Ugandan rights activist Frank Mugisha: We need visible LGBT role models

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

PinkNews speaks to Ugandan rights activist Dr Frank Mugisha to talk about the long road to acceptance in his country.

The executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Dr Mugisha and his organisation were very involved in fighting the Anti-Homosexuality Act – internationally referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill.

After the act was struck down by the country’s Supreme Court on a technicality, and with attempts to revive it on the back-burner, the next step is to normalise the topic of homosexuality among the Ugandan people and push for tolerance.

The activist believes this can be accomplished with more inclusive public policies, better education and “proper messaging” towards the LGBT community and youth.

He said: “We need entertainers, footballers.

“We need role models to start speaking up because these are people who ordinary Ugandans respect and, then, Ugandans will emulate them and say, ‘Okay. If someone I like is okay with homosexuality, I have no problem’.”

Dr Mugisha described the homophobia situation in Uganda as “50/50.”

Even in recent years, the LGBT community has suffered violently- including fellow human rights advocate Kelly Mukwano– at the hands of bigots.

Because the public opinion can influence judges, many crimes, such as harassment, can go unpunished.

Legally, however, the Ugandan constitution has been a great help in the conservative society.

Home to around 40 million, the country is influenced largely by Christianity and ranked as one of the most Catholic nations in Africa.

Despite the widespread belief in the country that homosexuality as ‘un-African’, it is religious bigotry that is the true Western import – as  both politics and culture are often shaped by the beliefs of preachers from overseas.

He hopes for preachers who will promote “inclusiveness and love” at the pulpit.

The issue of homosexuality often disturbs many deep-rooted convictions as well, like the growing disassociation with the Western world.

Dr Mugisha said: “People in Uganda are very friendly.

“Those that have accepted and understand the situation or those who have met a gay person before… they’ll be more tolerant because they understand that it’s not about Western input.

“They understand it’s not about imposition of values from Western countries.

“They understand that this is not someone who’s promoting homosexuality or recruiting young children.”

Dr Mugisha noted that around 80 percent of Ugandans try not to involve themselves in the social issue at all, making the majority ignorant about the facts.

Because many only relate homosexuality to the act itself, they choose to either oppose it or just not discuss it at all.

He said: “It’s African not to talk about it… people would rather not talk about sex in general.

“If they knew that we were actually discussing sexual orientation, not the act, then they would say- they’d be more comfortable talking about that.”

Because the nation accommodates a very young population, many are focused on developing their own families or advancing themselves in society.

Anti-gay groups use this mindset to their advantage, by spreading propaganda that the LGBT community is trying to corrupt children.

He said: “You’re telling Ugandans to accept paedophiles, telling Ugandans to accept someone who is going to abuse children, telling Ugandans to accept someone who is taking over the culture, someone who’s not religious.”

Dr Mugisha cites these organisations as some of their most considerable obstacles because of their slandering about LGBT Ugandans.

However, the movement has progressed, even over the course of the last decade.

He said: “We do not have this kind of visibility six, seven years back. But, right now, there’s a lot of visibility.

“Then, we did not have this political wield that we have now.

“Before, we were dismissed- ‘gay people do not exist in Uganda’.”

Regarding HIV/AIDS in the country, however, Ugandans have handled the issue much more delicately, simply because it has impacted every orientation.

The nation’s recent studies suggest offering services to the most vulnerable- the elderly, the youth, long-truck drivers, sex workers and the LGBT community.

Dr Mugisha said: “In the early 90s and during the 80s, it affected almost every household in Uganda…

“Unlike in other countries, there hasn’t been this association of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS.”

The sexual health of the open LGBT community in the nation isn’t in danger, however.

The 3 million Ugandans, closeted by stigma, are the ones at risk, as they cannot access pre-cautionary resources as easily.

Although Sexual Minorities Uganda tries to assist those who come to them, the team consists of only around 10 members, with a small-scale amount of partner organizations.

Dr Mugisha recently participated in a public discussion with Dr. Rahul Rao about fighting homophobia in Uganda.

Hosted at the London School of Economics and Political Science, they talked about the role of international support and how its presence forced the Ugandan government to acknowledge the LGBT community.

He credited the international media especially for pushing both private and public engagement around the issue.

Answering a question from the audience, Dr Mugisha commented that he did not mind seeing the involvement of corporations at London Pride.

He also referred to the transgender movement as the “backbone” and Uganda’s feminists and sex workers as their first allies.

Now, with the 2016 election looming, the LGBT community is concerned the Anti-Homosexuality Act could reappear.

The presidential race is already taking a turn for the positive, though- candidate Amama Mbazazi has spoken against homophobia.