I’m heartbroken at my exile from Uganda. Don’t let them erase our queer community

I’ve been exiled from Uganda. As a non-binary photographer and activist, I’ve documented the realities of queer life in my home country for more than seven years. Now the anti-homosexuality bill, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on Monday, makes both my art and my existence punishable by jail, or even death.

Since the bill was approved by MPs in March, I’ve spent almost every waking hour crowdfunding and campaigning to support my community through this dark period in Uganda’s history.

Queer living in Uganda has long been difficult. When I was 15, singing bass in the church choir, I was forced to “pray the gay out of me”. I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers. I had no idea there was any kind of LGBTQ+ community. I thought that ebisiyaga – the Lugandan word for homosexuality – was something you ate.

Related: Ugandan president signs anti-LGBTQ+ law with death penalty for same-sex acts

Despite this, I eventually embraced my sexuality and gender identity, and found my chosen queer family in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. I took pictures of the people around me, attempting to document their beauty as much as their pain.

But at some point, I needed to breathe. I packed my bags and left for South Africa, where I won a fellowship to document queer stories and have been living for the past two years, along with my child, while still deeply connected to my community at home.

In December, I went back to my home town with intention. I wanted to reclaim my childhood memories, to remember little De as I really was. I wanted to flaunt my queerness, my newfound balls – oh boy! – green hair and all. I expected the whispers and insults – it didn’t surprise me when my grandmother told my father he is a failure for allowing this – but there was something else: the atmosphere had turned.

On the day of my flight, I was alerted that if I dared to return to Uganda I would be arrested at the airport

The bill was foreshadowed by a mass-media disinformation campaign fuelled by religious fundamentalism that makes life for LGBTQ+ people impossible. It far surpasses the impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, and today many Ugandans believe that being queer is the same as being a paedophile.

Hiding behind this child-protection rhetoric, the harassment and intimidation of LGBTQ+ people is encouraged and celebrated. When MPs passed the bill in March , they cheered and nodded as they erased us.

The new laws ensure this persecution by criminalising anyone perceived to be supporting an LGBTQ+ person, from landlords to journalists. My existence, as a non-binary person, is enough to hand me a 10-year prison sentence. For my artwork, deemed to be “promotion of homosexuality”, I face 20 years.

On the day of my flight in April, I was alerted that if I dared to return I would be arrested at the airport.

Even before this draconian bill was signed into law, the damage was done. Families who were once supportive turned their backs, fearing for their own safety. After the bill’s first reading, my Ugandan siblings called me to say they had lost their jobs, their homes and were being refused medical treatment.

Mob violence has been escalating. Every day, I receive brutal images of black bodies, naked and bruised. We are being slaughtered in the streets. With nowhere to turn, others have committed suicide. I’m torn, broken and heartbroken.

But I found hope in community. In March, together with other LGBTQ+ Ugandans (who remain anonymous for their own safety) and UK allies from the arts and activist community, in just four days I crowdfunded almost £15,000 online, to directly support at-risk individuals at home. More than 2,500 people have followed my hashtagwhatnext campaign on Instagram.

Money raised through our GoFundMe page and art events in South Africa, Europe and elsewhere will go straight to those who need it most. We’re sending funds to contribute towards costs such as bail for those imprisoned, emergency accommodation, legal and medical fees, visa and transportation costs for those leaving the country.

Let’s heal each other in the softest of ways. We are not to be discarded.

Donations can be made to DeLovie Kwagala’s crowdfunding page here