We Are Here: LGBTI in Uganda
BY Sunnivie Brydum
January 02 2013 5:00 AM ET
Photos by D. David Robinson © 2013, for use by The Advocate with this article only. All rights reserved. Subjects have approved use of images contained herein.
Frank Mugisha, gay man, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)
When I was still very young and in primary school, I first encountered my sexual orientation. It wasn’t until I was well into secondary school, though, that I understood it wasn’t a phase. Like many boys my age I continued to date and have girlfriends for a while, although I was entirely attracted to boys. I dated girls due to peer pressure. In time I received a few private warnings from the school administrators, who were suspicious. I was suspended at one point, but it was all done very quietly. None of my friends knew about it, and there was no mention of homosexuality. A few friends disowned me, however. At some point I became confused. Everything that I was hearing about homosexuality didn’t match with my experience or my feelings.
But by my Senior 6 year [comparable to senior year of high school], many of my friends and family knew I was gay. I did not deny it, whenever I was asked. At university, I made several gay and lesbian friends. I began to wonder why Ugandan LGBTI people didn’t have groups where we could just hang out and talk about health and other issues affecting us. So, with several friends, I formed a small group, but we didn’t give it a name. This wasn’t about activism at this point; it was about us as friends, our community, and about sharing our stories.
Then around 2004, a few of us began to ask why we weren’t responding to things said about us in the media. That’s when we became more serious and founded Icebreakers Uganda. Our objective for this group expanded to include engaging the public. We would write letters in response to what the media portrayed about us, and I began writing regularly for different blogs. But I didn’t really think of myself as an activist at this time; I was still a student. My focus was my studies, which I took very seriously. Eventually, however, I received calls from other Ugandan activists and I joined the movement in a more visible way.
That is when Icebreakers Uganda joined Sexual Minorities Uganda. Later in 2007, I became the leader of SMUG. We worked hard to help those who had been imprisoned or needed assistance. Pretty quickly we earned a reputation for making a lot of noise immediately when something negative or illegal happened to members of the LGBTI community. I would send out messages to a listserv almost daily. At the same time, we began to organize workshops to educate and further empower our community in advocacy, skills, and health issues.
In 2010, SMUG went through an organizational restructuring. Many of us were getting burned out; we worked so hard in very stressful conditions, and it looked like some members would leave. But through this restructuring we managed to continue this important and difficult work. Today I still work as SMUG’s executive director, and much work remains to be done in Uganda and regionally.
Currently we’re facing the return of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda and this is very threatening. If passed, many lives and livelihoods would be put in jeopardy. Basic human rights would be denied to a whole segment of Ugandan citizens. In fact, many people would go to jail and, in some cases, as the bill outlines, for life; others would be killed. The bill is very dangerous because it further entrenches and institutionalizes homophobia in this country.
But the drafters and supporters of the bill do not understand. We don’t want to change African culture — we are, anyway, Africans, and we’re here. We’ve always been here. We just want to live our lives in peace, like other Ugandans. Like them, we want to live with the same rights and to contribute to the growth and success of our country.
In 2011, Frank Mugisha was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Norwegian Human Rights Rafto Prize for his work on behalf of LGBTI rights in Uganda.
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