WASHINGTON — A gay rights activist in Uganda, where a bill that would punish gays with prison or death has stirred worldwide outrage, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington on Thursday.
Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the former U.S. attorney general, was joined by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in presenting the award to Frank Mugisha at a ceremony on Capitol Hill. It is the first time the award has been bestowed on an advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
"It gives me more courage to continue doing the work I'm doing," Mugisha told The Associated Press ahead of the award. "It sends out a message, not only to my country but to other countries that criminalize homosexuality."
The 29-year-old Mugisha leads the underground group called Sexual Minorities Uganda, whose members routinely shift locations in Uganda for their safety. Uganda, a conservative East African nation, is one of more than 70 nations that have imposed laws against being gay.
Mugisha blames U.S. evangelical activists in particular for stoking fears and promoting homophobia with a 2009 visit and conference on "rehabilitation" for gays in Uganda. Since then, violence against gays has increased, he said.
After the visit, debate began over a Ugandan bill that would punish gay people with prison or death and would threaten jail time for those who don't report suspected gays to authorities. The bill was recently revived in Uganda's parliament.
"I think they are responsible for the bill," Mugisha said of the evangelical activists. "They held a seminar and openly told Ugandans that they needed to tighten their laws on homosexuality and told Ugandans that homosexuals can be healed."
Scott Lively, a preacher who leads a group called Abiding Truth Ministries now based in Springfield, Mass., introduced ideas from the "ex-gay" movement to Ugandans and the idea that gays are "recruited," Mugisha said.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Lively did not oppose criminalization of gays but said he thinks imprisonment and the death penalty are too harsh. He said many criminal sanctions in African countries are harsh but aren't enforced.
"I advised the Ugandan parliament to focus on rehabilitation and not punishment, which they went the other way on that," Lively said. "But the law that they did draft is consistent with existing law on their books dealing with heterosexual sex crimes, and no one made a peep about that."
Ty Cobb, legislative counsel for the largest U.S. gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Mugisha is a role model for gays and lesbians in Africa and the world. The group has connected Mugisha with officials at the U.S. State Department.
"It's important to recognize that Frank has put his life on the line to represent this community that's silenced by a government that wants to put you to death for being gay," Cobb said.
Uganda's anti-gay bill – and its connection to U.S. evangelicals – prompted international headlines, editorials and attention from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Its award comes with a $30,000 stipend and a six-year partnership to support Mugisha's work with advocacy and fundraising.
Kerry Kennedy, president of the center bearing her father's name, said Mugisha's work shows a rare kind of courage. She said the award is meant for someone who is "the Martin Luther King of their country, somebody who has stood up to government oppression at great personal risk."
She said progressive churches, human rights groups, the U.S. government and the United Nations should take a stronger stand to counter the impact of "right-wing evangelicals" in Uganda.
"What we see here in Uganda is the U.S. exporting our so-called family values," she told the AP. "We bear responsibility for that as a country. We need to set the record straight about what true U.S. values are."
Kennedy said the pursuit of gay rights is consistent with everything her father, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, had stood for.
"I grew up in a family where we believed the United States should stand for something and that it was important to export the U.S. vision of a more just and peaceful world," she said. "That's why Robert Kennedy traveled to South Africa in 1966 when most Americans had never heard of apartheid."
Mugisha said he hopes to persuade other human rights groups to join the struggle for gay rights.
As a young gay activist, Mugisha said he has been beaten and harassed for speaking out. He added that he's not afraid of his government, but rather of the people on the street who want to eliminate gays.
In January, his colleague David Kato was bludgeoned to death. That killing came shortly after a tabloid newspaper published names and photos of men it alleged were gay. The cover included the words, "Hang Them." Authorities had said Kato's sexual orientation had nothing to do with the killing.
On Thursday, Kato's convicted killer was sentenced by a Ugandan court to 30 years in prison. The man said he was provoked by sexual advances he said Kato had made toward him.
Mugisha, reflecting on the Kennedy award, said it may afford some protection by raising his profile.
The biggest motivation to continue his work, despite death threats, is his daily interactions with Ugandan gays and lesbians, he added.
"They just look at you when you talk to them, and they feel there's hope," he said. "They feel there's a voice out there speaking for them."
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Justice: http://http://www.rfkcenter.org/
Brett Zongker can be reached at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat