When I first heard about the Kill the Gays Bill in Uganda, my initial reaction was an ugly defense mechanism — I distanced myself emotionally by writing off the entire country as backwards and brutish and the victims as helpless and anonymous. Of course, such crass stereotyping is wrong in any context. And by engaging in it, even for a moment, I obscured the efforts of individual LGBTs and allies working hard in those countries to advance the cause of equality. The death of David Kato has made me reflect on their efforts once again.
Kato reportedly described himself as perhaps the first “out” gay man in Uganda. He was a fearless activist who was pictured on the front page of a Ugandan paper under the exhortation “Hang them!” Kato sued the paper and won earlier this month — a huge victory for Ugandan LGBTs. Last week, Kato was murdered in his home.
Although Kato was murdered, the struggle continues and his spirit lives on. One of Kato’s friends wrote at the blog Gay Uganda: “Gay activists in Uganda are quarrelsome and militant. Many in the mould of David Kato.” Gay Ugandans gathered openly at Kato’s funeral, and put a stop to a homophobic pastor who began to desecrate his memory with a homophobic rant. The incident was widely reported internationally, which was a victory in itself. In another major victory, a Ugandan newspaper published an editorial in support of gay rights in the wake of Kato’s death. Kato’s friend remarked that “Kato would have loved the attention that his death has generated over gay issues in Uganda.”
The struggles we LGBTs face in the U.S. and in Uganda are merely different battlegrounds in an unprecedented global civil rights movement made possible by the internet and other new forms of communication. The culture wars have gone global, for better and for worse. We see it in the pernicious influence of C-Street and other U.S. evangelical organizations in Africa, and we also see it when African LGBTs take inspiration from developments here. Another blog entry from Kato’s friend shows how well-informed he is about developments in the US:
I have become a keen follower of the gay rights movement in the US. … The gay rights war in the US spills over to Africa. Makes me much more likely to follow it. And, follow the arguments, and convolutions. There, it is not a fight for survival, as it is in Uganda. Life is basic, life and liberty are. But, once those are established in the minds of society, then we have to go for other insidious points of discrimination.
So, in the US, don’t ask don’t tell seemed like something small. But it was big. That is why its repeal was celebrated. And, gay Americans have not sat on their laurels. There are other laws which go against the grain of equality. We cannot be equal when there are laws which target us, and make it impossible for full equality to be enjoyed. So, DOMA is next. The Defence of Marriage Act.
Again, the principle is simple. If the law says we are equal to the rest of our brothers and sisters, then we should be equal indeed.
Twenty-five years ago, prior to the widespread use of the internet, it would have been impossible for someone in Uganda to be so well-informed and up-to-date about developments in the U.S. — and for Americans to learn so much about events in Uganda.
We can participate in the global struggle by staying informed about intentional developments and exerting as much pressure as we can. We have an obligation to do so, because what happens in the U.S. impacts the entire world. Here is what Kato’s friend has to say about our role:
For friends outside Uganda … we remind you that, the lessons of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the lessons of the death of David Kato are quite clear. You have a lot of clout here. It is through public opinion of Uganda in your country. It is in your country that you move the politicians to move the leaders in Uganda. And, it is not only political. It is also religious, and cultural. …
What seems to matter, to the government, to the people, is the reputation. And, if Uganda is in anyway sensitive to its reputation in the family of nations, it is vulnerable. Our country people, our government will treat us gay Ugandans like shit. But, they will not do that when you ask your leaders to ask them what justification they have to do that.
Because, Ugandans are vain. And, that vanity is susceptible to the ridicule that they are acting less than ‘civilised’
So ironically, perhaps, the impulse to paint Uganda as an uncivilized place can have a useful function. But it is only useful if coupled with a sense of solidarity with the Ugandan activists, and a willingness to take action.