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Frank Mugisha. Image courtesy rfkcenter.org.
On November 10, 2011, Uganda gay rights activist Frank Mugisha was honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The award was presented by Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Mugisha is the first recipient of the award to be honored for glbtq activism.
The award comes with a $30,000 stipend and a six-year partnership to support Mugisha's work with advocacy and fundraising.
The 29-year-old Mugisha leads the underground group called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), whose members routinely shift locations in Uganda for their safety. He has been beaten and harassed as a result of his activism.
Mugisha, who in September received Norway's prestigious Rafto Prize for human rights, told the Associated Press that the Kennedy honor "gives me more courage to continue doing the work I'm doing. It sends out a message, not only to my country but to other countries that criminalize homosexuality."
Mugisha blames American evangelical Christians for promoting homophobia in Uganda and holds them responsible for the country's notorious "kill the gays" bill that would punish gay people with prison or death and threaten with prison those who fail to report suspected gays to authorities. The bill was recently revived in Uganda's parliament.
Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which was founded in 1968 as a living memorial to help realize her father's dream of a more just and peaceful world, said that the pursuit of gay rights is consistent with everything her father stood for.
Observing that Mugisha's work shows a rare kind of courage, she urged progressive churches, human rights groups, the U.S. government, and the United Nations to take a stronger stand to counter the impact of "right-wing evangelicals" in Uganda.
"What we see here in Uganda is the U.S. exporting our so-called family values. We bear responsibility for that as a country. We need to set the record straight about what true U.S. values are."
Ty Cobb, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said Mugisha is a role model for gay men and lesbians in Africa and the world. "It's important to recognize that [Mugisha] has put his life on the line to represent this community that's silenced by a government that wants to put you to death for being gay."
Meanwhile, Ugandan authorities have announced the conviction of Sydney Nsubuga Enoch of the murder of glbtq advocate David Kato, who was bludgeoned to death in January 2011. Nsubuga was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Kato's murder came shortly after a tabloid newspaper published names and photos of men it alleged were gay under a headline that screamed, "Hang Them!"
The trial of Nsubuga was conducted in secret. Although the police insist that Kato's murder was unrelated to his campaign for gay rights, most glbtq activists are highly skeptical of this assertion.
Upon learning of Nsubuga's conviction, Mugisha posted on his Facebook page, "It is disheartening that this trial happened secretly and hurriedly with out any one knowing about it and leaves many questions unanswered."
In an op-ed at Advocate.com, Op-ed: Demonizing David Kato, Melanie Nathan, a lawyer and human rights activist who was a friend of Kato, argues that the prosecutor in the case "chose to believe the story of a confessed killer who probably thought he would receive leniency--and possibly become a hero--if he inserted into his story that Kato had made a demand for homosexual sex."
"The story advanced by the prosecutor at sentencing has done little more than perpetuate the myth that gays are trying to recruit straight people into homosexuality. It feeds into the lie that Ugandans--and in particular their children--are in grave danger unless homosexuality is criminalized."
Nathan concludes that "the bottom line is that a great hero, who may well have been murdered for his cause, has not only yet to see justice, but has also had his memory tarnished. . . . Nothing will stop us from remembering the real David Kato, the fervent activist who fought with courage while knowing his life was at great risk. David Kato died for his cause."