Openly Gay Award Winner Fights Ugandan Homophobia

Living in Uganda, where homosexuality is a crime, Frank Mugisha advocated for LGBT rights and consequently lost his job, friends and family. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his precarious life there, and what it means to earn the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program, we'll hear from Garland Jeffreys. He was a hit on the music scene as a young artist in the late 1970s, both for his music and for his message. He followed up with albums his fans treasure, but he's been out of the studio for a decade until now. We'll find out what he's been up to and what he and his music are saying now. That's later.

But first, we are returning to a story we've been following out of Uganda in East Africa. Just over a year ago, in October 2010, I spoke with a man named Frank Mugisha. He directs a group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. He's an openly gay man and an advocate for LGBT issues in his country, where engaging in homosexual conduct is a criminal offense.

When we spoke with him last, his name had just been published by a local paper, part of a group of 100 other people identified as gays or lesbians. The paper's headline read, "Hang Them." I asked him how he was doing.

FRANK MUGISHA: I feel very insecure. I feel very threatened at this moment. I feel very unsafe because I do not know who (unintelligible) this is a cause for sterner sanctions, a cause for killing of homosexuals.

MARTIN: That newspaper caused an international outcry, along with reports that the Ugandan parliament was considering a controversial bill, which would punish some homosexual acts with death or life imprisonment and require people with knowledge of homosexual acts to report the persons involved.

The bill was shelved last year, but there are reports that the parliament is about to take it up again in a matter of days, in fact. Meanwhile, Frank Mugisha has recently been honored with the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his, quote, "unbending advocacy for gay rights in Uganda in the face of deep-rooted homophobia."

We caught up with him just after he received the award and I told him that I appreciated the chance to meet him in person.

MUGISHA: Thank you. Good to meet you, too.

MARTIN: We describe you as an overly gay man. What is it like to be an openly gay man in Uganda? Was it always as difficult as it is now or as it seems to be now?

MUGISHA: Right now, it is more difficult than it was before. Before, I came out openly to, I would say, to the media of the whole Uganda, of the whole world, that is, by doing activism.

MARTIN: By doing activism? OK, OK.

MUGISHA: Yeah. I was only out to my family and to my friends. And I looked at people who were out. No, they were not activists, but they were simply gay people who were known in the areas that they are gay. For example, if two men living together - they have no children and if asked, they would confess that they, you know - I'm a gay person. But such people were never harassed. They were never taken to the police.

The only thing that happened to them was they were given names. You know, they would give them nicknames or funny names. You know, the man who lives with another man, the man who acts like a woman, the man who has no children. But in the local languages. And that was it, but they were never beaten on the streets or harassed.

In 2009, when the law was introduced, we started seeing these people who have lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years, 15 years being thrown into jail, being beaten on the streets, being evicted from their homes or thrown out from their villages. So, the homophobia has greatly intensified.

MARTIN: Do I recall it right? I remember when we talked before, I think you told us that you came out when you were around - what - 14, 15, as a teenager.

MUGISHA: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: OK. But, you know, in this country, there are a number of openly gay individuals serving at, you know, all levels. I mean, there are openly gay members of Congress, openly gay mayors of major cities, television actors and so forth. Do you see my point? I mean, there are still issues that people confront. But what about you, did you think that's what your life would be or did you have a different idea, a vision?

MUGISHA: When I came out, I just wanted to deal with my innermost. You know, I wanted not to feel the guilt of people looking at me and not knowing who I was. So, I wanted my friends and my family to understand me and to know me. I did not want anything beyond that. And, of course, I did not do it on my own because I would tell people and I would tell other people, so I would out myself and people would also out me.

MARTIN: But what was that like? Was that hard? Did people tease you or pick on you? Or was it just, oh, that's, you know, Frank and he's telling us something about himself?

MUGISHA: It was hard. You know, the challenge was that people I did not tell who are told by other people, and my friends - if I tell one friend and the friend tells my other friends, it was very difficult for me to relate to them again because some of them, even before I approach them, I already have got news or information that they don't want to ever talk to me again.

MARTIN: But you didn't think it would have life or death consequences, for example. You didn't think that you would be kept out of school...

MUGISHA: No. I did not envision that. No.

MARTIN: ...that people would target you for...

MUGISHA: I did not envision that I would be - it would be so difficult. Of course, I thought I could get thrown out of school. That fear was there. And then the bashing and the bullying. That I expected it, as well, because it happened to other people I knew.

And, for me, I thought I was different, you know, because when they talked about the people who were bullied because of being gay, the message that followed was different from what I was inside. The message that followed was, they are evil. They are sinners. They are after children.

But me, I wasn't that. So I kind of thought, maybe I'm different. Maybe I'm a different gay person from what they are saying. But later, I realized, when I received the same challenges, I realized, oh, so now I'm in the same category of what they were talking about. And that moved me now into activism because now I said, now, let me change the way I'm perceived because it's not enough to tell people that this is what I am. Then, when I'm telling them this is what I am, they're still not understanding me. Let me now start explaining.

MARTIN: I just wanted to remind many people that they might have heard of your name in connection with this legislation. Of course, there was this newspaper article, which was, of course, very frightening. But there was also this legislation that is said to have had ties to a number of American evangelical pastors that would broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations, including imposing the death penalty for sex with minors or people with HIV. Prison for people who failed to report homosexual activity to police. I just wanted to ask. What is the status of that legislation now?

MUGISHA: The law was introduced in 2009 and it went through parliament. But when our parliament was closing, the law did not make it to the floor of parliament for debate or to be discussed. And, for us, we thought, according to the parliamentary rule, the law is dead.

But recently, parliament again moved a motion and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was among those laws, which will be brought back. So right now, as we speak, we're just waiting for the moment when the law is going to be brought back to the floor of parliament.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask - and if you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Frank Mugisha. He is an activist for LGBT issues in Uganda. He was recently awarded a prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award related to his activism. When this bill was first put forward, were you surprised?

MUGISHA: I was not surprised, because there was talk about the bill by politicians in Uganda and by a government official who was then the minister of ethics and integrity. He kept on talking about the strong law, strong law. And I was surprised by the content of the bill, because when they strong law I did not know that they would bring a law that will have such penalties.

MARTIN: I did want to say we've been following this since the beginning, since 2009. I just want to play a short clip from a conversation we had last year with David Bahati. He's a member of the Ugandan parliament. He's one of the key voices in support of this measure and this is him explaining why he thinks this is necessary. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID BAHATI: I'm just trying to make sure that there is a way to protect our children and make sure that our traditional family, the character that we believe in, is not polluted.

MARTIN: What is your sense of its chances if parliament does, in fact, take it up?

MUGISHA: If the bill goes to the floor of parliament, it is most definitely going to pass into law because we have got about 90 percent of the Uganda parliament in support of the law to be passed.

MARTIN: Well, what will you do if it does pass?

MUGISHA: The law has a clause which says all homosexuals should be arrested within 24 hours, because they say you have to report every non-gay person within 24 hours. If you don't do it, then you become a criminal. And everyone in my neighborhood knows I'm gay, so I would be the first person. Maybe 10 people would even report me to the police in less than 24 hours, so I would be put to jail.

If I'm not in jail, we have to put up a legal challenge. First of all, we need to challenge how the parliament is bringing back this law that, according to parliamentary rules, was supposed to end with the last parliament. Second, we have to use our constitution because about 60 percent of this law is unconstitutional according to the constitution of Uganda. And then we have to shake regional and international remedies, maybe go to the African Court or go to the United Nations and try to challenge this law. And if it is being challenged, then somehow we could protect some lives.

MARTIN: You know, from Malawi to Nigeria, we're seeing other efforts like this to increase sanctions for some kinds of homosexual behavior and then, at the same time, we have donor countries like the U.S. and Britain offering at least moral support to LGBT, you know, activists and making some threats to impose certain sanctions if laws like this are passed, which the U.S. and Britain and other countries consider an affront to human rights.

I'm wondering whether that kind of international attention helps or hurts because you hear somebody like David Bahati say what he says he's doing is protecting the traditional life and culture of Uganda against what he considers outside intrusion.

MUGISHA: It is the double sword. First of all, I think it is very dangerous for our political leaders to single out homosexuality as the only issue of human rights violation in Uganda because the message it sends is that the other violations of human rights are not issues. So, it would be very important as political leaders talk about homosexuality as a human rights violation toward the LGBT community to include issues on violation of women's rights, freedom of assembly, freedom to demonstrate, like we've seen in Uganda for being tear-gassed for our freedom of assembly.

Include all of those violations together, and then the human rights organizations will also feel they need to work with us. Then, too, in circumstances where countries - you can not dictate for countries. If they United States or the U.K. is mandate is not to find a country that has a death penalty where it is very clear, then they won't give money to Uganda because they have a death penalty on homosexuality.

And the other thing is something that could cause danger for us if it is very high political and it is in the media everywhere that, you know, you have to cut aid to Uganda because of homosexuality. The Uganda economy right now is very, very bad. So, people could come and attack us in our homes and say, you are the people who are stopping us from getting international aid. So, we really think such information should be on government level, government to government. Discuss, dialog and reach certain conclusions.

MARTIN: What does an award like this mean to you? The Kennedy name, of course, is very important in this country and around the world in some places. And this award is very much appreciated by many of the people who have gotten it in the past. But I wonder, what does it mean for you? Are you honored by it or does it make you, in a way, more of a target?

MUGISHA: First of all, I'd like to say, I've read a lot about Robert Kennedy and the work he did and his role in trying to highlight the issue of humanity and respect for any individual, despite how different we might be. So, for me, the award reaffirms those words that however different we are, we are all human. And also, it sends a very clear message that however different we are, we should embrace all human rights the same way.

And it sends a very clear message that homosexual rights, LGBT rights, are part of the broader human rights because the RFK Award has been given to people who are doing diverse, different areas of human rights. And then now, to follow 9/11, the award is given to me, who is doing LGBT rights. So, it is very clear that LGBT rights are part of the human rights.

And also, I would like to point out that I cannot easily be ignored in my country because many things - politicians in the country (unintelligible) have prove that what your - that even homosexuals are human rights. They are not human rights. That is immorality. You can not bring such issue and say you are advocating for human rights.

And now, we can not be ignored. The award gives me some level of high profile, where the government (unintelligible) that, you know, the whole world is watching. The whole world is watching in Uganda, so I can't be ignored. It gives me that level of high profile and some bit of security.

MARTIN: Are you having any fun while you're here?

MUGISHA: Yes. I hope to have some fun because in my country I can't have fun. So, I will be happy to use the chance here to have fun.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry there's an NBA lockout.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You can't go to a basketball game. Maybe there's something that'll be great. Do you think that there - as we mentioned - I hope you don't mind my mentioning that you are a young man.

MUGISHA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're only 29. Do you think that there will be a time when you can live openly in your own country without fear?

MUGISHA: I don't know, but I'm optimistic that the fear will reduce. At least, I will know - at least I want to live. I think, even if the community is very hostility, but the government is protecting me. That I can be able to go to the hospital and access treatment without discrimination, that I can be able to go to voluntary counseling and testing and I'm not going to be rejected. You know, a time like that. I feel a time like that might come. But changing the mind of the people in Uganda to accept homosexuality and understand who we are, that we are like anyone else, it is going to take a very, very, very long time.

MARTIN: Frank Mugisha is executive director of a group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. He is an LGBT activist there. He's just been awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C. and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congratulations on this award. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MUGISHA: Thank you so much for hosting me.

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