Uganda LGBTQ activist Mugisha readies to fight harsh anti-gay bill

Thursday April 13 2023
Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha

Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha (left) poses for a photo with LGBTQ members Eric Ndawula and Bana Mwesige in Makindye suburb of Kampala in Uganda on March 30, 2023. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA | REUTERS


When Frank Mugisha came out two decades ago as a gay in Uganda, it could be lonely and uncomfortable but rarely a matter of life and death.

Since then, Mugisha now the country's most prominent LGBTQ rights activist, the perils have multiplied. In 2011, his friend and colleague David Kato was bludgeoned to death. In addition, Mugisha regularly receives death threats.

Ugandan politicians and religious organisations have fanned anti-gay sentiment and lobbied for harsh legislation, culminating in the country’s parliament passage of a bill last month that would criminalise even identifying as LGBTQ.

Read: Uganda MPs table ant-LGBTQ bill

Mugisha feels obligated

"The Ugandan population has been radicalised to fear and hate homosexuals," Mugisha, 38, told Reuters during an interview outside the country’s capital, Kampala.


"If I was seven, nine, twelve or fourteen, I don't think I would tell anyone I am gay right now," he said.

Nonetheless, Mugisha says he will not give an inch in the face of the new bill, which is awaiting the signature of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO | BADRU KATUMBA | AFP

If Museveni signs it (as he is widely expected) to the bill passed with near unanimous support in Uganda’s parliament, then Mugisha's work could land him in jail under a law provision that punishes the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality with up to 20 years in prison.

But Mugisha said he feels an obligation to fight back on behalf of LGBTQ Ugandans, many of whom have left the country or fled their homes for safe houses since the bill was passed.

"I guess I am going to be in trouble a lot because I am not going to stop," Mugisha said.

The bill also imposes the death penalty for so-called aggravated homosexuality, which includes having gay sex while HIV-positive.

A practising Catholic typically seen in a blue suit and white shirt, Mugisha had what he calls a normal childhood by going to school and playing soccer in his Kampala neighbourhood.

“I realised I was gay as early as the age of seven but did not start to come out until I was 14. My parents turned to prayer and traditional healers before landing somewhere between denial and acceptance,” he said.

‘Anti-gay segment is Western’

Mugisha said he encountered no overt hostility from friends about his sexuality, although some kept their distance for fear, they would be suspected of being gay themselves.

In 2007, Mugisha took over leadership of Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug), an advocacy group he had earlier joined as an activist.

He saw a hardening of anti-LGBTQ views in the following years which he attributes to campaigning by ultra-conservative Christian groups, some from the US.

"Homophobia and this whole anti-gay sentiment are Western. They are not Ugandan," he said.

Same-sex relations were first criminalised in Uganda under British colonial rule. Mugisha said historically, Ugandans ‘frowned’ upon homosexuality but did not want to harm gay people.

Ugandan officials by contrast often say LGBTQ rights are a Western imposition.

Read: Ugandan MPs move to ‘save children from LGBTQ’

Mugisha's friend Kato was killed in 2011 months after a local newspaper printed the names, photographs and addresses of him as well as others in the LGBTQ community and called for them to be hanged.

The police said the murder was unconnected to his sexual identity, but Mugisha is certain that it was.

He considered leaving Uganda then, but he stayed and led the campaign against a law enacted in 2014 that stiffened penalties for same-sex relations.

That law was ultimately voided by the courts on procedural grounds and Mugisha is hoping for a similar outcome this time.

"Many people are going to challenge this law. Looking at this legislation, I do not think it will survive," he said.