Gay rights are human rights, says activist Frank Mugisha. But in many countries, that is not the case. Uganda, Mugisha's home, is one of those countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense. A proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill would make homosexual activities punishable by life in prison.
For years, Mugisha, an Ugandan advocate for the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, has worked tirelessly for equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people in the East African country.
If you are gay in Uganda you must watch your back for fear of attacks or arrest. Many who have come out to their families are shunned. People lose their jobs. You are not guaranteed basic human rights as other citizens of Uganda. It is not right, and Mugisha wants change.
"A veil of silence enforced by thuggish street violence and official criminalization is falling over much of Africa. Being a gay activist is a sacrifice," Mugisha wrote in the New York Times in 2011. "You have to carefully choose which neighborhood to live in. You cannot go shopping on your own, let alone go clubbing or to parties. With each public appearance you risk being attacked, beaten or arrested by the police."
Mugisha began advocating for LGBTI rights and HIV/AIDS awareness as a university student in 2004. He launched the support group Icebreakers Uganda, which provides resources and support to those who are openly gay or are coming out. He was smuggled out of Uganda after being targeted for arrest. He has since returned and is now the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), where he continues to shine a light on one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
"We are driven by the conviction that we are part of a larger story of global human rights, and we will not give up until we have built the future we all deserve," he recently wrote.
In an April 2012 issue briefing on human rights and homophobia in Uganda, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights said:
Threats to the LGBTI community often result in physical harm. Statements made by public officials and the Ugandan media consistently reinforce homophobic sentiment, and at times advocate directly for violence against LGBTI people. One tabloid published the names and photographs of over 100 suspected LGBTI Ugandans, with a caption that read: “Hang Them.” Soon after, on January 26, 2011, LGBTI activist David Kato, whose picture had appeared on the front page, was brutally murdered inside his own home. Sadly, Mr. Kato’s case was not an isolated occurrence — death threats and physical violence against LGBTI people are common and seldom result in investigation by the government.
Mugisha has lost jobs and friends and become estranged from family because of his role in Uganda's rights movement but he continues to speak out.
The Root: The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award recognizes individuals who stand up, at great personal risk, to oppression in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights. Are you afraid for your safety, or even for your life?
Mugisha: I fear. I fear for what will happen to me from the community, from people around me, from my friends. But my biggest fear is not coming from the government because, as an activist, I have a little bit of protection. My biggest fear is from the everyday people on the street. From my neighbors. Because I don't have any security, I could be attacked and killed like my friend [David Kato] was.
Root: What is life like every day for gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities in Uganda?
Mugisha: There are different categories. If you are an activist, then you have to calculate and decide, "Should I take that street, should I go to that shopping mall, should I do this today, even?" Because you don't know where the harassment will come from.
Then you have an openly gay man who's not an activist — the fear is as he's doing his everyday work. He has to ask, is he going to be harassed, is he going to be beaten, is he going to be a target?
Then you have people who are not out, but they are gay. Their fear is the media. Their family finding out about them, the media finding out about them. Their workplaces finding out about them. They fear that they could be fired, that they could be thrown out of their homes.
Root: You have discussed the way the media fuel homophobia by outing people. What else is driving homophobia in Uganda?
Mugisha: Culture. People think homosexuality is not African, that [it] is from somewhere else, from the West. People believe the Bible has been very clear that homosexuality is a sin, and a big percentage of Uganda — 80 percent — is Christian, so that has also greatly increased homophobia.
Despite the efforts of Mugisha and SMUG, it appears that homophobia is rising in the nation. Just last week, Simon Lokodo, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, announced he would ban 38 non-governmental gay-rights groups that it accused of promoting homosexuality.
Lokodo has been accused by gay activists of orchestrating a hate campaign against gays, including "breaking up gay conferences and threatening to expel civil society groups he says promote homosexuality in the conservative East African country," writes the Associated Press. He is being sued by activists who say he violated the right of Ugandans to assemble when he had police break up a gay meeting in February.
You can help Frank Mugisha and SMUG battle discrimination by showing your solidarity with LGBTI people around the world by contacting your local lawmakers and clergy and urging them to stand up against acts of violence against LGBTI people. Use your voice to denouce the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill and spread the message that the bill threatens the rights of all Ugandans. Let the government of Uganda and other nations that discriminate against gays and lesbians know that their actions will no longer be tolerated.
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(Photo: Courtesy Rafto Foundation for Human Rights)