Ugandan gay rights activist: ‘I have to watch my back more than ever’

Frank Mugisha, Chair of the NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda, is no stranger to receiving threats because of his sexual orientation. But when a Ugandan tabloid published his personal details in October and called for him and others to be hanged for ‘recruiting children’ he knew there would be a struggle ahead – on the streets and in the courts. Mugisha has told Amnesty International about the impact of the article on his life, and the so far successful legal battle by his organization, to stop the tabloid from inciting more hatred and violence towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community.One day last month, “a friend gave me the paper, and told me ‘well, you’re one of the top homos in Uganda’.”The first issue of the ‘Rolling Stone’ tabloid on 2 October bore the front page headline ‘100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak’ with a caption reading ‘Hang Them’.   According to Mugisha, the ‘Rolling Stone’ article was the most hostile attempt yet to incite panic about gay people in Uganda.  The front page also bore the claims “We Shall Recruit 100,000 Innocent Kids by 2012 – Homos” and “Parents Now Face Heart-Breaks [sic] as Homos Raid Schools.”  The issue, and another published on 31 October, together publicised the identities of 117 alleged homosexuals.“When I read the headline that said ‘hang them’ and then the fact they said we are out to recruit children, I was worried about the Ugandan community reading that kind of information and how they would react to it.”“Two days after the paper was on the streets I was harassed in my area, with verbal insults. Almost every person who was named in the paper has been harassed, and some have been attacked.” “The harassment comes from phone calls, people on the street, from neighbours, asking them why they are recruiting children, saying ‘the newspapers are calling for you to be hanged, we think you are worth it, worth being hanged, being killed’.”One of the members of his organization had her home pelted with stones by her own neighbours.“I do feel threatened, I feel now I have to watch my back more than ever.”But Mugisha and his organization were not forced into silence by this wave of harassment.  They have taken the tabloid to the Ugandan High Court.

On 1 November, the court issued an interim injunction against ‘Rolling Stone’, banning them from publishing any further personal details of alleged homosexuals as an invasion of privacy.  A hearing into the merits of the case will be heard later this month. According to media reports, the paper has since reportedly vowed to break the ban, saying it will continue to publish personal details of alleged homosexuals.Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda under colonial-era laws contrary to international human rights standards. In a chilling development in 2009, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed to institutionalize discrimination against people believed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.  The bill has yet to be debated in parliament.  “All this homophobia comes from ignorance.  The fact that there’s no space for discussion, no space for understanding, that’s why some of these government officials don’t understand the LGBTI issues.”Mugisha’s work continues, with a further High Court hearing against the newspaper scheduled for 23 November. He is optimistic about the hearing and confident in his organisation’s legal team.  Still, the life of an LGBTI activist in Uganda is one lived in caution.  “I don’t know what could happen to me at any minute. I do not know who wants to hang me, I do not know who wants to attack me. I cannot decide on my fate. [But] I cannot go back in the closet – I gave my life to the movement, I can’t change it now.” “What I can do is keep fighting on and be very careful.”