by some of them to ask what they can do to help, and we have also begun to connect with international Friends meetings. We are currently sponsored by Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Ore.; Green Country Meeting in Tulsa, Okla.; Dunedin Meeting in New Zealand; Families United Against Hate; and Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). We were very surprised and pleased by the endorsement by the UUA. We had not heard it was being discussed until it had passed. Some individual Unitarians and some UU churches have sent donations and have helped us spread the word. For example, we know that some wonderful members of a UU church in Eureka Springs, Ark., tabled at a Pride event and collected donations for FNUR.
9. How can individual Friends and meeting communities help?
First of all, donate! We need to raise money to assist LGBTQ people to get out of Uganda. You can help fundraise or table for us at an event. Second, spread the word: tell others about what is happening in Uganda and invite us to speak at your meeting, organization, or event. The more help we get, the more we can do. You can also print and share our flyers. And third, stay informed: like us on social media, share our content, and subscribe to the FNUR eNewsletter. Our website is
friendsnewundergroundrailroad.org (see correction below).
10. Please share a bit about yourself and how you got involved in this kind of work.
Gabi: I’ve always been an activist one way or another. I’m also a licensed mental health counselor and the cofounder of Families United Against Hate (FUAH), a small, grassroots nonprofit organization created by and for families and survivors of hate-motivated violence. I started this organization in part to honor the memory of my son Bill, who was openly bisexual and, at 17 years old, the victim of a hate crime based on his sexual orientation. About a month after the assault, he committed suicide on May 8, 1995, despite loving support from his family, friends, and many wonderful people in our community. Losing Bill motivated me to speak out to end discrimination, hate speech, and violence against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender—and against anyone for any reason. I was personally and emotionally drawn to the cause of LGBTQ Ugandans living in fear in their own country.
Talcott: I am a queer and genderqueer individual who has spent many years engaging in community building, education, and outreach, and also cultivating liberating spaces. As a history professor, I was following the Ugandan law in order to better understand how the legacy of colonialism and the perpetuity of hatred and state-sanctioned violence functions today. I was honored and humbled by the opportunity to move from one who studies to one who acts. While I have a long history of gender justice and racial justice activism, I often shy away from the possibility of engaging in causes that were happening to people with whom I did not share the same culture. This project gave me an opportunity to engage in an important effort of survival without falling into the trappings of Western top-down, predominantly racist, social service provision. Again, I feel honored to assist in this effort.
Correction, December 2018: It appears that the friendsnewundergroundrailroad.org website is no longer functional and forwarding visitors to sites with viruses, etc. The current website appears to be friendsugandansafetransport.org. -Eds.