One year later…What have we learned from the murder of David Kato?

LGBT activists and allies are attending the David Kato Kisule (DKK) Memorial in Kampala, one year since LGBT activist and leader David Kato was murdered in his home. Kato’s friends and family, including his mother, are attending the event organized by the Uganda National LGBT Security Task Force and Sexual Minorities Uganda. I just heard from one activist on the ground:

The memorial started an hour ago. Hymns, scripture reading,  prayers, and eulogies are being heard. The mood is sombre; mixture of celebrating life, remembering him and he is surely missed.

The DKK Memorial as we named it, is an event expected to be an outpouring of mixed emotions in remembrance and celebration of a man whose activism shone a light through our movement; a man whose death and the circumstances surrounding it still hurt and arouse anger; a man I respect; my father- as he always related with me.

I feel dispirited and almost failed to write this post.

One year after the murder of David Kato, I have many unanswered questions. I ask to what extent the Rolling Stone magazine  played a role. Was the publication of names, pictures, and addresses of Ugandans known or suspected to be gay an end to means orchestrated by his killers?

The Rolling Stone, at the time of David Kato’s  murder, was a little known bi-weekly publication “selling about 3000 copies that you had to spend time on the streets of Kampala to find a copy.” In fact, it was international media that introduced most Ugandans to the magazine and its editor Giles Muhame. “It was not even widely available outside Kampala” as one journalist observed. Knowing this, it seems more logical to argue that the Rolling Stone could have had little to do with inciting people to “Hang” a gay activist. I would like to argue that Rolling Stone’s publication of names and pictures of those known and suspected to be gay was a series of an already hatched plan to murder David Kato.

Celebrating David Kato

The death of David Kato has galvanized a breed of new activism and synergies in the Ugandan LGBT community. On my recent visit to Uganda, I met and interacted with a number of young activists and organizations whose joining the movement was a response to the death of this great activist. The movement has certainly grown bigger and stronger thanks to ongoing organizing by the Uganda Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. It is encouraging to know that what began as a make-shift entity to respond to the Anti-Homosexuality bill has not only become proactive in action but more grounded in a multi-dimensional sexual rights advocacy. Members of the coalition feel that it is time to move Beyond the Anti-Homosexuality bill and build a movement of sexual rights activists who will influence policy and change repressive laws that hinder the freedom of sexual minorities.

The coalition is also working to achieve wider recognition in Uganda as a group of scholars, lawyers, politicians, and social justice activists. It is in the interest of the coalition to make the Ugandan LGBT movement recognized at home. So far, the struggle for LGBT rights in Uganda is more recognized abroad than it is at home. Total change will only be realized when Ugandans recognize and respect the rights of LGBT persons. We certainly need more African voices on board.

The general situation of LGBT persons in terms of security and awareness of rights has improved. What is often read and heard in international media is not what is on the ground. It is not what I saw on my recent visit. LGBT persons in Uganda are not in hiding. When people like Secretary Hilary Clinton speak out against human rights violations in Africa, they send a strong message to our governments that persecution of LGBT persons is a human rights violation. This comes with some degree of protection from the state because our governments know that the world is watching. I spoke with some activists who feel protected by the state (the Police) than ever before. Even if there’s still a lot of work to be done by government, it is important to acknowledge that today, LGBT activists can engage the police. According to a report from the Hate No More campaign launched in 2o11 by Freedom and Roam Uganda, activists have held meetings with the police and some police official have shown interest in being educated and engaged on LGBT issues.

The situation of LGBT persons in Uganda is getting better. Not worse. It is important that international allies, donors, and partners know that their support and resources are making a difference.

I am having a difficult time telling foreign journalists and bloggers that the situation of LGBT persons in Uganda is getting better. As a group of activists, we recently visited a Ugandan LGBT community living in the ghettos of a Kampala suburb called Bwaise.

LGBT activists arriving to meet with the LGBTI community in Bwaise- one of Kampala's slum areas.

Here, they have managed to organize themselves against homophobia by getting involved in community development projects and have been accepted by would-have-been homophobic heterosexuals. This LGBT ghetto community also asked me to write a story on how the BCC through their 2011 documentary on Uganda titled “The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?” and journalist Scott Mills “used” them and promised them help but forgot about them even if “the documentary made a lot of money around the world.” In their own words, this community is disappointed that foreign journalists such as Scott Mills should travel to Uganda and prey on the plight of Ugandan LGBT persons and do nothing to give back to their communities. By failing to acknowledge the progress we have made as movement (albeit still ongoing tough struggles) and continuing to label Uganda as “the world’s worst place to be gay” and ignoring the positive stories we are witnessing, we are destroying the very lives we want to save.

A friend and journalist working for the New Vision recently wrote a story on the plight of a blind widowed HIV+ mother with 4 children in the rural areas of Western Uganda. (http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/314890-widowed-blind-and-hiv-positive-all-nyakato-needs-is-a-house.html). Nassar didn’t just tell the story. He asked people to help. Since the publication of the story, the New Vision has raised millions of shillings from Ugandans and abroad toward building a house for this family, treatment, and school fees. This is what bold journalism is all about. This is what journalists like Scott Mills should be doing when they come to Uganda. Let me also add that as a movement, we are fed up of being used as pawns by Western journalists who use our stories for their own selfish interests.

Bold journalism means that journalists should be able to translate stories they write into tangible results. What does it cost for the BCC to raise money for condoms and lubricants for the gay men Mills interviewed? Regardless of Western support, we need to have awareness of imperialist tendencies (what I call subtle racism) that is sometimes tied to the “help” we get.

I am convinced that the international community is genuinely interested in our freedom and that some journalists want to tell our stories in a way that raises our voices for liberation. However, I feel that NOW is the time to engage local media and potential allies on the African continent. The acceptance of African LGBT movements by Africans should be our priority. The international community has played its role. The stage has been set. It is time to translate this support into meaning change at home.

I was speaking at a conference at Union Theological Seminary in NYC when an American journalist walked up to me and said her editor doesn’t want to publish stories that portray the “getting better” situation for LGBT persons in Uganda. For the past three years since the introduction of the Bahati bill we have talked about how bad things are. Can we now begin to celebrate the progress we are making?

A colleague recently commented on my facebook update on the negative impact that international media has on African LGBT movements. He said:

Frankly it would have helped if our people on the ground had responded to the travesty of a documentary that Scott Mills produced. The silence from our end was as deafening as it was a tacit endorsement of Mill’s nonsense.

Nothing can be further from the truth. It is the tendency to believe that every ally has good intentions and not being able to question. It is important that African LGBT activists understand the intentional and unintentional harm that international media is doing to African LGBT movements and to condemn it whenever and wherever it happens.

In self-criticism, I know that most African LGBTs are not bold enough to condemn the kind of “Mill’s nonsense” that my colleague echoed. We have allowed the West to dictate our politics and write our narratives that we are losing our identity. I know that the arguments I make here are not popular; they don’t attract sympathy because they portray African LGBT persons as competent and independent when people expect them to be stupid.

After all is said, the best thing about the issues I raise here is that African LGBTs  know what they want and it’s time to claim it.