Celebrating medals of honor: why LGBT communities demand more

Every single achievement that I have encountered in my life has been uncomfortable that now I am addicted to being uncomfortable. If it is not scary, I don’t want to do it. If it is not edgy and half-crazy I am not interested in it. But if it is something that makes me stay up in the night and makes me less popular, then I am going to do it.

This year, three colleagues have been recognized, applauded, and rewarded for their indelible contribution to human rights. That’s three awards for three members of our coalition in less than a year! For me, these three individuals have given me an opportunity to look back on the story of Self, story of Us, and story of Now.

Many people ask what drew me to activism. My answer is that we are all called to something. The difference is that some of us don’t venture out of our comfortable places. But isn’t it obvious that if you belong to a certain minority group you will want to serve your community in some way? Not so obvious.

A couple of years ago when we first began organizing, the community was more of a solitary place than a social movement. Now it is impossible to look back on any of those experiences and fail to recognize that so much has changed. I remember meetings we held every Tuesday night at a local gay-friendly bar in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb. Most of us felt that we were called to this cause but none of us imagined what it would take to sustain ourselves in the vision. Even the “recklessly courageous” person that I have been described as often revealed a big coward. Now I know that it was hope that motivated me to lead.

It is because of this that I think of  the Human Rights First Award, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award as medals of hope. This hope, the hope that things do get better, requires that we forsake our comfort in order to obtain our freedom. The reason most people have not found their purpose is because they will not pay the price for their destiny. It’s either you go back to where you came from and live comfortable or want change bad enough to get out of your comfort zone.

As I think of activists Julius Kaggwa, Kasha Jacqueline, and Frank Mugisha who, through their leadership, have given our community hope, I am reminded that our stories are not written in stone. We are constantly evolving.

I think of the daily struggles they endure and the courage that often outruns their resources. In recognition of the fact that funding for LGBT organizations in Uganda has increased over the last two years partly because of the anti-homosexuality bill which has elevated the plight of sexual minorities, there is still a lot of work to done in as far as funding LGBT human rights work in Africa is concerned. A lot of what happens in human rights cannot happen without funding. African LGBT movements are not an exception to this fact.

With most LGBT organizations in Uganda operating on annual operating budgets of less than $10,000, I can only wish that these medals of hope will lift LGBT communities from the periphery of under-funded social justice struggles. If these medals are going to create ripples of change within the movement, then we have to address the funding challenge. That human rights defenders should continue to put their lives on the line for a just cause is enough to grant them the privilege of working with ample resources that will help them touch lives. To acknowledge this challenge is to recognize its urgency.

For it is not about the outcome of the struggle. It is the process of the struggle that is fulfilling. For instance, whether the kill the gays bill becomes law or not, we have already won. Stories of Julius, Kasha, and Frank help us see this victory ever better. Change can come from the most unlikely, uncomfortable places. The three awards are so much about significance than they are about prophets being without honor in their homeland.

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Can gay rights activists trust Museveni to “Handle It?”

For the last two years since the introduction of the anti-homosexuality bill, I have argued that the anti-gay movement in Uganda is bigger than the individuals gay activists have singled out as the crusaders of the anti-gay agenda in Uganda. By fighting frivolous figures such as David Bahati, gay activists have gone out of sight of the underlying motives behind the bill and the intentions it seeks to satisfy. One such intention is Christian fundamentalism which is unmistakeably at the heart of the anti-gay agenda.

Following leaked diplomatic cables citing the role of Uganda First Lady Janet Museveni in sustaining the anti-homosexuality bill, it is worthwhile paying attention to the breadth of what drives this bill.

The Sunday Monitor reports that a leaked cable between Senior Presidential Adviser John Nagenda and a US embassy political officer mentions Mrs. Museveni having special interest in the Kill the Gays bill. Nagenda is quoted to have described Mrs. Museveni as ‘a very extreme woman.” Not surprising. Mrs. Museveni is known to have strong ties to US evangelicals and the Pentecostal movement in Uganda. She is also known for moral-lecturing at national youth conferences where she speaks of the dangers of the secular world and urges the youth to embrace “spiritual growth.” Her legacy of making a difference in the lives of Ugandan children is a virtue of her well-meaning intentions to give them a worthwhile future. She has also supported national campaigns to encourage abstinence among the youth. All her good intentions observed, it is important to put the legacy of the First Lady into perspective if tracing the long trajectory of the Christian Right will make sense of the the motives that drive anti-gay campaigners to frenzy over a bill that is out-rightly unconstitutional, descriptively redundant, and regrettably diversionary.

The globalization of the Christian Right is emerging at a time when most Ugandans, including highly placed politicians, are looking to religious leaders for answers to problems facing the country. The objective of protecting the African traditional family as mentioned in the preamble of the bill digs deep into the conservative agenda that the legislation seeks to promote.

The growing movement of evangelicals in Africa has ushered in a new era of Eurocentric thoughts and beliefs on family, sex, and marriage. Same-sex relationships are condemned because “they are not in line with God’s purpose for procreation,” an idea that the evangelical tradition shares with traditional African culture except for different reasons. While African culture espouses sex for procreation as a way of continuing family lineage, the evangelical tradition espouses procreation on the basis that non-child bearing sexual relationships are against God’s intention for marriage.

As American evangelicals bring their theology of “sexual uprightness” to Africa they meet a people who are not only threatened by the promotion of human rights (which in Africa could pass as the “return” of colonialism) but are strongly attached to continuation of family lineage through child bearing. On a continent where people are still threatened by human rights, adverse anti-gay sentiments are becoming more visible and it is almost difficult to eliminate them because of the theology through which they are propagated.

The arguments against separation of church and state have birthed a sexual revolution that has led to the rise of anti-gay movements in Africa. It is a major cultural shift between African tradition and its “live and let live” stance on non-heterosexual relationships and western-bred evangelical theology which places procreation at the center of human sexual relationships.

Most Christian fundamentalists believe that states would not function well unless they sought guidance from a higher power. From Francis Schaeffer to Janet Museveni, the long trajectory of the Christian Right is proof that the “gays are a threat to state power” mindset has always informed their politics and theology.

 President Museveni has assured donors that he has the anti-homosexuality bill under control. His adviser Nagenda even urged diplomats to not to publicize the bill as this would spark off more anti-gay sentiments in the country. However, based on the weight of advocacy that has been done by human rights activists to ensure that a bill which could have become law two years ago is still lurking in parliament and has been opposed by cabinet, we cannot keep silent and put our trust in the words of a leader of state who appears as an ally at donor tables but speaks so violently of LGBT rights whenever he wants to use it as a strategy to remain popular especially among religious groups.

Hopefully, President Museveni will step up his promise to “handle” the bill.  We will not allow the future of LGBT rights and human rights in general to be determined by the First Lady and her evangelical cohorts.