Frank Mugisha: The shield of notoriety

Frank Mugisha (30) spearheads the fight for sexual minority rights in conservative Uganda. The killing, two years ago, of his long-time friend and colleague-activist David Kato has only strengthened his motivation. ‘Let’s debate things, let’s put them out there. Yes, people will get hurt, people will get killed. But in the end, we will liberate.’

Frank Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a non-profit organisation striving for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) people. Created in 2004, SMUG is now an umbrella for seventeen LGBTI organisations in Uganda. SMUG operates from an anonymous house in a residential area in Uganda’s capital Kampala.

Mugisha divides his energy between advocacy, capacity building and ‘emergency response’. The first two are about briefing the media, lobbying politicians and NGO’s and training LGBTI-organisations.  

Regarding ‘emergency response’, Mugisha cites an example from December. Two activists were arrested and charged with crimes relating to homosexuality. ‘I suddenly got a call’, Mugisha recounts. ‘That meant I had to cancel my appointments and with SMUG’s lawyer I immediately went to the police station to negotiate a release.’ The two activists were set free after two, respectively four days in custody. They may still face prosecution.

Mugisha’s emergency work grew big after the introduction of the ‘anti-gay Bill’ by MP David Bahati in 2009. Even though the Bill has not yet been passed and the proposed death penalty has apparently been scrapped, the legislation has already cast a tall shadow. LGBTI people in Uganda are nearly continuously at risk.

David Kato
In January 2011, Mugisha’s close friend and colleague at SMUG, David Kato, was killed. Kato had won a lawsuit against Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone which had published the names of one hundred (supposed) homosexual Ugandans, including Kato and Mugisha. The headline: ‘Hang them!’

‘The murder of David made me very scared, even paranoid,’ Mugisha remembers. ‘Then, David’s death convinced me even more of my task. I doubled my efforts.’

Not for personal gain
Some commentators suggest that Uganda’s LGBTI community exaggerates the dangers it faces in the hope of making personal gains. Mugisha: ‘What gains? I travel a lot but I do that for SMUG. I have used the prize money from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in the U.S. [awarded to Mugisha in 2011] to set up a health clinic for LGBTI people in Kampala.’

Mugisha doesn’t even receive a salary, though he works for SMUG full-time. ‘I am helped out by friends and relatives who have not rejected me.’

Mugisha is ambivalent about Western politicians and media openly condemning Uganda. ‘Conservative pastors and politicians here use foreign criticism to present gay rights as part of a Western agenda.’ At the same time, Mugisha is relieved with the Western pressure. ‘At least now Uganda debates sexual minority issues.’

What is more important than political change, Mugisha believes, is cultural change. ‘The hardest part is not even combating Bahati’s Bill but changing the mindsets of ordinary Ugandans.’

Frank Mugisha refuses to resettle to a safe country. He does want to live abroad at some point. ‘But not before sexual minorities have been decriminalized in Uganda. So let’s debate things, let’s put them out there. Yes, people will get hurt, people will get killed. But in the end, we will liberate.’

By Mark Schenkel