The rising star from 2011: Frank Mugisha

by on January 1, 2012  •  In International

I doubt that there are any lgbt rights leaders in Imgresthe United States who literally put their lives on the line, day after day, to fight for justice. So it's difficult to overstate the courage of Frank Mugisha, a leader of the political organization Sexual Minorities Uganda and of Icebreakers Uganda, a group offers counseling and suicide-prevention services. Mugisha has been imprisoned by the government in Uganda and targeted for death by the same group that encouraged the murder of David Kato.

Last month, after receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights' annual Human Rights Award, Mugisha published a powerful op-ed in the NY Times, arguing that "homophobia – not homosexuality – is the toxic import" to Africa, and calling on Americans of color to join the struggle to end brutality against lgbt people in Africa.

Granted, I am way jumping the gun here – Mugisha is only 29 – but I see a Nobel in his future.

Following is an interview with Mugisha from The Root:

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.

TR: What is life like every day for gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities in Uganda?

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.


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