By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario – Uganda’s most visible LGBT advocate, Frank Mugisha, 32, would like to see LGBT groups here supporting the organization he heads, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
He also wants immigration officials to help Ugandans who are seeking asylum protection and bi-lateral and diplomatic talks with the government of Uganda about human rights.
The executive director of SMUG was recently in Toronto to participate in the 5th Symposium on HIV, Law and Human Rights organized by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, June 13-14.
Although June 21-30 is Pride Week in Toronto, Mugisha participated in a Pride-sponsored event on June 14, organized by the legal network, when he was in conversation with CBC journalist, Ron Charles, at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library.
Mugisha is steadfast in his resolve to champion the human rights of sexual minorities in his country.
This is despite the anti-homosexuality bill, popularly known as the “Kill the Gays” bill introduced to parliament in 2009 by politician, David Bahati. Mugisha said one of the reasons for the delay in the bill being made law has to do with the work that he and others have done as activists and with human rights organizations in Uganda that have supported them.
Mugisha said the support from the international community and international media have shone a light on the anti-homosexuality bill because the Ugandan media is not interested in writing positive stories about homosexuality.
He said human rights organizations have worked tirelessly and politicians, like Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who discussed the issue with the Speaker of the Uganda Parliament, have brought attention to the bill.
He also said the international attention has created some dialogue around the bill in his country and this has held the legislation.
Mugisha said the dialogue in parliament is that the bill should be neutralized or not be passed.
However, he said international focus sometimes results in the LGBT community being used as scapegoats by the politicians and other citizens in his country.
He thinks the issue should be engaged on a more diplomatic level.
SMUG’s founder, David Kato, was murdered in January 2011 after successfully suing the tabloid “Rolling Stone” for publishing the names of 100 LGBT with an encouragement to hang them.
“David’s death has been the turning point in my life because when David was murdered that is when the reality came to me. You know, before it was about advocating for our rights and trying to let people understand who we are,” said Mugisha, noting that the murder shifted his focus to the fact that his work could be dangerous and people could be killed.
Kato was killed in his home and to date no one has been arrested.
Mugisha said he knows Uganda quite well and knows where to travel to prevent himself from being harmed but thinks that if he is in his home he should be in a very safe place.
Kato’s death has created a bit of paranoia for Mugisha but he ensures that he hangs out in safe places among people who know him.
“Deep down inside I think it made me strong because I realize that I have been doing this for many years and I could get killed but I don’t really care if I get killed, as long as I’m standing for the truth and I’m speaking out,” he said.
The executive director thinks that because Uganda is a very Christian country where the major language is English, American evangelicals have seized the opportunity to spread their anti-homosexuality message.
Saying he loves his religion and his faith, Mugisha said he is not a very good convert with the way people are coming into Uganda preaching hatred which he thinks is very new to his country.
“This whole preaching of hatred was never there before. It’s the preaching of hate that came in. I think it was done on a more lower level scale whereby religious leaders would come and influence politics, influence the economy but not on a more vibrant level like we are seeing right now with the more extreme Christians,” he said.
He said there are many good Christians in Uganda as well but the extreme Christians think that homosexuality should be the entry point for them to do their work in Uganda.
A Canadian evangelical has one of the biggest churches in Uganda, helps thousands of orphans and builds schools and hospitals.
Mugisha said although some help his country, their anti-homosexuality preaching has lead to hatred of people who are LGBT.
Mugisha would like progressive voices to come to Uganda and do the same work that the evangelicals are doing but preach love.
At one point Mugisha left the country for 4-6 weeks out of fear that he would not be able to do his work in Uganda because he was constantly being harassed, he said, by the law enforcers.
Most of his friends had left so he joined them, but after a while he felt that he should return to Uganda and face whatever challenges may come.
“The challenges are there but these are the challenges that we face every day and when you face these challenges every day you learn how to go around them and still try to create changes,” he said.
He is looking forward to the second annual Pride celebration in his country at the end of July with a parade in early August. Jamaican LGBT and human rights activist, Maurice Tomlinson, was the international grand marshal of Uganda’s first Pride celebration in 2012.
On June 7, Jamaica’s Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, was in Toronto and when asked about the issue of violence against gay and lesbian Jamaicans, some of whom have sought refugee status in Canada, he said the government is against violence generally and this applies to minority groups such at the LGBT community.
“We have a constructive engagement with some of the representative organizations of the LGBT community and, in fact, in our current victimization survey we have carved out a special part of that survey look at how that community is being impacted by crime and violence. This would be the first time that we’ve made a special provision within this victimization survey for that,” Minister Bunting said, noting that this is being supervised by his permanent secretary.
He said the ministry has been acknowledged by J-FLAG [Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays] for having taken steps to sensitize the police force, in particular, and to accommodate special arrangements for this minority group “who do suffer, I think, special discrimination by what is still I would say, generally speaking, a homophobic society. But we are not pandering to the lowest common denominator. “
Bunting said the ministry recognizes the human rights of all Jamaicans and, in particular, opposes violence of any sort to any group, whether majority or minority. “In fact, the most vulnerable are the groups that need protection, elderly, children, gays, whatever group that is most vulnerable in a sense is the group that needs the protection of the state.”
One day before the minister spoke on that matter, a former co-chair of J-FLAG working with LBGT refugees in Toronto received a Pioneer for Change award for her exceptional contribution to the community.
Karlene Williams-Clarke, who immigrated to Canada four years ago, is the LGBT newcomer community coordinator at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in downtown Toronto.
“How can we engage the government, how can we engage the gay community in seeing how best we can work together and try to ease the homophobia, because I know it won’t totally be eradicated, that LGBTQ people face in Jamaica,” she said when asked what would she place on the agenda of the recently-held Diaspora conference in Jamaica.
Williams-Clarke received the award for LGBTQ initiatives at a presentation ceremony held at the corporate offices of the CIBC, sponsor of the awards.
Skills for Change, a non-profit agency, said the awards recognize outstanding immigrants to Canada for accomplishments in their fields, for contributions to their communities, for innovating and inspiring. The organization has been supporting new Canadians for over 30 years through a wide range of programs.
Frank Mugisha. Photo contributed by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.