Frank Mugisha, the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate and executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda describes in the New York Times what it is like to be gay in Uganda.
When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced this month that the United States would use diplomacy to encourage respect for gay rights around the world, my heart leapt. I knew her words — “gay people are born into, and belong to, every society in the world”— to be true, but in my country they are too often ignored.
The right to marry whom we love is far from our minds. Across Africa, the “gay rights” we are fighting for are more stark — the right to life itself. Here, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer brutal attacks, yet cannot report them to the police for fear of additional violence, humiliation, rape or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities. We are expelled from school and denied health care because of our perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. If your boss finds out (or suspects) you are gay, you can be fired immediately.
People are outed in the media — or if they have gay friends, they are assumed to be “gay by association.” More benignly, if people are still single by the time they reach their early 20s, what Ugandans call a “marriage age,” others will begin to suspect that they are gay.
It is often assumed both in Africa and in the West that the objections to homosexuality is “cultural” and to “force” acceptance on is a form of “cultural imperialism.” Not so, says Mugisha.
Many Africans believe that homosexuality is an import from the West, and ironically they invoke religious beliefs and colonial-era laws that are foreign to our continent to persecute us.
The way I see it, homophobia — not homosexuality — is the toxic import. Thanks to the absurd ideas peddled by American fundamentalists, we are constantly forced to respond to the myth — debunked long ago by scientists — that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. For years, the Christian right in America has exported its doctrine to Africa, and, along with it, homophobia….
The attempt to make homosexuality a capital crime in the Ugandan legislature came as a direct result of the cultural export of Western homophobia, disguised as Christianity, as American culture warriors sought allies in Africa and Asia.
Another barrier to acceptance is that even Ugandans who not caught up in homophobic fever do not see equal rights for gays as a high-priority issue. They do not get the connection between the oppression of gays and economic and political repression in Africa. So the risk to gay rights activists is still very high because it is unlikely that sympathizers, who disapprove of violence against GLBT persons, will become advocacy.
Not all Ugandans are homophobic. Some say there are more pressing issues to worry about than gay people and believe we should have the same rights as anyone else. But they are not in power and cannot control the majority who want to hurt us.
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. 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.
I remember the moment when my friend David Kato, Uganda’s best-known gay activist, sat with me in the small unmarked office of our organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda. “One of us will probably die because of this work,” he said. We agreed that the other would then have to continue. In January, because of this work, David was bludgeoned to death at his home, with a hammer. Many people urged me to seek asylum, but I have chosen to remain and fulfill my promise to David — and to myself. My life is in danger, but the lives of those whose names are not known in international circles are even more vulnerable.
Still, I continue to hope. There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realize we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media. They realize we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them.