11/15/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2012

Honoring Frank Mugisha -- A Courageous Advocate For Equality In Uganda

The following remarks were made by Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, at the 2011 RFK Human Rights Award, presented to the Ugandan activist for sexual minorities Frank Mugisha, in Washington, DC, on November 10.

The New York Times reported:

On March 9, 2009, three American evangelical Christians, whose teachings about "curing" homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States, arrived in Uganda's capital to give a series of talks...

For three days, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality.

The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how "the gay movement is an evil institution" whose goal is "to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.

One month later, after conferring with the Americans, a bill was introduced in Parliament to impose a death sentence for homosexual behavior.

That conference and the follow-up legislation exemplify the attacks endured by Uganda's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex -- LGBTI -- community, and some sense of the quality of mind and spirit that enables this year's Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate, Frank Mugisha, to face the difficulty, the danger, the pain of activism.

In November, 2010, a Ugandan news magazine published a series of articles outing members of the LGBTI community, beneath a headline which read, "hang them."

In response, neighbors surrounded one outed lesbian's home, hurling rocks. Other victims of the involuntary outing were threatened with death and beaten.

When confronted by the violence he had instigated, the magazine's editor responded: "I was only trying to protect Ugandans from those seeking to "recruit children to homosexuality."

On January 26th, 2011, Frank Mugisha's dear friend and colleague at Sexual Minorities Uganda or SMUG, David Kato, whose photograph appeared with Frank's in the same issue, was beaten to death. In response, the same editor justified outing the victims by saying: "We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them."

In a country where 96 percent of the population believes that homosexuality should be rejected by society, LGBTI citizens face bullying, discrimination, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, cruel punishment, torture and death based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Activists who work to expose such abuses are frequently targeted. The homophobia of Uganda's citizenry is not only a cultural phenomenon; it is enshrined in law.

Under Uganda's legal system, homosexuality is a criminal offence that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, proposed in 2009, and still under consideration by Parliament, seeks to further entrench discrimination and hatred against LGBTI people. It would make consensual homosexual acts punishable by life in prison and in some cases, by the death penalty; effectively prevent medical treatment; and, make failure to report, punishable by imprisonment.

Even if the bill fails, its supporters have already called for harsher enforcement of the country's existing draconian laws.

It is in this atmosphere of legalized brutality that Frank Mugisha leads SMUG, an umbrella group for LGBTI activism in Uganda.

When Frank was 7, his father was brutally murdered, and his mother raised Frank and his younger brother outside Kampala.

Frank attended all boys Catholic schools until college, where homosexuality was considered sick and sinful, and those suspected of being gay faced humiliation and expulsion. He prayed to God that his burden would be lifted, but, like Jeremiah, he became the unwilling prophet of tolerance and compassion.

Frank Mugisha exemplifies Robert Kennedy's vision of moral courage. At 16, when he knew he would be ostracized and hated, he came out to his friends. He braved the disapproval of his fellows, the censure of his colleagues, the wrath of his society, and he paid a high price.

Members of his family stopped speaking to him. Friends denied knowing him. No one would hire him. He was harassed, humiliated and abused. He faced hostility, threats, intimidation.
With undaunted courage, he forged ahead, offering counsel and refuge to those who felt isolated and abandoned because of the way they were born.

In 2004, emboldened by an article he read about gay rights activism, Frank founded Icebreakers Uganda, to offer support for sexual minorities.

As a result of his advocacy, Frank was threatened and targeted for arrest. He had to flee his country to seek safety, where he could have lived a peaceful life.

Instead, at grave personal risk, he returned to Uganda where he and seven courageous colleagues took part in a public media campaign proudly identifying themselves sexual minorities.

Soon after, Frank assumed leadership of SMUG, a network of Ugandan organizations advocating on behalf of the LGBTI minority.

There are 32 million people in Uganda, of whom approximately 500,000 or LGBTI, of whom 10 are activists of whom only five are willing to speak in front of a microphone. Frank is the leader of the five.

Just as Frank is there to answer the call, we, at the RFK Center call for change. Today we begin a six year partnership, bringing all the resources of RFK Partners for Human Rights to our new six year collaboration with Frank and SMUG.

There is a Ugandan proverb that says: "Old men sit in the shade because they planted a tree many years before."

Because of his courage and with the support of his companions, Frank Mugisha will enjoy the shade of the tree he has planted, as will the thousands of Ugandans for whom he has advocated.