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4 min

Resolute warrior

Xtra sits down with Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Credit: Adam Coish

Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha.

For the past two years, Ugandan gay activists have been sounding an international alarm for solidarity as they fight an odious piece of legislation that, if passed, could be a death sentence for gay people.

The bill — dubbed the “kill the gays bill” — proposes longer jail terms for homosexual acts than already exist, including a life sentence in certain circumstances and the death penalty in others (although some reports suggest that recommendation has been removed). Gay Ugandans live under a constant threat of violence, with a hostile government and a fervently homophobic culture.

Frank Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and a leader in the fight against the anti-homosexuality bill. Mugisha visited Toronto and Ottawa recently as the keynote speaker for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s fifth Symposium on HIV, Law and Human Rights.

Xtra: What is the status of the anti-homosexuality bill right now?

Frank Mugisha: Now, as we speak, the bill is still in the committee of Parliament. Recently, [Speaker Rebecca Kadaga] has expressed interest to bring up this legislation for debate on the floor of Parliament, but she hasn’t been able to do it. But the bill sits on the order paper of Parliament, which means it could come up anytime, any day.

What is it like to live in this aggressively homophobic climate?

The uncertainty is very challenging. It’s not just about the bill. This is about my life and the lives of other Ugandan activists. We are also uncertain about what could happen to you when you leave your house in the morning to go to work, or do anything you want to do. If you want to go to the beach, something could happen to you. You could be attacked by people and beaten.

You have an international profile, and celebrity, which probably provides some level of protection.

Exactly.

How has the international attention on Uganda’s homophobia affected life for activists and ordinary LGBT people?

In every movement, we need allies. We need friends. And the international pressure has created a lot of that. Also, our politicians, our government, have been concerned about the international community focusing a lot on LGBT issues. It creates a fear in them that this could be the movement. This could be the struggle that brings the world together. It also legitimizes our work. Before, officials said, “There are no homosexuals in Uganda.” Overall, the attention has been good. But there are some negative parts as well. I will start with what happened here with Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament and your prime minister.

You mean Foreign Minister John Baird. Last year, Baird criticized Uganda’s parliamentary speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, for the country’s anti-gay legislation at the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec.

That kind of approach [is a problem]. You know, I understand where it comes from. It comes from passion. I could express it myself. But the way my Speaker reacted was very defensive. We have said many times that we appreciate so much the international support, but it is very good when it is well thought out, and it is good if it is done on a more diplomatic level, because every person is going to be defensive if you put them on the spot.

How should Canada be helping and supporting LGBT Ugandans?

The best way to support us is to have many consultations with us activists on the ground and work with people working in Uganda, such as the Canadian consulate in Uganda or in Nairobi. The problem with public statements is we get the problems, the people on the ground, because then we are scapegoated. Then again, my Speaker may have had her own political agenda and used that moment as a platform to express her own political agenda. Maybe she was looking for publicity, and this was the best opportunity. So, we shouldn’t give people those opportunities.

What has been the influence of Christian missionaries?

Ugandans believe so much in Christianity. About 85 percent of the population is Christian. It surrounds everything: our politics, our economy, everything. So when a Christian comes to Uganda and says, “Don’t accept homosexuality,” Ugandans immediately listen to the Christian. I will say that religious propaganda in my country has increased the homophobia, although we had levels of homophobia before. Religious propaganda has increased it so much. But it was always there. The homophobia was introduced by the British, who came to Uganda and made it illegal for people to engage in same-sex acts. So I ask Ugandans, If there were no homosexuals, why would the British even need to create such a law?

One of those American evangelists is a man named Scott Lively, who is said to be one of the key influencers of the bill. Recently, you launched a lawsuit for crimes against humanity and his role in the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda. What is the status of this case?

Yes, we are suing Scott Lively in Massachusetts’ court under the Alien Tort Statute. We are working with the Center for Constitutional Rights out of New York. Both sides have given their submission in January. Now we are just waiting for the judgment. But this case is not about who wins and who loses. For us it’s about holding Scott Lively accountable for what he did in Uganda and through a court of law, show him that what he did was wrong. That has consequences. We also want to send a message to other extreme Christians. You cannot come from your country and do this in Uganda. And if you do, we are coming after you.

Last year you and some other LGBT activists planned Uganda’s first ever Pride march, which was incredibly brave. The pictures that circulated on social media were so inspiring. I loved your outfit. You looked fabulous in your white suit and rainbow sash. Tell me about that day. And will we see a second Uganda Pride?

[Laughs] Yes, we are planning Pride Week for late July and the parade in early August. One of the best moments of my life was being at that parade. My colleague Kasha [Jacqueline Nabagesera] and I opened Pride Week. We were so excited. I looked around the room at all the faces and thought that there were so many people that would not be able to come to the parade, but at least they are here. They were afraid to step outside. Then I think, we will look back in many years and say, “Why was Ugandan society so concerned? Why was there so much fear?” Maybe by then the parade will have thousands of people. So, that day, I was really just thinking about the future. I was looking at the people and multiplying them by millions. That was such an inspiration for me. I thought to myself, “How can we be wrong?” The world is standing with us.