11/14/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

An Interview with Frank Mugisha, LGBT Freedom Fighter in Uganda

Frank Mugisha, the leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), will receive two prestigious prizes this month in recognition of his tireless advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ Ugandans. The Rafto Foundation in Norway will present Frank the 2011 Rafto Prize in honor of Frank's and SMUG's non-violent human rights work, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights will present the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C. in honor of the same.

Mugisha is increasingly being recognized as one of our decade's bravest social justice leaders and freedom fighters. SMUG made international headlines in January 2011 following the violent murder of Ugandan gay activist David Kato, after his picture was placed under an anti-gay banner that read "Hang Them" on the front page of a Ugandan newspaper. The world watched and mourned Kato's death, which motivated advocates in Africa and abroad to fight for the termination of the notorious "Anti-homosexuality Bill," which, at the time, was being pushed by the Ugandan Parliament. The bill has been temporarily stayed, but the threat of its return looms. Many in our global community have begun to recognize that the fight for social justice in Uganda is not the work of Ugandans alone. Their struggle is one that Americans, and specifically African Americans, must engage.

Conservative Christian groups from the U.S.A. have supported (financially and otherwise) the push to ratify the anti-gay bill in Uganda, yet there is a pervasive silence on the part of many LGBTQ sectarian and non-sectarian groups, politicians, and community leaders. Where are our progressive and affirming denominational churches in response to this push of ideas and propaganda? Where are the raised voices of our progressive public intellectuals, thought leaders, institution builders, and celebrity activists? Progressive leaders and institutions have an opportunity to join LGBTQ Ugandans and their allies (and others in Africa) in this struggle for human rights. We caught up with Frank to get his response to the news of the awards and to ask how Americans can get involved.

You've recently been named the recipient of two amazing awards. What is your reaction to the news?

First, I thanked both the RFK Center and Rafto Foundation for recognizing my work. For me this is a clear message that the rights I fight for are human rights, because these awards have been given to people from different parts of the world who do human rights work. These awards give me courage and hope that someday my fight will also be recognized here in Uganda.

What motivated you to get involved in LGBTQ activism in Uganda?

When I was at university, I started meeting other gay people through friends and the Internet. I was fascinated by our similarities, even though we had different experiences with discrimination on all levels. During that time my fear was mostly centered on contracting HIV/AIDS and/or STIs. I was worried about the little information that gay people know about diseases. So I started talking about these issues, mostly diseases. Then my friends and I started a support group where we could meet and talk about our lives as gay people. That group, which is now an LGBT organization called Icebreakers Uganda, was formed then. The group that we started as a social group turned political when there was a lot of bad media and religious leaders and politicians talking ill about homosexuality. So, that is when I joined up with my colleagues at SMUG, and I was later appointed as the leader of SMUG.

My strength comes from the pleas of gay people in Uganda that I have listened to, who need to live free and happy like anyone else. Me speaking out in public and living open as a gay man in Uganda is a sign of hope for Ugandans out there that they have a voice. And that is my strength.

How has you work impacted your relationship with family and friends?

First it was my sexual orientation that was most challenging for friends and families. When I came out and told my family that I am gay, it took time for them to accept it, and when they were OK, they felt that it was not OK to talk about it in public. It was a difficult experience with my friends and still is. I lost so many friends. That is why it was difficult for me to be public at first; I was fearful of the thoughts of my family and friends as well as experiencing hate and homophobia, but now I am used to all that. When I get these phone calls now, I just focus and remember the cause and think about the many LGBT people who have trusted me to speak for them, and I am inspired.

Now the worse part is when I appear in media, I receive phone calls, sometimes from family and friends, insulting me by saying that I should never talk to them again. I have people in my life who are significant, though. My brother has been very supportive, and he means a lot to me.

Some political and religious leaders have argued that homosexuality is counter-cultural in the Ugandan context. Is their claim authentic?

That is not true. Uganda has so many different cultures, and in some of our cultures, homosexuality can be traced back to those cultures. Actually, when the missionaries and colonialists came to Uganda, they brought with them a colonized view of homosexuality, which wasn't seen as a problem in some aspects of Uganda culture until that time. For example, before the British colonialists came to Uganda, we did not have sodomy laws in Uganda. They introduced those draconian laws.

Can you say a bit about your advocacy work with the religious in your country?

In Uganda we have not been successful in lobbying religious leaders to support our work; however, there are some individual religious persons who think it is normal to be gay, but they fear to come out public with this information. We have only one supportive religious leader in Uganda, Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, who was disowned by the church when he came out in support of homosexuality.

Sadly, we have not had any success at all with our Muslim sisters and brothers. My message to the religious, Christian and Muslim, is to practice what they preach; you cannot preach love and hate at the same time.

The anti-homosexuality bill has come, gone, and may come again. What are the primary features of this bill?

I am not certain where the bill is heading. The government of Uganda has asked Parliament not to consider the bill. The government has not been very clear on this, however, as the government has always said that the bill is a private member's bill and Parliament can do whatever they want with the bill.

I am also very optimistic that this bill is dead, unless someone else reintroduces a similar bill.

How was SMUG part of the successful movement to defeat the bill?

SMUG did most of the advocacy to kill this bill. We worked with Ugandan civil society, international media and regional and international human rights organizations. We did a lot of lobbying in the country and put a lot of energy into carrying out proactive and active campaigns.

In your opinion, how would you describe President Yoweri K. Museveni's record on human rights in Uganda? What differences and/or similarities exist in his administration's performance in providing equitable rights for LGBTQ citizens in your country?

There are no rights for LGBT people in Uganda! For president Museveni, I will say our timing was not good. When Museveni took over power in 1986, there was no LGBT visibility in Uganda, and when the Ugandan constitution was being drafted, there was no way that the constitution would include LGBT people. When we started being visible in the late '90s, the visibility of homosexuality was new to so many Ugandans, but that did not stop, and because of that we have seen a lot of intimidation, and the government has not created any laws to protect us, even given all of the advocacy.

The government of Uganda during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) told the Human Rights Council that they would investigate and persecute any form of violations towards LGBT people. We wait to see that implemented at home. The UPR process started in 2007, and it is a time when the Human Rights Council at the United Nations reviews member states' status on human rights.

Uganda was under review last month, and during the review Uganda submitted a report to the Human Rights Commission. And members of civil society had a chance to submit a shadow report. I worked with civil societies and my colleagues at SMUG in Uganda to submit a cluster on LGBT issues in the shadow report. I also engaged in lobbying member states to highlight LGBT issues. I attended the UPR process in Geneva to again lobby government to accept recommendations from member states. In the adoption of the UPR report, Uganda accepted to investigate and persecute violence against LGBT people.

What can we do to help SMUG and the other LGBTQ groups in Uganda further your work?

The struggle in Uganda and Africa needs a lot of moral, technical and financial support. We need that from our international supporters. Solidarity is very important, and so is resource sharing.

Author's note: Since this interview, the anti-homosexuality bill has once again resurfaced in the Ugandan Parliament.