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Emotional vigil for murdered gay rights activist David Kato

Dozens gather to pay respects

Credit: photo: Andrea Houston

Notisha Massaquoi said David Kato knew the risk he was taking. He knew fighting for gay rights in Uganda would eventually lead to his death.

“Many of us are still in shock and grieving,” she said, speaking at a vigil Feb 1 to honour the slain Ugandan equal rights activist at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.

“I hate to say this, but it’s probably not going to be the last death of a queer activist in Africa,” she said, adding that she worked with Kato at the International AIDS Conference in July. “Despite the risks, he persevered. Our last correspondence with David was Tuesday morning before he was murdered.

“I’m still trying to make sense of it. This is not going to stop.”

The room was silent as approximately 50 people solemnly bowed their heads.

But for OmiSoore Dryden, that wasn’t nearly enough people.

“I’m surprised and shocked this room isn’t packed with people waiting in the hall and all of us spilling out into the street,” she said.

One after another, people in the room stood to speak about Kato. Some knew him personally; others didn’t, but all said they have been deeply affected by his death and continue to be profoundly influenced by his passion for human rights.

“David Kato has changed the lives of millions of people, and yes, we did see this coming,” said Alison Duke, who is travelling around the world making a documentary about queer activists.

Kato was an activist with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), one of 100 gay activists targeted by a Ugandan newspaper campaign. He was beaten to death with a hammer at his home on Jan 27.

Just weeks before he was murdered, he successfully sued a local newspaper, Rolling Stone, for publishing his name on a list of the nation’s “top homosexuals” under the headline “Hang Them.”

Punam Khosla expressed the rage many in the room felt.

“This is not just the murder of a gay man,” she said, her hand slicing through the air. “David was murdered by settlers, people from the west. The image portrayed in the media of Africa is barbaric and bleak, just people killing each other.

“Gay marriage has not given us our liberation. When I heard David was murdered, I wept. We should all weep.”

Those who knew him painted a picture of an incredible man who never stopped fighting. Duke said, “Kato was his own 519 [Community Centre].” His death is a huge setback to human rights.

“He opened up his home to anyone. He would give up his bed and sleep on the floor,” she said.

George Ssemukuutu, chair of Toronto’s Pride Uganda, who organized the vigil, says gay people are being targeted in Uganda. Activists say few Africans are openly gay, fearing imprisonment, persecution and violence.

“There are no rights for sexual minorities in Uganda,” he said. “We need to go beyond laws. There needs to be a concerted change of mind.”

Since 2009 American evangelicals have been busy spreading hate and fear by instructing Ugandans that the gay movement is an evil institution, said York University professor Nancy Nicol, who spoke first.

“The religious right in the US has called Uganda ‘ground zero,’ which is very interesting language. They are opening more churches and moving in,” she says. The New York Times has reported that the religious right is hosting workshops on how to turn gay people straight and working to convince people that “gay men sodomize teenage boys.”

Nicol is very concerned the government will be reelected and unravel all the work Kato has done.

Community Advisory Panel member Michael Went told everyone to “spread the word. Get involved. Write to politicians and community leaders and ask for their support.”

At the Pride Toronto general meeting on Jan 27, the day Kato was murdered, El-Farouk Khaki led the room in a moment of silence in honour of Kato.

He said Canadians must look beyond their borders and stand alongside activists fighting hate in other countries.

“The notion that homophobia is done is simply not accurate,” Went said. “There was a gaybashing on Jan 22 just down the street. This is a vicious cycle we have the ability to stop. Pride can’t just be a big party.”

Samuel Getachew, who ran for council in Ward 43, said, “Human rights is a Canadian value that has nothing to do with being left- or rightwing.”

“We need to make this a Canadian issue. Not just African,” he said. “South African lesbians are repeatedly [“correctively”] raped. We can’t leave any stone unturned when fighting for justice.”

Uganda’s anti-gay movement first won international notoriety in October 2009 when a bill was tabled in the country’s parliament proposing the death penalty for some homosexual acts. A parliamentary debate on that bill was quietly postponed under international pressure, but rights groups fear some form of it may pass after a presidential election in February that President Yoweri Museveni is expected to win.

On Feb 1, NDP MP Bill Siksay asked a question in Canada’s House of Commons about the government’s response to the murder.

Reports say a man arrested for the murder of Kato has confessed, but activists are calling it “too neat” and are demanding proof from police.