Do you know what's happening to LGBT persons in Uganda? Today, many across the world are mourning the loss of David Kato, an outspoken gay rights advocate in Uganda who was brutally beaten with a hammer and murdered in his home on Wednesday (Jan. 26). As the New York Times reported, local police are not calling this a hate crime, but anyone familiar with the disgusting anti-gay culture in Uganda would rightfully question that claim.
David was a litigation and advocacy officer of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) -- an LGBT advocacy group that is a friend of my interfaith organization, Intersections International. SMUG's Executive Director, Frank Mugisha, released a press release this morning stating, "David's death comes directly after the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that people must stop inciting violence against homosexuals and must respect the right to privacy and human dignity." Frank and David were recently listed in a local tabloid -- the Ugandan Rolling Stone Magazine -- where it was suggested they and 100 "top homos" be hung for being gay. The magazine further encouraged violence by listing the addresses of these people, which forced many into hiding.
Human rights advocates across the world are frustrated for many reasons: Not only because of irresponsible Ugandan media outlets like Rolling Stone, which very well may have been responsible for David's death, but because of the many Christians who have instigated religious-based violence at the core of this conflict. Frank and I spoke in January and he candidly asserted that homophobia has always existed in Uganda, but the catalyst for violence truly came following a presentation by three U.S. evangelists -- Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge -- in March 2009. As has been widely reported, they preached anti-gay lectures at a conference that laid the foundation for the "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" spit out of the Ugandan Parliament in the fall of 2009 by David Bahati. While it already is illegal to be an LGBT person in Uganda, this bill invokes even harsher punishments (including the death penalty) for those "accused" of being homosexual. "People used to live in society and were not harassed, not arrested," Frank said. "This bill has created violence towards LGBTI people all over the country."
After the U.S. evangelists visited Uganda, the country was tainted by a wave of religious-based violence. Many parents threw their kids out of their households after hearing the conference lectures, and forced them into therapy to be "cured." Transgender people were stripped naked and taken into churches where congregants prayed for the "demons" to be released from their bodies. In Uganda, where an overwhelming majority of the country professes to be Christian, there is a considerable amount of influence from the pulpit. And it's not only by foreign religious leaders but local priests who are overwhelmingly preaching hostility towards LGBT persons. "How can you even start communicating with people who are very hostile like that? You don't even have the avenues to create the type of dialogue," Frank said.
Locally, leadership is needed from the religious community to end the Christian discord. Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has been one of these rare voices of love and courage to speak out and promote love for all of God's children. However, the reaction of his Anglican Communion in Uganda was bitter. "They said I should be condemning the LGBT community in Uganda. My church said if you don't condemn, you should not be working with us, the Anglican Church. It's pretty hard but I stuck with it," Senyonjo said, who was stripped of church responsibilities for his beliefs.
David's life sadly was cut short by violence, and the motive for his death is still not exactly known. But the brave advocates for Human Rights in Uganda continue to fight to bring the violence to an end. "The death of David will only be honored when the struggle for justice and equality is won. David is gone and many of us will follow, but the struggle will be won," SMUG said in a statement. Here in the United States, it is crucially important for Christians in particular, but all Americans as well, to lend their voices to amplifying the plight of LGBT persons in Uganda.
The world must continue to say in one voice that it will not allow others to be victimized by hate or subjected to prejudice because of who they love. Being gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender is not a choice, and we are slowly witnessing the cracks of these beliefs here in the U.S. Change will absolutely come one day to Uganda as well, but it will happen only when there is a culture shift that unconditionally values life, plurality and diversity of all people.
Here at Intersections, we spearhead the Believe Out Loud project, an unprecedented coalition of secular and nonsecular national organizations to advance the existing Christian movement for LGBT equality in the United States. The idea is to encourage respectful dialogue within the Christian church and develop a compassionate understanding of LGBT persons and faith. The current course in Uganda is grossly unsustainable, but if the Christian community would be willing to open up their houses of worship for such dialogue in the same way, than the situation in Uganda could change. "There is a lot of ignorance out there about LGBT issues," Senyonjo said. "People are hostile against LGBT people, but talking about the issues will help."