The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Activist speaks on sexual minorities in Uganda

Christian Myers | Friday, April 27, 2012

Winning the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award has brought activist Frank Mugisha respect in the United States, but in his home country of Uganda, he and his cause still meet with a great deal of enmity.

Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and works to promote the rights of LGBTQ Ugandans. He spoke at the event “Human Rights and Homophobia: A Conversation with Frank Mugisha” in the Andrews Auditorium of Geddes Hall yesterday.

The Progressive Student Association (PSA) sponsored the event in conjunction with the Kellogg Institute’s Africa Working Group.

PSA co-president Alex Coccia said Mugisha’s work has estranged him from his family and forced him to flee Uganda on repeated occasions. (Editor’s Note: Coccia is a Viewpoint columnist for The Observer.)

Mugisha said a pending bill in the Ugandan parliament might criminalize both homosexuality and support for openly homosexual individuals. There is also a provision in the bill that would create a death penalty for serial offenders, Mugisha said.

“I would receive the death penalty under this bill,” he said.

The bill was first introduced in 2009 three months after a group of American evangelicals, including activist Scott Lively, came to Uganda to campaign against homosexuality, Mugisha said. Support for the bill is estimated to be around 85 percent in the parliament and will pass if it reaches the floor.

Mugisha said the bill and propaganda from Ugandan religious leaders has changed the way homosexuals are treated in Ugandan communities.

“Before the bill was introduced we had gay and lesbian people who lived in the community but were not persecuted,” Mugisha said.

He said people in Ugandan villages do not always have a sense of the difference between bills in parliament and established laws. He said neighbors turned in one homosexual man who had lived in a community for twenty years. Mugisha said the people only acted because they believed it was required by law.

There is also a prevalent characterization of homosexuality as “not African,” which extends to the leadership of many African nations, Mugisha said. He said many Ugandans, and Africans generally, view homosexuality as a cultural construct of Europe and the United States.

“Almost all African leaders say homosexuality is abnormal,” Mugisha said. “Many African leaders say homosexuality is Western, not African.”

Ignorance on the subject of homosexuality is the primary reason for homophobia and the main obstacle to his efforts, Mugisha said.

“My biggest struggle is against ignorance,” he said. “I wish I could talk to every Ugandan one-on-one and tell them there is no disease they are going to catch.”

Mugisha said it is difficult for Ugandans to recognize homosexual rights as a human-rights issue. He said he has to explain that his homosexuality does not harm anyone else while the government claims homophobia does harm others.

Mugisha said he is also frustrated by the opposition to homosexuality in Ugandan churches, which also believe homosexuality is the result of Western influence.

“There are no Western values, Eastern values, Southern values or Northern values when the issue is humanity,” he said. “When you are talking about God as love it is all the same.”

Mugisha said he is a Catholic and urges other homosexual Ugandans to retain their faith.

“I can’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I don’t believe in God,’ that’s not me,” Mugisha said. “Being a gay person, lesbian person, transgender person or bisexual person does not prevent you from being Christian.”

SMUG’s greatest success is the visibility the organization has brought to the issue internationally and within Uganda, he said.

SMUG has been successful with two legal cases in Uganda, Mugisha said. One was against the government for abuse of homosexuals by police, and the other was against a paper which called for the hanging of perceived homosexuals.

“We’ve created a visibility in my country. The government can’t say there are no homosexuals in Uganda anymore,” Mugisha said.