Uganda’s leading gay activist: We live in fear of violence, blackmail and extortion

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha talks to PinkNews about the threats facing Uganda’s LGBT community – and what the rest of the world can do to help.

Frank Mugisha is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), winner of the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. He is one of the most prominent advocates for LGBT rights in Uganda.

He is currently in the UK calling on the international community to continue to condemn and protest against the homophobic legislation in Uganda.

The country’s harsh Anti-Homosexuality Act, known worldwide as the “Kill the Gays” bill, was found to have been illegally passed by the Uganda’s Constitutional Court in August this year, and ruled invalid. Mugisha is keen to point how much the international response helped to achieve this.

He said: “There was a lot of pressure from the Ugandan local communities that I work with, human rights organisations and the LGBT community. But I also want to say that there was a lot of international pressure that put my government in the spotlight and that meant the government could not interfere with the court decision.”

However, the country’s new ‘Prohibition of the Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill’ – currently working its way through Parliament – could be just as destructive, threatening to criminalise anyone who provides housing for LGBT people, anyone who publishes, broadcasts or distributes information “intended to facilitate homosexuality”, and anyone who “aids and abets homosexuality”.

This means LGBT activism would be effectively illegal, and LGBT people could not live openly for fear of endangering their family, friends, or employer. Lawmakers say they want to rush it through quickly as a “Christmas gift” to the nation.

Mr Mugisha warns it is vital for the international community to maintain pressure on Uganda over the new bill – and to keep campaigning for LGBT Ugandans.

He said: “International pressure is important because it creates a climate that we would not have seen without it.

“The international community does respond to so many things, and I think when they don’t respond, when they only respond at the end, that creates a problem.

“It has to be constant, that they don’t let the momentum down, if they only respond whenever it’s at the peak, then the Ugandan government and the Ugandan public’s response will be, oh this is only an issue of a western import.”

He warns that blackmail and extortion – already a problem under the country’s existing law which criminalises homosexuality – would become far worse if the new bill is passed.

He said: “We have documented over 100 cases of people who have been arrested but no one has ever been convicted by [the current] law. This law is mostly used for blackmail and extortion.

“People get arrested and they are put in jail, but no has ever been convicted and put in prison for a long time.”

There are greater threats facing the country’s LGBT community, from vigilante violence. His friend and colleague David Kato was beaten to death in 2011 after being outed in the press, and more recently ‘Hate No More’ activist Kelly Mukwano was hospitalised following an attack by a homophobic mob.

Mr Mugisha adds that much of the homophobia in Uganda stems from the belief that homosexuality is “un-African”, and a Western phenomenon being imposed on Uganda. The view is taught and encouraged, ironically, by American right-wing evangelicals working as missionaries in the country.

He said: “All the time, you see evangelicals flying into Uganda spreading homophobia, so the pressure on the evangelicals should be constant.

“In Uganda, Christianity has been chained together with culture and if you try to separate the two it becomes a problem.”