By Matthew Waites
An audio recording is now available from the University of Glasgow of a public event ‘The Present Situation of LGBTI People in Uganda’, with Dr. Frank Mugisha on 16 June 2015 (click here to listen). Dr. Mugisha is Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the major coalition of organisations supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people’s human rights in Uganda. The event was chaired by Dr. Matthew Waites, Senior Lecturer in Sociology (co-editor of the free online collection Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change), as a joint event of both Glasgow Human Rights Network and the Gender and Sexualities Forum.
‘Unnatural offences’ concerning ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ have been prohibited by legal statutes in Uganda since their creation by the British Empire in 1902. Dr. Mugisha’s lecture discusses developments since 2009 when the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ was introduced into the Uganda parliament, initially proposing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, though the later enacted version removed the death penalty. On 24 February 2014, after the bill’s passage through parliament, President Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law. However on 1 August 2014 the Constitutional Court in Uganda ruled the Act invalid due to parliament not being quorate when passed. A further bill called The Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill was drafted in 2014. Dr. Mugisha’s lecture surveys a range of ongoing legal and social conflicts currently ongoing in Uganda, including reference to current legal action against US Christian anti-gay pastor Scott Lively.
Matthew Waites engaged as discussant in a conversation over how people and organisations in the UK could better support the Uganda LGBTI movement, raising questions concerning strategies of rights-claiming, the value of invoking ‘genocide’, and the distribution of money in global LGBTI politics, with reference to the sociology of human rights. Scott Cuthbertson was a further speaker from Scotland’s Equality Network for LGBTI equality and human rights, commenting on his organisation’s international work. The audio recording also includes questions from the audience, and offers transnational North/South dialogue on LGBTI human rights with a leader of LGBTI activism in Africa.
On the following day, Commemoration day, Dr. Mugisha was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of the University. This day 17 June also happened to be Dr. Mugisha’s birthday. The ceremony was held in the Bute Hall, with Honorary Degrees conferred by the Chancellor, and other recipients including Baroness Scotland. Details and further pictures are available on the Commemoration day website.
The oration presenting Dr. Mugisha to the Chancellor was provided by Professor Deirdre Heddon, Dean of the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities, and after this Dr. Mugisha received the biggest cheer during the day’s ceremony. The oration – previously published in the Commemoration day brochure – is reprinted here:
‘It really is a great privilege to present Dr. Mugisha to you today. Dr. Mugisha is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a coalition of 18 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex – or LGBTI organisations –founded in Uganda in 2004. The vision of SMUG is simple but powerful: “A Liberated LGBTI people of Uganda”. Equally simple but no less powerful is its first objective – “to advocate and lobby for the equality of all Ugandans, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, tribe, religion, and social status”. Dr. Mugisha has been advocating and lobbying for such equality for his entire adult life. More than a decade ago, he set up Icebreakers Uganda, a support group for those who were openly gay or who were coming out as gay. Frank himself claimed and owned his sexual identity at the age of 14.
In 2014, Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The passing of this Act makes tangible the precarious context in which Frank and his colleagues work daily to secure the human rights of Ugandan citizens. Whilst the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which permitted life sentences for some sexual acts between consenting adults, was subsequently ruled unconstitutional because of a technicality, the threat of a new bill remains. So do the very real impacts of the previous bill and the ideology it enshrined, as well as the hostile landscape in which such an Act could be tabled in the first place. Following the introduction of the new bill, increased discrimination against LGBTI citizens was reported, including evictions, dismissal from employment, reduction of health care provision, increased arrests, and violent assaults, including at least one death.
Against such a background of intolerance, it is perhaps little wonder that less than 20 Ugandans are publicly ‘out’. In fact, perhaps it is more of a wonder that anyone is publicly ‘out’ at all. To be out is to claim and not deny, to be proud and not ashamed. But to be out in this context is to be out to risk too. The risks of not being out, though, of complete invisibility, might be deemed to be even greater. Without visible and lived opposition, how can homophobia be challenged? Without visible and lived opposition how can human rights be granted to all humans? Without visible and lived opposition, how are alternative lives and loves imagined to be possible? Without visible and lived opposition, how can a different Uganda come to be? As Frank has stated, though Uganda is historically conservative, “it never used to be a cruel environment for gay people.” To be out is to speak truth to power.
Dr. Mugisha is one of the most prominent, persistent advocates for LGBTI rights in Uganda, vocally and defiantly committed to changing the lives of those who identify as LGBTI. It is because of people like Frank, acting out their courage, belief and hope across different geographies and histories, that people like me can be who we are, without shame, without fear, and sometimes, occasionally, without even thinking.
Dr. Mugisha’s unstinting fight for the rights for LGBTI people has been acknowledged by numerous international awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Human Rights in 2011. In recognition of what he stands for, and what he stands up for, Frank was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
I like to think that 2014 was memorable to Frank for another reason too, though, because in 2014, at the invitation of the Scottish Government, Frank represented Sexual Minorities Uganda at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He was also an invited keynote speaker at the LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth conference, a collaboration between Glasgow Human Rights Network, based at the University of Glasgow, and the Equality Network, Kaleidoscope Trust, and Pride Glasgow. Our Principal, Professor Anton Muscatelli, attended that conference and fully adopted the statement that emerged from it, a statement that both recognised the historical responsibility of the British Empire in the criminalisation of same-sex sexual behaviour between consenting adults and which called for the repeal of these British colonial laws. So, with great pleasure, I welcome Frank back to Glasgow and to the University, and with awe and gratitude I embrace him today as a member of our University’s proud family.’
Postscript: Dr. Mugisha has subsequently been photographed wearing a new pink University of Glasgow hoodie for the 2015 Pride march in New York, on 28 June, in the company of other leading Ugandan LGBTI activists including Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera (recently pictured on the cover of Time magazine), Pepe Onziema and Richard Lusimbo.