Until a new anti-homosexuality bill caused a wave of homophobia in Uganda, John and Paul could hold hands in the streets of the capital Kampala and kiss in night clubs.
Then the nightmare started — people began insulting and then assaulting them, and then they had to run away to Kenya. The couple have been in Nairobi since May last year.
Like other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, they came to this urban jungle seeking anonymity, said an official running a program that looks after these refugees.
His organization, which last year alone looked after 67 LGBT cases in Kenya, did not want to be named for fear of endangering its refugees.
Some have fled a strict application of Islamic law in Somalia, others are running from general sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and yet others have fled a climate of growing hostility elsewhere in east Africa.
Some hope to be able to find refuge in Western countries sympathetic to their plight, such as the US.
In December last year, US President Barack Obama said fighting discrimination against gays should be at the forefront of US diplomacy. And last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told African leaders they must respect gay rights, in an unusually outspoken statement at an African Union summit.
“One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said at the meeting in Addis Ababa.
In Kampala, people “did not know we [gays] existed” until a member of parliament in 2009 proposed strengthening the law against homosexuality, which could already lead to a life sentence in prison, he said.
“People demonstrated against us, told us we were not human beings. We could not buy from shopkeepers,” said John, 26.
However, worse was to come.
A screaming tabloid headline encouraged its readers to “hang” homosexuals and in October 2010 published the names, photographs and addresses of more than 20 gays, including those of John and Paul.
“People started disappearing,” said John, who was beaten up several times.
Then Paul was attacked.
“I was watching a film when I heard a lot of noise,” the well-built 24-year-old said. “People had broken into my place, armed with stones, sticks and machetes.”
John, who was on his way to his boyfriend’s home, fled when he saw the attackers.
“To me, he was dead,” John remembered thinking of his partner.
Paul owes his life to the intervention of the police, who however immediately jailed him.
“I was physically abused, beaten, bleeding from everywhere,” he said with difficulty.
His friend, David Kato, a gay activist, intervened to get him freed.
Paul, whose home had been trashed and who no longer dared set foot in his three electronics shops, kept on hoping the situation would improve. That was until Kato was brutally murdered just more than a year ago, found bludgeoned to death at home outside Kampala on Jan. 26 last year.
The killing sparked widespread international condemnation, including from Obama, who decried such crimes as “unconscionable” and said: “LGBT rights are not special rights; they are human rights.”
After Kato’s murder, Paul decided to join John who had gone into hiding in Busia, near the Kenyan border.
Their fellow Ugandan, Danie, 31, avoided getting beaten up before her arrest because she never revealed she was transgender.