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Meet Frank Mugisha: A Ugandan Activist Daring to Speak Out Against Bill to Jail & Kill LGBQT People

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Image Credit: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

We speak with Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha about a draconian new anti-gay bill the country is on the verge of imposing, which makes it a crime to identify as queer, considers all same-sex conduct to be nonconsensual, and even allows for the death penalty in certain cases. Both the Biden administration and the U.N. secretary-general are urging Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni not to sign the bill into law. Mugisha says anti-LGBTQ measures in Uganda reflect the legacy of British colonialism, which introduced anti-sodomy laws across Africa, as well as the influence of the U.S. religious right. “The homophobia and transphobia we are seeing toward queer and trans people in Uganda is from the West,” says Mugisha, Uganda’s most prominent gay rights activist, who could face decades in prison for “promotion” of homosexuality under the new legislation.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn to Uganda, where lawmakers recently passed a sweeping new measure that makes it a crime to identify as LGBTQ, and even allow for the death sentence in certain cases. The bill declares all same-sex conduct as nonconsensual, makes it a crime to, quote, “promote homosexuality,” and forces all residents of Uganda, including family members and doctors, to report anyone who’s in a same-sex relationship. Uganda’s Parliament passed the measure in March by a near-unanimous vote. The bill is now awaiting the signature of Uganda’s president.

Last week, I spoke to one of the leading LGBTQ activists in Uganda, Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. He was visiting Washington, D.C. I asked him to talk about the new legislation.

FRANK MUGISHA: The legislation that has been passed by our Parliament, that is pending the signature of the president, is one of the most extreme legislations, anti-gay legislations, to be passed in Africa. This legislation would compel any person who knows an LGBTQ person to report them to the authorities. A Catholic like myself, if I confess to my priest, my priest has to report me to the authorities. Any person who goes to seek treatment from a health practitioner, they would have to report them to the authority. This law, further, would criminalize any landlord who provides housing to an LGBTQ person. This law would outlaw the work I am doing on speaking out for LGBTQ persons, but also it would criminalize anything I post on my social media that advocates or promotes the human rights of LGBTQ persons. This interview that I’m having now, if I had it in Uganda, the studio, the entity, myself would be criminalized. This legislation is here to erase the entire livelihood of the LGBTQ person in Uganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the death penalty fit into this, Frank Mugisha?

FRANK MUGISHA: The death penalty — first of all, it’s important to note that the initial text of the bill did not have the death penalty. To show you how extreme the members of the Ugandan Parliament are, the death penalty was introduced during the debate.

The death penalty would criminalize any person who engages in sexual acts with a minor, or if someone is an authority. But let us not confuse the death penalty for only punishing people — pedophiles, people who abuse children. The death penalty would criminalize any person who is a serial offender. It means that any person who breaks the law more than once, under this legislation, would be criminalized. If a landlord rents out their premises to a person who is known or perceived to be LGBTQ, and they are convicted under this law more than once, they are defined as a serial offender. If any LGBTQ person who is living their life in Uganda breaks the law more than once — that could be speaking out, that could be identifying as LGBTQ, that could be two consenting adults — but as long as you’re convicted more than once, then you become a serial offender, and you could be executed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about two young people, two minors?

FRANK MUGISHA: That’s very interesting. This law, that the Ugandans, the Ugandan members of Parliament, are saying is here to protect children, this law would criminalize young queer persons, young LGBTQ persons, and I’m saying young LGBTQ persons who are under the age of 18, to three years in prison, if they’re identified as LGBTQ. Well, previously, we have seen that young people, if they identified as LGBTQ, they could get frowned upon, they could get suspended from school or expelled from school. Right now this law proposes that they should go to prison for three years. And three years in Uganda for a child, that is the maximum penalty under the Children’s Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, already there is a ban on gay sex. Is that right, Frank?

FRANK MUGISHA: There’s already a law that criminalizes same-sex acts to life in prison. We have the sodomy laws that most of the African countries have, that were, unfortunately, introduced by the British.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is all of this coming from? Talk about the trajectory of this increasing targeting, oppression of the LGBTQ community in Uganda.

FRANK MUGISHA: The oppression we are seeing now in Uganda is not Ugandan at all. The hatred, the radicalization of the Ugandan population to hate and fear LGBTQ persons is not Ugandan at all. The Ugandan society has always lived with homosexual persons, as we call homosexuals in Uganda, with LGBTQ persons in societies. They were never killed. They were never arrested. The homophobia and transphobia we are seeing towards queer and trans persons in Uganda is from the West. It is mostly peddled by extreme American evangelicals.

Just last week, we had American evangelicals in Uganda attending a conference that was titled “The Interparliamentary Conference on African Values.” But the agenda for this conference was anti-gay and anti-gender. In fact, some of the African members of parliament who attended this conference are trying to introduce similar legislation in other countries. For example, Kenya, a member of parliament who attended this conference in Uganda, that was heavily supported by American evangelicals, is now trying to introduce a similar legislation in Kenya. We are seeing this anti-gay propaganda and anti-gay legislations moving around Africa. Ghana already has one. We are worried about other countries, like Burundi, Tanzania, that could introduce similar legislations.

AMY GOODMAN: The Washington Post recently ran an article headlined “The U.S. connection to Uganda’s 'kill the gays' bill.” I want to read from the article. It says, “In 2020, London-based OpenDemocracy found that more than 20 American religious organizations advocating against LGBTQ rights, safe abortion, access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex education had spent at least $54 million furthering their agendas in Africa since 2007. Close to half that figure was spent in conservative, predominantly Christian Uganda alone.” That’s the piece from The Washington Post. Frank, can you talk more about this, and specifically about the U.S. evangelical pastor Scott Lively, who’s told the Ugandan Parliament that homosexuality is a Western-imported disease?

FRANK MUGISHA: Scott Lively is an American evangelical pastor. And I’m sure many people in America, in the United States, may not know him. But in Uganda he’s famous. When he first traveled to Uganda and he publicly held meetings with politicians, Ugandan government officials, he told Ugandans homosexuality is a Western agenda that needs to be fought. He introduced Western — excuse me — Western language that was not Ugandan. He introduced the language of “homosexuals promote homosexuality.” He introduced language like “homosexuals recruit children into homosexuality.” He introduced language, “Homosexuality is a Western agenda.” This was not Ugandan language. This was language that was introduced to Ugandans by American evangelical Scott Lively.

We worked together with our partner, the Center for Constitutional Rights, CCR, to hold Scott Lively accountable. In fact, we went to court. And for the first time, a judge in Massachusetts said that persecution of LGBTQ persons could amount to crimes against humanity. And for us, we exposed the hatred that Scott Lively was exporting to Uganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Mugisha, in 2011, your friend David Kato, who’s really considered the father of Uganda’s gay rights movement, was bludgeoned to death. Can you talk about the kind of physical violence people face, and if the situation has improved at all? And even though it is over a decade later, my deepest condolences.

FRANK MUGISHA: Thank you so much. I mean, it was very painful, but also worrying, for many of us, when David, my colleague, David Kato, was murdered. David Kato was murdered at his house. So, that, you know, petrified me. And many people, indeed, were worried and scared for their own personal lives, but also for the safety of the community.

Right after that, a few years later, the situation improved a bit for the LGBTQ community, but, most recently, we’ve seen the situation get worse. Many LGBTQ persons in Uganda have been violated. Many LGBTQ persons in Uganda are getting arrested. There’s an increase in blackmail and extortion. There’s an increase of social exclusion. And right now what we’re seeing is not only crackdown on LGBTQ persons from law enforcement, but we’re seeing harassment from ordinary Ugandans. Ordinary Ugandans. We are worried that if this legislation is signed, we will see mob justice. We are seeing communities, for instance, raiding schools where perceived LGBTQ persons work. We are seeing workshops and events getting raided. We are seeing people getting arrested for simply — and getting undressed. Transgender persons on national television are getting undressed. So the situation has gotten worse in the past year and recent months.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you’re here in the United States now, lobbying, educating people about what’s happening in your country, in Uganda, on your continent, Africa. I wanted to get your impression of what’s happening here. According to the ACLU, there have been 419 anti-LGBT laws introduced in the United States, just in this year alone. What message does this send to politicians in Uganda and Africa?

FRANK MUGISHA: That is very good to note, first of all, to see that the issue of homophobia, transphobia, the backlash the LGBT community is facing, is not only an African problem, it’s a global problem. So Africa should not be seen as the only, you know, homophobic place. But homophobia and transphobia is happening, and it’s increasingly around the world now.

The signal that these anti-gay legislations that are being introduced in the United States is sending to Africa is not good, because most and some of the text that we are seeing in some of the legislations, for example, in Uganda and other places in Africa, is similar to text of the legislations being introduced here. But for African politicians, this is good. This is good for them. They are using that in saying we can — even in developed countries, homosexuality is not accepted. And I’ve seen videos of misinformation or disinformation circulating around, quoting some of the political leaders and saying they don’t support homosexuality. And, you know, so, the politicians in Africa will use anything homophobic and transphobic to try and justify what they are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Frank Mugisha, one of the leading LGBTQ activists in Uganda, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Uganda’s Parliament passed the anti-LGBT measure in March by a near-unanimous vote. The bill is now awaiting the signature of Uganda’s president. Visit democracynow.org to see the full interview with Frank Mugisha.

Next up, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Wave” by The Ahmad Jamal Trio. The legendary pianist died on Sunday at the age of 92.

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