Taking stock, taking action: A conversation with Ugandan rights activist Frank Mugisha

By Alyssa Clutterbuck

Frank Mugisha is one of Uganda’s leading activists in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.  Executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and founder of Icebreakers Uganda, Mugisha received the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for his activism in combating homophobia throughout sub-Saharan Africa.   The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network recently hosted a conversation with Mugisha as part of its 5th Annual Symposium on HIV, Law and Human Rights.

Former Toronto mayor, Barbara Hall, introduced Mugisha, and reflected on the city’s early failure to mobilize a public response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s.

Mugisha spoke about the 2009 introduction of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill (An Act to prohibit any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters), introduced by Member of Parliament, David Bahati.  The legislation proposes to impose the death penalty for serial acts of homosexuality, broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations and even includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, potentially extraditing individuals back to Uganda for sanctions.  The bill also imposes penalties on individuals, companies, media outlets, and non-governemental organizations that know of LGBT people or support LGBT rights. Under present law, same-sex relationships are illegal in Uganda, and punishable by incarceration up to 14 years.

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha

Mugisha noted that the roots of the proposed law can be traced back to a conference at which three prominent American evangelical Christian leaders asserted that homosexuality threatened the cohesion of African families.  Since being introduced, the bill has been denounced by the international community and numerous governments have threatened to rescind aid from Uganda.  Strong resistance from the international community and from local Ugandan activists has helped delay the bill in committee, though Bahati re-introduced the bill in February 2012.

Mugisha advocated a delicate approach in combating current myths that impede progress for LGBT rights in Uganda, including the view by many Ugandans that homosexuality is a Western import and not indigenous to African culture. As one way to reduce stigma, Mugisha calls for more community discussions to help give a face to LGBT people.

Despite threats to his life and the 2011 murder of his mentor and colleague David Kato, Mugisha remains resolute when responding to concerns about his safety. He feels that his recognition as an activist has helped protect him from arrest. “My visibility and my speaking is my protection,” he said.    He did admit, however, that he must take caution when moving through Kampala and the rest of the country.

Though Mugisha has received offers of asylum in many countries, he insists on staying in Uganda. “I can never think about leaving Uganda. I have lived there all my life.”

Video of the event will be available shortly via the website of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Alyssa Clutterbuck is a McGill University law student and summer intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.