Q&A: Ugandan LGBT activist Frank Mugisha

Ottawa — Frank Mugisha is an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) activist from Uganda who was in Ottawa this week warning about the dangers of a new bill before his country’s parliament that has drawn international scorn.

If passed, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill could, among other things, sentence gays and lesbians to death and jail those who fail to report known or suspected homosexuals.

Here is a condensed version of his conversation with the Citizen.

What is the status of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill?
The anti-gay bill right now is in the legal and parliamentary affairs committee. The committee (is) ready to submit (its report) to the floor of parliament, so when this report is submitted, the bill can go ahead for debate.

What punishment does the bill outline for homosexuals?
It introduces the death penalty for any homosexual person living with HIV/AIDS, so if someone is born with HIV and they come out gay, they should be killed. It has aggravated homosexuality — any kind of male rape, they should be killed, and if any person has sex with anyone below the age of 18, that’s death penalty. If any person engages in same-sex acts with someone who is disabled, that is also death penalty. Or if any person engages in same-sex acts with someone who they are in authority of. So, for example, if I have sex with my boss, my boss can go for the death penalty because they are in authority over me. There’s death penalty for serial offenders, so if you break the law many times, then you can also be killed.

What about the punishment for people who aren’t homosexual but who know homosexuals?
The bill has a clause that says you should report any person who is known or perceived as a homosexual to the authorities, so that means families have to report their own children, doctors have to report their clients, priests have to report people who come to confess about anything that is related to homosexuality. If they don’t (report), they become criminals. The bill also requires Uganda to withdraw from all international treaties that are in favour of sexual orientation and gender identity, and (it) requires all NGOs working in Uganda — if they are receiving funding from any organization affiliated with an organization that works on sexual orientation or gender identity — (to be) deregistered in Uganda.

What is the cumulative impact of the bill on Uganda’s LGBT community?
It creates a lot of hostility. Hostility and harassment. (But) this bill has also created a lot of positive dialogue in Uganda because before the introduction of the bill, there wasn’t too much attention in Uganda like there is right now … In a way, it has also created for us space to have dialogue and debate and talk about some of these issues openly.

Doctors and medical professionals are among the people who would have to report a homosexual. What effect is that having on people who have HIV/AIDS or other medical conditions?
The bill, as it is right now, is not law, so no one has to report anyone right now. But of course people are worried (about) going to seek medical treatment or to disclose their HIV/AIDS status or to open up their sexual orientation to medical personnel because they think … if I open up with this person, when the bill is passed, they will report me.

What effect is the presence of evangelical Christian groups from the United States having on the debate in Uganda?
Before the evangelicals started coming, we’re not seeing too much homophobia like we are seeing right now. After they started coming, we started seeing a lot of violence because they have introduced language in my country that is scary. They use language like, ‘Homosexuals are out to recruit children into homosexuality,’ and people fear when they feel that is what we are doing.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called the proposed bill ‘abhorrent.’ How did Ugandan lawmakers react to Canada’s outspoken comments?
This bill almost got passed because of that one single incident when the minister of foreign affairs talked about the bill. My speaker of parliament was very offended and she came back to Uganda and she said she’s going to pass the bill as a Christmas present because Uganda is a sovereign country and is not a colony or territory of Canada, so no one can tell Ugandans what to do.

Is it safe to say that Baird didn’t actually do LGBT activists in Uganda a favour?
It is definitely very safe to say that. I think it’s well intended, but it was said in the wrong forum. I think the way it was crafted wasn’t the best way that it should be crafted. Definitely it wasn’t helpful for us.

What would be more helpful? What can other countries do and what forum should they do it in?
Countries can do many things because we don’t want anyone to go quiet on this because once people go quiet, the Ugandan government will pass the bill knowing the world is not watching. Talking about it is good, but also choosing avenues where to talk about it … There are very many diplomatic channels for countries to communicate with each other, so that politicians should not look down on Uganda and Ugandan officials but they should talk at the same level, and when they talk at the same level, there is dialogue.

Your friend David Kato, an outspoken LGBT activist, was murdered in 2011. You just turned 33 this week. Do you have your own fears for your life?
I do have my fears, but I would say that David cared more about other people’s security than his own personal security. I take my security very (seriously) because I know how dangerous it is. I have lived in Uganda all my life so I know how to deal with my security there and I know how uncertain things can be in my country, so I’m very careful and I put safety first when I’m doing anything I’m doing.

You’re an activist and you’re quite well known, but you’re also human, and I wonder how has the public nature of your role impacted your personal life and your own desire to have a partner?
I do have a partner. My partner right now has had to leave the country because of the hostility he was facing in Uganda. Even when he was in Uganda, there are certain things I wouldn’t do with him because the media and most people knew we were dating, so when we were going out, we’d think twice about where we were going and what we’re going to do. And sometimes, on special days, we’d have to totally get out of the city and go somewhere in the countryside where we’re not known.

Are you ever frustrated by people in North America or in Europe who may have more privilege or who enjoy more rights, and are sitting on the sidelines while people like yourself are very much fighting tooth and nail for basic rights, like protection of your own safety?
I don’t compare LGBT rights with other countries because I think my country will also be there at some point … People have their rights here, but homophobia is international. There’s still conservative families that won’t accept their own children here, the conservative people who have made it difficult in my country have come from the U.S. and I don’t think those conservatives accept homosexuality in the U.S., so changing the attitudes of the people and changing the minds of the people is a global struggle.

What can activists who aren’t in Uganda do to support your efforts?
Activists? I think that would have been the frustrating question, that the LGBT community has not helped us, has not stood by us. Because, like you said, people have gotten their rights here, they feel there is no need to get engaged in the other global civil rights for LGBT people, so the LGBT people have sort of taken a step back, they don’t really care. People in Uganda think we receive tons and tons of support from gay groups in the U.S. and Europe. Not at all. It is mostly human rights organizations that are not entirely focused on LGBT issues that work in supporting us.

Given the struggles you face, what keeps you going?
What keeps me going is mostly the challenges I go through. But also, more importantly, the voices of the people I amplify … I feel that these stories I listen to and people I help keep me going because every day I wake up, I have a challenge. I was telling my assistant the other day, ‘I want to get bored,’ Of course, I’m never bored, I’ve always got to do something, to write something, to submit something, do a press interview. Sometimes you get so attached to something and it’s close to you and without it, you almost have nothing.”

by Matthew Pearson, Ottawa Citizen
Source – Ottawa Citizen