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Ugandan Gay Activist: President Will Have No Problem Putting Me In Jail


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This week, we've been taking a look at proposed new laws, both here and overseas, that affect LGBT people. Yesterday, we talked about a bill under consideration in Arizona that would allow business owners with religious objections to refuse to serve LGBT people.

Today, we hear about developments in Uganda. That country has become the latest African country to ramp up laws against homosexuality. The bill we're talking about was drafted nearly five years ago, but after a number of legislative twists and turns and some strong appeals from Western figures who oppose it, it was signed into law this week. The bill removes the death penalty as a punishment for certain acts, which was contained in an earlier draft, but it retains harsh penalties for same-sex acts, performing same-sex marriages or for those who counsel LGBT people. The bill signing was accompanied by some very pointed language by Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. Here's a clip of him speaking to CNN's Zain Verjee.


ZAIN VERJEE: Do you personally dislike homosexuals?

PRESIDENT YOWERI MUSEVENI: Of course, they're disgusting. What sort of people are they? How can you go - I never knew what they were doing. That's what I've been told recently that what they're doing is terrible. Disgusting.

MARTIN: We've been following this issue for some time now, and we've been speaking with people on all sides of this very difficult and emotional issue. I should say that tomorrow we will hear another perspective from the American evangelical leader, Scott Lively. Today, though, we are joined once again by Frank Mugisha. He is the director of a group called Sexual Minorities Uganda that's been working against the criminalization of homosexuality. He's on a visit to the U.S., and he stopped by our studios in Washington, D.C. Frank Mugisha, welcome back to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.

FRANK MUGISHA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you hear your president speak about LGBT people in that way, I just have to ask you how you respond.

MUGISHA: First of all, it breaks my heart so much for our president to say such kind of statements and also for someone in leadership, for someone who is going to be listened to by very many Ugandans, for someone who many Ugandans trust and take the word of what he says. And for me, his words, they are creating more violence and more hostility towards LGBT persons.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, you know, we've spoken before and, you know, I think a number of people wonder how you are able to function as an openly gay man in Uganda and as an activist in behalf of LGBT rights. And you were telling us that it wasn't always this way - that you were never really comfortable, but that your feelings of insecurity, of really being in danger, have increased over time. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

MUGISHA: Before I think I started feeling a lot more fear, a lot more danger, when the bill was introduced in parliament. And then when it was passed by parliament and also when Scott Lively and other Christian evangelicals visited Uganda and they started, you know, telling Ugandans the language of that we recruit children, and that we're promoting homosexuality. So Ugandans started, you know, becoming more hostile towards us.

And of course, for me, it created more fear because I wasn't so much scared of the government, but I was so much scared of the ordinary Ugandans who are being told all this information and what they would do to me. But now, most recently, when the political leaders have also started now speaking the same language and saying the same things, that does really increase my fears - and by the president signing the bill into law. So I think he will have no problem putting me in jail as well.

MARTIN: What is your understanding, what is your view of what is behind the move to introduce these kinds of laws now - not just in Uganda, but in other parts of Africa?

MUGISHA: I think it's because of these conservative religious groups, these extreme religious groups that have failed to do their work here in the U.S. and other Western countries that are looking at Africa as the place that has ignorant people. Let us go there and do whatever we want, everyone is going to listen. And our politicians are happy with this because this is creating - it's becoming a popular issue and helping them divert their attention from the things they haven't done.

MARTIN: Well, but, you know, but - I understand that there are - a number of activists believe that this is - that this attitude or hostility toward LGBT people is a Western import, but there have been a number of surveys that show wide disapproval of homosexuality across the continent. I mean, in 2013 the Pew Research Center did a study on global attitudes and 96 percent of Ugandans were against it, second only to Nigeria where it was nearly unanimous, at least as a polling experience. And so when you look at that, can you really say that this is an attitude that was imported from somewhere else?

MUGISHA: Yeah. I think most of the studies that have come, have come in the late 2000s. But if you check in the early '90s and the '80s, the attitudes were totally different. And that was when we didn't have a lot of extreme religious influence in Uganda. And also Uganda is extremely a very Christian country, so anything a Christian says in Uganda is accepted.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking about Uganda's new anti-gay laws with LGBT activist Frank Mugisha. We caught up with him on a visit to the U.S. I mentioned that we will speak with Scott Lively tomorrow and, as you have said, that he has traveled to Uganda a number of times as a missionary. He's spoken to both political leaders and has had public events that were very, very well attended. When he spoke to us in 2009 - he later spoke to the Globe in 2011 - he has said that he doesn't feel that these laws are appropriate. I'll just play a short clip from his conversation with the Globe.


SCOTT LIVELY: What I proposed for Uganda was a redemptive approach. And I spoke to the parliament - or at least members of the parliament - and I told them that what they should do is not to focus on punishment, but to focus on rehabilitation.

MARTIN: Now your group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, has accused Scott Lively of crimes against humanity. Why do you say that?

MUGISHA: I said that because, like I mentioned, Uganda is a very religious country and our members of parliament are also very religious. So if a religious person tells them anything, they're likely to act in the most extreme way, and this extreme way has been making my life very difficult in Uganda - you know, my friends facing jail, my friends being arrested, you know, all the violence that is tied in towards us, you know, not being able to operate and do my work properly like any other Ugandan, and also saying that we're recruiting and promoting homosexuality, which we are not doing. You know, introducing language that wasn't Ugandan language. So for us, we're saying this has really made our lives very difficult.

MARTIN: Well, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit in Massachusetts on your behalf. I think it's the first case of its kind. It says that his involvement in these efforts in Uganda constitute persecution. And I understand that you're not an expert on the American legal system, you know, but part of the concern of people who oppose LGBT rights here is their argument is that their right to preach the truth as they see it, their right to preach the gospel as they see it, is being compromised so this is an effort to persecute them. And I'd like to ask how you respond to that.

MUGISHA: Yes. I totally understand, like, I don't understand the American law, like you mentioned, but I totally understand that any person, every person in this world has the right to say anything they want, anything they feel like saying. But taking action, inflicting pain or making someone suffer, you know, the action is the most important thing here.

MARTIN: The crux of the argument seems to be the idea that LGBT people are recruiting children and that is also the crime that carries the heaviest penalty. Including, I have to say, multiple acts between consenting adults is also heavily, heavily charged.


MARTIN: But do you know, what is that basis of this argument around recruiting children?

MUGISHA: So the basis of this argument is all propaganda that has been going on in Uganda from religious extreme conservatives who have forced the president - actually blackmailed the president into signing this law. They have said that we recruit children into homosexuality, but, you know, with the homophobia that exists in Uganda, I find it strange that actually a politician would believe this because if any person recruited one person in school, they would get arrested or they would get beaten or they would get exposed. We have the media, you know, exposing people who are known to be gay. How come they don't expose anyone who has been in school recruiting someone?

MARTIN: I understand that while you're in the U.S., you're meeting with some U.S. policymakers. There is talk about asking the American government to suspend aid to Uganda. Would you want the U.S. to suspend aid to Uganda in protest of this new law?

MUGISHA: I would never support aid cuts to Uganda because Uganda is a very - is a developing country and I think my president is wrong when he says that we don't need the money. I think we need the money. Our infrastructure is not good. We need the money, but we need to set conditions when we're giving this money. We need to make sure the money goes to support every person without discrimination. I think reviewing is what I would look at right now, but I would never support the aid cuts.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I do have to ask, how do you live now? I mean how - this bill has been discussed, as we've said, since 2009. I mean, since 2009 you've been living under the specter of this big public debate, and I wanted to ask, you know, what do you do? I mean, can you go to the grocery store without being harassed? I mean, can you go to the market? Can you go about your business? Go to work? One of the other points we didn't mention is that there's been a newspaper who's published the pictures of people who they say, or in some cases are, lesbian or gay to publicly expose them to public attention, and I just wanted to ask, what does that mean for you?

MUGISHA: Right now I'm in the U.S. with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights and I received the Robert F. Kennedy Award, so that kind of gave me high profile. And, for me, that has given me some level of political protection. But in terms of around the community, therefore I mentioned, I'm more worried about my neighbors. So I have to keep changing residence. I cannot stay in one place for long. And then, if I'm going to do my shopping, I have to go with a friend or at least inform someone where I'm going, so in case I'm attacked by someone on the street who doesn't like me or whom is offended by me being out and being gay, then someone knows about you, someone can easily come and just kill me.

And then coming to the point of publishing people's pictures, for me, I think this is one of the worst things that we're seeing happen in Uganda with the bill being signing because the public has been asking for the president to sign this law. And the Ugandan public has been seen to be violent when a law is passed. Not only on homosexuality, they passed a law on anti-pornography, and women are already being attacked for wearing short skirts. So now the Red Pepper tabloid publishing pictures of people who are known or perceived to be homosexuals, it is like the Red Pepper is saying, go after them, here they are, which is very dangerous.

MARTIN: Frank Mugisha is the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. That's an advocacy group that advocates in behalf of the rights of LGBT people. And we caught up with him on a visit to the United States, and he joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Frank Mugisha, thank you for speaking with us once again.

MUGISHA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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