BY DOUG IRELAND | Although Ugandan activist David Kato was only 46 when he was bludgeoned to death on January 26 after a homophobic tabloid newspaper called for his lynching, the former schoolteacher was known as the “grandfather” of the small gay movement in Uganda, one of the most homophobic countries in the world.
The brutal murder of Kato, found by a neighbor lying in a pool of blood in his home in central Kampala, Uganda’s capital, with his head bashed in by a hammer, aroused anger and protests not only in Africa but from around the world, including a condemnation by President Barack Obama.
But Kato’s martyrdom did not end there — his funeral erupted into chaos as a fight broke out when the Anglican preacher officiating at it began denouncing homosexuality and Kato from the pulpit, and the villagers in the murdered activist’s home town refused to bury the body.
“We called him jjaja, which means grandfather, because he was a mentor to us all,” his friend Frank Mugisha, the 27-year-old executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) — the country’s most important LGBT rights organization — told Gay City News.
It takes enormous courage to be a gay activist in Uganda, one of 37 African countries in which same-sex love is illegal, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and where an aggressive homophobia is practiced and preached at all levels of government, including by the country’s gay-hating president, US-funded ally Yowen Museveni. Kato, whom this reporter interviewed on several occasions, had the heart of a lion.
SMUG’s Mugisha, currently on a multi-city US speaking tour, told this newspaper by telephone from Chicago, “David had been a gay activist for 13 years, ever since first getting involved with the LGBT rights movement in South Africa, where he’d lived for several years.”
As one of the most visible of the few openly gay people in Uganda, “David was absolutely fearless, despite having been arrested many times and targeted by many death threats,” Mugisha said. “Not only was David our advocacy officer and one of the founders of SMUG, he was terribly concerned about the security of all LGBT people and headed our LGBT Security Committee. He was at the center of responding to every crisis, and there wasn’t anyone imprisoned for being gay with whom David was not involved and concerned.”
Kato’s murder came just weeks after he and SMUG won a lawsuit against a tabloid weekly, Rolling Stone, which had published a front page article last October — titled “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak” — that listed the names, addresses, and photographs of 100 supposed LGBT people.
Kato’s photo — and that of retired Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, 78, a father of 11 children who had been excommunicated from Uganda’s Anglican Church for counseling gays — was featured on the tabloid’s front page, with a caption reading, “Hang Them!”
A week later, Rolling Stone devoted another issue to outing more alleged gays, who were — like those named in its first issue — accused of “recruiting children” and “raiding schools” to convert the students to homosexuality. That issue brought the total of LGBT Ugandans targeted to 117.
SMUG’s Mugisha, whose photo was also published in Rolling Stone, told Gay City News, “Almost everyone who was named by that tabloid was harassed or attacked.”
Rolling Stone was launched “by fresh graduates of the University of Makerere,” Mugisha told this reporter. “Even though it had a small circulation, its outing articles were picked up and reprinted by the Red Pepper, which everyone reads, and were widely talked about.”
The Red Pepper is a popular sex-and-scandal tabloid, owned by the half-brother of President Museveni who also serves as a government minister. That newspaper launched the media outing campaign targeting LGBT people in 2006 when, under a banner front-page scare headline reading, “GAY SHOCK!,” it published the names of 45 allegedly gay and bisexual men.
Those outed by the newspaper included lawyers, army officers, university lecturers, entertainers, bankers, students, and priests. The Red Paper listed the profession, city of origin, and in some cases information on the friends and partners of those accused of being gay, most of whom lived in Kampala and its suburbs. It also identified venues popular with gays and lesbians. (See this reporter’s September 14, 2006 article, “Uganda Witch Hunt Escalates.” )
The Red Pepper continued its series of outing articles in subsequent issues, next naming 13 alleged lesbians.
Those identified by Red Pepper were harassed and attacked, with some of them arrested and many others driven into hiding or into exile from Uganda.
The following year, in response to SMUG’s first-ever press conference, the Red Pepper was at it again, launching a new outing series under the headline “HOMO TERROR,” which contained a list of 40 alleged gay men with very explicit descriptions of them. (See this reporter’s September 20, 2007 article, “Terror Campaign Escalates.”)
But in winning his lawsuit against Rolling Stone’s latest outing campaign, the murdered Kato struck a major blow against the media gay-baiters. The Uganda High Court ruling said the tabloid’s listing of alleged homosexuals, with the clear aim of inciting violence against them, threatened the targets’ “fundamental rights and freedoms,” including their right to human dignity and constitutional right to privacy.
SMUG’s Mugisha told this reporter, however, that since winning this lawsuit against the newspaper, Kato “had become increasingly concerned about his security,” as the number of death threats against him escalated. “Just days before his murder, his email had been hacked,” Mugisha said. “I’d told him we’d get him a new email but to be careful.”
Mugisha said of the wide fallout from last October’s outing articles, “When something like this happens, every person who is known to be homosexual is harassed and attacked, even in the rural areas, because they are known to be gay in the districts or villages where they live.” Mugisha himself was on the receiving end of such hate-driven acts.
The media targeting of Kato and other LGBT Ugandans follows an intense demonization campaign fostered by right-wing Christian activists from the United States. A March 2009 conference in Kampala featured notorious American anti-gay campaigners, who promoted the idea of a sinister global homosexual conspiracy to corrupt Uganda. Conference speakers advocated parliamentary action to thwart this “international gay agenda.”
The Holocaust revisionist Reverend Scott Lively, a Massachusetts preacher who in his book “The Pink Swastika” charges homosexuals with perpetrating the Nazi Holocaust, spoke at the conference and then met with Ugandan lawmakers and government officials, some of whom drafted the Parliament’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. Still pending, the omnibus bill would, among other repressions, require citizens to report homosexuals to the authorities on penalty of prison and would impose the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.
Another influential anti-gay voice in Uganda, the California pastor and author Rick Warren — who spoke at President Obama’s inauguration — has asserted that human rights don’t apply to LGBT Africans, even though he eventually spoke out against the proposed legislation.
“The blood of David is on the hands of American preachers who came to Uganda,” said Mugisha. “They share much of the blame for presenting us as less than human.”
Writing in their Boston Globe blog “The Angle” on January 28, Jesse Singal and Rob Anderson reported on what they termed Reverend Lively’s “bizarre response” to Kato’s murder: “Lively suggested Kato may have been killed by someone with whom he had been romantically involved, despite the fact that no one familiar with the case has suggested Kato was killed by a gay person, let alone someone with whom he had had a sexual relationship. There remains a ‘possibility’ Kato was ‘killed by a gay lover,’ Lively wrote, and likened Kato’s death to that of Carlos Castro, a Portuguese journalist who was allegedly beaten to death and castrated by a male model in New York City earlier this month.”
But SMUG’s Mugisha told Gay City News, “David was killed by homophobia spread around the country by people like Lively. I knew David well, and there is no possibility that he was romantically involved with the person who killed him, no way.”
The Museveni regime, however, denies that Kato’s killing was the result of homophobia. “I would like to make it very clear, it is not linked to him being an activist of the sexual minorities,” claimed Ugandan deputy police spokesman Vincent Sekate. “It was based in unrelated crime.” Sekates statement came only 36 hours after Kato’s murder, without a thorough investigation.
To Sekate’s pretense Mugisha replied, “This is just an attempt to cover up what really happened, that’s very clear.”
The nefarious role of the US religious right in fostering the virulent homophobia in Uganda that claimed the life of Kato was carefully documented last year in a study, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia,” prepared for Political Research Associates, or PRA, an authoritative research institute that studies the ultra-right and is supported by the US labor movement and major funders, including the Ford Foundation.
The report’s author, Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a Kenyan who is the director of PRA’s Project on Religion and Sexuality, said of Kato’s murder, “Those US conservatives who have lit the brushfire of homophobia in Africa have to bear some responsibility for this tragic death and for the conflagration that now threatens to consume all gay Ugandans.”
Mugisha told Gay City News he thinks a renewed push for passage of the death-for-gays Anti-Homosexual Bill — which had been delayed by President Museveni after worldwide protests that threatened international aid to Uganda — could come after national elections scheduled for later this month.
The principal opposition to Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement, is a coalition called the Interparty Alliance, of which the largest player is the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Mugisha underscored that he and SMUG are nonpartisan — “I don’t follow politics because there are no politicians who stand up and speak for us and for gay rights” — but added, “Kizza Besigye, the president of FDC [and a former Museveni ally], has said that he thought homosexuality should be decriminalized, but this was only his personal opinion — it does not say this in his party’s platform and program.”
At Kato’s funeral in his home village on January 28, the scene turned to chaos when, as the British daily the Guardian reported: “Anglican pastor Thomas Musoke launched into a homophobic tirade…[and] called on homosexuals to repent or ‘be punished by God.’”
Among the 300 attending the funeral, according to Reuters, “Gay activists, wearing T-shirts featuring Kato’s face with sleeves colored with the gay pride flag, then stormed the pulpit and grabbed the microphone. ‘It is ungodly,’ the pastor shouted, before being blocked from sight. Locals intervened on the side of the pastor, and scuffles broke out before he was taken away to Kato’s father’s house to calm the situation. Villagers then refused to bury the body at which point a group of Kato’s friends, most of whom were gay, carried his coffin to the grave and buried it themselves.”
Mugisha has been in constant touch by telephone with his fellow Ugandan activists while on his speaking tour, which concludes in Minneapolis on February 3. In Uganda today, he told Gay City News, “The climate is one of fear and confusion. People are worried.”
There is the distinct possibility of copycat anti-gay violence in the wake of Kato’s murder and the gay-baiting tabloids’ labeling of gays as child molesters.
On February 3 at 4 p.m., the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and other groups plan a procession and vigil near the Ugandan Mission to the United Nations in New York City to honor David Kato’s life. Participants will gather at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, at 47th Street and Second Avenue, for a procession to Uganda House, at 36 East 45th Street, where the vigil will begin at 5.
The website of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) is at sexualminoritiesuganda.org. The full text of Reverend Kapya Kaoma’s report for Political Research Associates, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia,” is available attinyurl.com/4mvp24g. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at direland.typepad.com.