Ugandan LGBTI advocate brings somber message to Columbia

By Samuel Charles

Within a week of fellow Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex advocate David Kato’s murder, Frank Mugisha brought a sobering message to Columbia during his Jan. 31 visit.

At the Ferguson Lecture Hall in the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Mugisha told students that because of the Ugandan government’s strictly conservative anti-homosexual policies, he and other activists have banded together to form Sexual Minorities Uganda, an advocacy group which aims to increase the rights of Ugandans who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation. He is currently the executive director of SMUG.

“We are not advocating for the right to get married,” Mugisha said. “The only thing we are advocating for is to be accepted.”

Five days before Mugisha visited Columbia, David Kato, advocacy officer of SMUG, was murdered in his home. Mugisha said Kato had been receiving death threats since the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone published a story in October 2010 outing “Uganda’s Top Homos.” The headline for the story read “Hang Them.” Kato’s photo was displayed on the front page and people’s home addresses were also included in the story.

“My friend was murdered at 2 p.m. in broad daylight in his own house,” Mugisha said of Kato. “There’s no safety at all.”

Mugisha went on to recite a message Kato often used to garner hope: “The struggle has been there. I’ve struggled for the rights in all of Africa, and when I come back to Uganda, I struggle. We have done this work, and we will continue to do this work.” do this work.”

Jane Saks, the executive director of Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media, spoke highly of the work Mugisha has already done at age 25.

“I have grown to admire him as a leader and as a young man making courageous decisions who started making those kinds of decisions as an even younger man,” Saks said.

She went on to applaud Illinois’ Gov. Pat Quinn, who earlier that day signed a bill that legalized Illinois civil unions.

“It’s a historic milestone,” Saks said. “It addresses legal inequities and we hope it will be a leveraging tool to open up more rights.”

One of SMUG’s biggest challenges is the anti-homosexuality bill proposed by Uganda’s parliament in 2009, Mugisha said.

Currently, it is illegal to be a homosexual in Uganda. The proposed bill aims to institute the death penalty for being a homosexual living with HIV/AIDS. The bill would also criminalize homosexuals from coming out.

Section 145 entitled “Unnatural Offences,” of the Ugandan Penal Code Act of 1950 states: “Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature commits an offense and is liable to imprisonment for life.”

In Uganda, it is common for homosexuals to be denied medical treatment based on their sexual orientation, Mugisha said.

“There is a lot of stigma from health practitioners because there is no research on HIV/AIDS],” he said.

Mugisha said people are able to relate to his struggle, which helps build community.

“When I came out and started telling people my story, people related and understood,” Mugisha said. “I thought if people went and told their own families, it might help [people] understand that we’re not aliens, we don’t abuse anyone, we’re like anyone else.”