She wasn't arrested.
Still, Ugandan writer Judy Adong knew the risks when she organized a recent reading of her play, Just You, Me, and the Silence, about her country's anti-homosexuality laws. It was, after all, held in Kampala, the epicenter of a growing climate of hate that has resulted in the harassment and physical assault of gay Ugandans and their straight allies. In the most extreme case, respected LGBT activist David Kato was brutally murdered.
First introduced into Uganda's parliament in 2009, the so-called "Kill the Gays" legislation -- which called for a death sentence for certain homosexual acts -- was met with a mass outcry, including public condemnation by President Obama and other world leaders. As opposition to the bill surged, lawmakers in Uganda appeared to back down.
Until now. As reported by major news outlets, Uganda's parliament has reintroduced the bill, this time replacing the death penalty with a life sentence for those convicted of numerous homosexual "offences." Far from being a discouragement to Ms. Adong and other human rights advocates in her country, this news has only proven that it is the hearts and minds of Ugandans, as much as their laws, that must be challenged and changed.
This goal of transforming cultural attitudes and beliefs is one artists are uniquely equipped to achieve. From films like Hotel Rwanda and An Inconvenient Truth to albums like Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur and plays like the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Ruined, artists have used their creative talent to chip away at the bigotry, indifference, and fear that can cripple communities across the globe. Artists' skills extend far beyond the theaters, film sets, and museums in which we most often work. We are, at heart, savvy communicators who often drive mass adoption of new ideas and keenly understand how to move people and establish common ground. As Dan Savage demonstrated with his "It Gets Better" campaign, we are also entrepreneurial in spirit and regularly create new business models that generate significant charitable funds and resources for urgent causes. We humanize statistics and make change feel irresistible. In the end, artists make activists' work easier by cultivating a more tolerant audience for their urgent calls to action.
In the case of Ms. Adong, this work is done at considerable risk to her safety. While she hasn't been arrested yet, Ms. Adong does face a daily deluge of angry, vicious feedback on various online forums. Now, with the reemergence of the anti-gay legislation, one can only imagine that the dangers she faces will increase.
But there's hope. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her landmark speech about LGBT human rights in Geneva in late 2011, she also announced the launch of the Global Equality Fund to financially bolster the work of NGOs in countries where LGBT human rights are under attack. Equally significant to artists, a press release distributed by the State Department at that time stated that the Fund would support "programs that enhance public awareness and further positive dialogue, such as inclusive civic education and cultural activities."
It's a short sentence, but one that could have profound implications -- if the State Department makes good on its promise and concretely supports cultural activities and artists who are defending LGBT human rights through their work. But will they? Will Secretary Clinton and her staff view the production of plays, the screening of films, the performance of music as a vital, strategic tactic in building human rights culture in Uganda?
Ms. Adong hopes so. Her play has already mobilized audiences in London, New York, and now Kampala. It has emboldened a group of Ugandan actors to step out on faith that being on the right side of history will protect them should their government target them or their neighbors harass them. It has spawned panel discussions, press articles, and a spirited online exchange between a diverse group of activists, artists, U.N. officials, and funders. It's helping position Uganda's LGBT rights crisis within our global conversation.
Despite this proven impact, there are those who feel that more urgent needs must be addressed in the LGBT human rights movement before funds are invested in the work of artists. Organizations need offices, staff, security, and safe houses. Activists need lawyers to represent them when they are arrested.
But if governments and funders are truly committed to creating the social and cultural climate that allows activists to effectively defeat legislation like that proposed in Uganda, they would do well to provide protection and support to artists who, like Judy Adong, are dramatically changing the all-important beliefs and attitudes that provide the engine for hate -- and for human rights.
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