We Just Want To Live in Peace

Sunday, January 30, 2011
By ugandansabroad

By Rebecca Harshbarger and Arao Ameny

NEW YORK (Ugandans Abroad)— An attacker bludgeoned David Kato, a prominent gay rights’ activist in Uganda, with a hammer used for metal sheets, inciting grief and shock around the world.  Kato was known as the most prominent gay rights’ activist back home, and his death last Wednesday was a major loss for those working for human rights in Uganda.

The loss of David Kato, a prominent human rights activist, is great for Uganda.

His colleagues described Kato as courageous, fearless and selfless.

Kato served as the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities in Uganda (SMUG), a nonprofit based in Kampala, and he was working on three court cases when he passed away.

One of his closest colleagues, 27-year-old Frank Mugisha, spoke about the legacy of Kato in New York City at the New School’s Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, as well as his own experiences coming out in Uganda.  Mugisha is the executive director of SMUG.

Historically, Ugandan culture has been receptive towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, but the country has become extremely hostile in recent decades, both legally and culturally.  The popularity of the evangelical Christian movement in Uganda in the 1990s, and the support of international anti-gay activists, has played a major role in fueling homophobia and violence back home.

43-year-old human rights' activist David Kato was killed last Wednesday. SMUG.

Mugisha, based in Kampala, struggled with feelings of same-sex attraction when he went to boarding school as a child.  “As a young man, I had ambitions, I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot, a model,” he said.  “I tried to change myself.”  Mugisha studied very hard, and asked God to change his sexual orientation if he performed well in class.  “If I have good grades, can’t I be attracted to girls?” he said.  “I’d ask God.”

He heard that if you like the same gender, you can sit in the sun for seven days, and become attracted to the opposite sex.  He tried this many times, but it never worked. Other times, he would leave an object somewhere, and hoped that if it was moved when he came back, he would become straight.

Frank Mugisha, a human rights' defender in Uganda, and executive director of Sexual Minorities in Uganda. Alex Rud.

Finally, when he was sixteen, he couldn’t live with the feelings anymore, and decided to tell his mother.  “She didn’t take it lightly,” he said.  “She cried.  She told me she had a solution—someone will help you.  I said, I’ve been waiting my whole life.”

He began seeking the help of a man who asked him to repeat Bible verses, while instructing him about the dangers of sexual acts between men.  The man showed him films about people with anal problems, as well as those living with HIV.

This didn’t help Mugisha, who had abstained from sexual activity his whole life.  “I started running away from home during holidays,” he said.  Rather than going to the man for instruction, he would sneak away, and his grades slipped when he was at school.  Finally, he stopped going altogether.

David Kato in court, with LGBT activists back home.

Then he met someone who told him more about gay people around the world, and said there were many living normal lives.  Simultaneously, his community began to understand him better, and Mugisha’s family started to support him for who he was.

“I started to get friends,” he said.  When he went to university, he lived freely, without concealing his sexual identity, and other gay students began to seek him out for support.

“Many gay people came to my room—so that it got labeled the gay room,” Mugisha said.  “It got hostile.”  Concerned about his security, Mugisha moved off-campus, and the quality of his life improved.  Through the Internet, he discovered an international gay community, and began writing about his experiences.

Frank Mugisha, speaking at the Transregional Center for Democracy in New York City. Alex Rud.

“That’s how David learnt about me,” he said, reflecting on his slain mentor and friend.  David helped pioneer Sexual Minorities in Uganda (SMUG), and encouraged Frank to get involved.  Ultimately, Frank became the executive director of the organization.

In 2007, the members of the group decided to come out to in a press conference.  Some wore masks, to show the way it felt to live in Ugandan society, while others showed their face.   “Anyone could be behind this mask,” Mugisha said, remembering.  “It could be your son, brother or uncle.”

During the conferences, activists called for a public health policy that would include gay men and women, particularly in regards to HIV, and asked religious institutions in Uganda to not demonize their community.

“We were fed up of being mistreated,” Mugisha said.  “I met girls who had been raped by their own relatives, who wanted to make them straight.”  Gay women would tell him that “they constantly force me into sex at night so I can be a woman.   At church, they told me there are male demons inside of me.”

The campaign to live in peace in Uganda. Activists wore masks at the press conference. SMUG.

These violations of their rights were major reasons that they decided to hold the press conference, and to fight propaganda about gays and lesbians in Uganda, such as misinformation that they sodomize children, for instance.

“That’s not us,” Mugisha said, frustrated.  “We are LGBT, and we want to fit into society, the way we were in Ugandan culture before.”

The group held a 45-day campaign, calling for society to simply let gays and lesbians live in peace in Uganda.

Frank Mugisha speaks out. Alex Rud.

After the press conference and campaign, things got particularly ugly.  Pastor Martin Ssempa, a leader in the Makerere University Community Church, founded the Interfaith Family Culture Coalition Against Homosexuality in Uganda.

“They asked the police how could let this happen,” Mugisha said, referring to the press conference.  “[They said] it’s not African, it’s evil.  We had put out the visibility of the LGBT community in Uganda.  Our campaign was in all the local languages.  From that time on, it [the homophobia] intensified.  They brought in experts, evangelicals from America, because they couldn’t deal with us.”

The community says goodbye to their slain colleague. SMUG.

In March 2009, a group of American evangelicals traveled to Uganda, holding an antigay conference and rallies. They also helped the government draft the now-infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill.  Although gay Ugandan activists have been accused of bringing Western culture to Uganda, the evangelical movement in Uganda and its recent antigay rhetoric has large international support.

Before the Americans came, gay rights’ activists in Uganda were on high alert.  “They will preach against your movement, and destroy everything you’ve done,” some individuals warned Mugisha.  During the conference they held, Mugisha recalled that they told participants that Uganda needed a strong law against homosexuality, even though Uganda had colonial-era laws that made homosexuality illegal.

Frank Mugisha and David Kato shared many experiences fighting for human rights in Uganda.

“There were so many lies,” Mugisha said.  Antigay activists told many people in Uganda that gays get hooked on homosexuality, and teach other people, while getting a lot of money from the West.  The goal, they say, is to rid Africa of its people.

“They went around with all their propaganda and lies,” he said.   “Parliament asked [MP] David Bahati to come up with the bill.”

Before the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was drafted, a group of American evangelicals met with the Ugandan parliament for four hours.  Ultimately, its provisions included the extradition of gay Ugandans living abroad in the diaspora, the death penalty for gay Ugandans living with HIV, and life in jail for gay people that do not have HIV.

“The bill was so extreme.  The President of the U.S. criticized the bill, Sweden said they’d cut aid,” he said. “This bill got stalled in Parliament.  They keep inviting evangelicals from America…. they keep inciting the community.”

David Kato won his case against Kampala tabloid, The Rolling Stone. AP.

When tabloid Rolling Stone released its famous issue last October that had “100 pictures of Uganda’s top homos,” they put now slain activist David Kato on the front page, with the phrase “hang them” in large font.  Mugisha was also featured in the newspaper.

“After Rolling Stone, we started living in constant fear,” he said.  “Inside were the talking points of Scott Lively [an American evangelical who went to Uganda] and Martin Ssempa.  He said we were recruiting, and gave an exclusive interview.”

SMUG sued the Rolling Stone, and won the case.  Still, the harassment and intimidation continued to escalate.

Although the Ugandan police believe Kato’s death might have been the result of a violent robbery, human rights activists back home are skeptical.  “His role was very huge in the LGBT community,” he said.  “David was murdered at his house by someone who came at his home, and hammered him.  They said he was hammered several times, and his brains shattered on the floor.  He was found in blood by neighbors.”

David Kato's burial in Uganda, after the human rights activist was murdered last week. SMUG.

Mugisha shared many of his fond memories of Kato with the crowd.  When Kato was killed, he had successfully sued the Rolling Stone newspaper for publishing the photos and addresses of individuals they said were gay.  The second case was in Uganda’s High Court, where he was suing the Ugandan police for arresting him for allegedly committing sodomy in a bar, which Kato denied.  He was also supporting the legal defense of a man who had been imprisoned for sodomy.

“David had picked very many people out of prison, he would stand as surety for so many people,” Mugisha recalled.  “Someone to stand in for them because their own families were saying we cannot stand in for homosexuals.  We cannot stand in for people who have shamed our family… so David was standing in for them.”

Whenever Kato would read in the newspaper of gay activists being harassed or imprisoned in Uganda, he would want to travel to their village or town immediately.  He helped many people throughout Uganda leave jail on bail, and helped people learn how to talk to their families and communities about their sexual orientation.

“David Kato’s death is a tragic loss to the human rights community,” said Maria Burnett, the senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group, in a statement.  ”David had faced the increased threats to Ugandan LGBT people bravely and will be sorely missed.

Kato would even sell his own property to help people cover their legal expenses, as well as pay for transportation to locations that were far away.

Frank Mugisha calls for the peace and dignity of LGBT people in Uganda. Alex Rud.

“Many times he was beaten, arrested and he still called me.  I picked him out of prison more than five times… he is the kind of person that would read something in the media that said an LGBT person has been arrested or harassed somewhere, and would say, we need to go,” Mugisha said.  “I told David it is so dangerous, and he is like, don’t be a coward, we need to go, we need to go.  This is what you stand for.   And before you think about it or talk to anyone about it, we are on our way going to that place, however dangerous it is.”

As recently as 25 years ago, Mugisha said in his culture that gay men and women had a special place in Ugandan society.  There was no specific name for them, but people understood their lifestyle.  “Some had spiritual places, like rainmakers, some were traditional healers,” he said.  “They had special roles for the king.  They were a special people.”

Individuals in some professions, such as hairdressing, were also often gay.  Transgendered people were also a part of Ugandan society, often taking on a new male or female name, and living in their villages as the gender they identified with.  “People were not persecuted at all,” Mugisha said.  “Most just existed—they just lived and existed.”

Mugisha said the anti-gay sentiment that has swept Uganda has also spread in Kenya, Burundi, and Nigeria.  The anti-gay bill, though stalled, has not been halted.  “The sponsor of the bill said it will come back again in March to be discussed,” Mugisha said.  Uganda’s elections will be held in February.

Mugisha hopes that the international progressive movement around the world will help Ugandans back home counter the global anti-gay movement that has taken a strong interest in Uganda.  He also hopes the diaspora will support gay Ugandans back home so they can live in peace and freedom.

“We are one African family,” he said.  “It’s not Western influence.  We encourage the Ugandan community in the diaspora to speak out—come out and say the rights of gay people should be respected.”

David Kato speaks out against recruitment rhetoric at a press conference. SMUG.

Mugisha said SMUG has been trying to work with the Uganda North American Association, and tried to speak to the diaspora during the speaking tour he is currently holding in the U.S.  Unfortunately,  this opportunity was not realized—even in the diaspora, speaking about sexual identity can be very difficult.

It’s “very difficult for a Ugandan,” Mugisha said.  “You can’t even talk about sex with your family or parents.  It’s a taboo in Africa.”

At the end of the day, he added, LGBT people are not asking for “the right for marriages or pride marches in Kampala city,” he said.  “We just want to live in peace.”

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in New York, who used to work in Uganda.  You can follow her on twitter at rebeccaugust.  Arao Ameny is also a New York-based journalist for Ugandans Abroad.  She is interested in issues like Ugandan cultural identities, Lango and other Ugandan languages, and women’s rights.

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