Frank Mugisha was only a teenager when he came out as gay to his family and classmates in Uganda, a country where that admission didn't just subject him to possible bullying; it put his life at risk.
Uganda is one of more than 70 countries worldwide that criminalize consensual gay conduct, and Mugisha says that 80 percent of Uganda's citizens now support a highly controversial piece of pending legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by death in certain cases and would criminalize the work of "LGBTI" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) organizations.
Since Mugisha joined other activists in coming out publicly during a 45-day media campaign in 2007, he has been targeted for arrest, fled the country and returned to work as director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an organization at the forefront of the gay-rights movement in the country. His Icebreakers Uganda group offers counseling and suicide-prevention services to those who are brave enough to be openly gay in a place where both law and pubic opinion deem such a lifestyle criminal.
Still just 29 years old, Mugisha does this work in a climate that's undeniably dangerous and hostile. His colleague, gay-rights activist David Kato, was murdered in January of this year after being featured in an anti-gay newspaper that "outed" people it said were gay and called on the government to kill them. (His killer was just sentenced to 30 years in jail.) Mugisha was identified the same way in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Mugisha was in Washington, D.C., this month to accept the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights' annual Human Rights Award, an honor that marks the beginning of a six-year partnership during which the RFK Center will support Mugisha's work and that of SMUG.
The Root talked to him about what life is like for sexual minorities in Uganda, the role of culture and religion in homophobia and what African Americans can do to help.
The Root: The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award recognizes individuals who stand up, at great personal risk, to oppression in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights. Are you afraid for your safety, or even for your life?
Frank Mugisha: I fear. I fear for what will happen to me from the community, from people around me, from my friends. But my biggest fear is not coming from the government because, as an activist, I have a little bit of protection. My biggest fear is from the everyday people on the street. From my neighbors. Because I don't have any security, I could be attacked and killed like my friend [David Kato] was.
FM: There are different categories. If you are an activist, then you have to calculate and decide, "Should I take that street, should I go to that shopping mall, should I do this today, even?" Because you don't know where the harassment will come from.
Then you have an openly gay man who's not an activist — the fear is as he's doing his everyday work. He has to ask, is he going to be harassed, is he going to be beaten, is he going to be a target?
Then you have people who are not out, but they are gay. Their fear is the media. Their family finding out about them, the media finding out about them. Their workplaces finding out about them. They fear that they could be fired, that they could be thrown out of their homes.
TR: You have discussed the way the media fuel homophobia by outing people. What else is driving homophobia in Uganda?
FM: Culture. People think homosexuality is not African, that [it] is from somewhere else, from the West. People believe the Bible has been very clear that homosexuality is a sin, and a big percentage of Uganda — 80 percent — is Christian, so that has also greatly increased homophobia.
But I've had a problem both with people racializing homophobia and also with saying homosexuality is imported. I think [it] is very important to recognize that there is homophobia in the United States, in Europe and in Africa. The question should be, what has made it increase?
When I was growing up, I knew people who lived together, man and man, as if they were married, and no one harassed them, no one arrested them. But today we are seeing this kind of new wave of religion that has come in and said the homosexuals you know are bad people.
TR: What role have U.S. evangelicals played in that new wave of religion?
FM: They talk about abortion; they talk about family values and all that. But in Uganda they've identified homosexuality as the issue they can pick on. They pick on so many issues, but they came to Uganda because Uganda is so Christian, and Ugandans are going to listen when they say homosexuality is a sin.
TR: You've talked about how pleased you were to hear from TransAfrica and learn that you were not alone in the fight to protect sexual minorities in Uganda. What can individual African-Americans do to communicate that message and show their support?
FM: Work with us. I've done amazing work with TransAfrica. Other organizations can work directly with us. People can support progressive [nongovernmental organizations] and NGOs that work on human rights. Let people give them support and moral support. It will give us courage.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.