Ugandan Gay Activist Wins RFK Human Rights Award
Frank Mugisha was inside the Ugandan Parliament building in Kampala in May when they learned that lawmakers were to once again debate the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The measure would impose the death penalty upon anyone who was found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. Mugisha and another activist who were in the chamber had a far more immediate concern: certain arrest.
"My hands were cold and sweaty, I was sick," said Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a network of Ugandan organizations that advocate on behalf of LGBT and intersex people in the East African country. "I was shaking and then I got word that it was being debated by members of Parliament themselves."
Mugisha received the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at a Capitol Hill ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 10. Ethel and Kerry Kennedy, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner were among the hundreds who packed the Kennedy Caucus Room at the Russell Senate Office Building.
"We may not be recognized and organized in our communities, but with this award we know we are being heard and there is hope," said Mugisha.
Founded in 2004; SMUG uses public awareness campaigns to increase LGBT visibility. It organizes local activists and lobbies government officials to support the inclusion of gay men in national HIV/AIDS prevention strategies and other measures. SMUG also helps gay men who are arrested under the country’s anti-homosexuality laws to find lawyers to represent them in court-Mugisha himself was smuggled out of Uganda in 2007 after authorities threatened to arrest him after he came out in a 45-day public awareness campaign. He eventually returned to Uganda and resumed his activism.
Mugisha spoke with EDGE after he took part in a panel on sexuality and intolerance in East Africa at a Washington, D.C., restaurant on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
"SMUB stated because LGBT people were fed up," he said.
Parliamentarian David Bahati first introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Oct. 2009. An estimated 80 percent of Ugandans support the measure, but Mugisha blames both American evangelicals and the local media for stoking anti-LGBT sentiments. A newspaper published the names of gay men in April 2009; while the tabloid Rolling Stone printed the names, pictures and home addresses of gay Ugandans in Oct. 2010 with a front page banner that read "hang them."