Remarks by Kerry Kennedy at the 2011 RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony
I’d like to read to you from the New York Times:
That conference and the follow-up legislation exemplify the attacks endured by Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex – LGBTI – community. And give us some sense of the quality of mind and spirit that enables this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate, Frank Mugisha, to face the difficulty, the danger, the pain of activism.
In November, 2010, a Uganda news magazine published a series of articles outing members of the LGBTI community, beneath a headline which read, “hang them.”
In response, neighbors surrounded one outed lesbian’s home, hurling rocks. Other victims of the involuntary outing were threatened with death and beaten.
When confronted by the violence he had instigated, the magazine’s editor responded: “I was only trying to protect Ugandans from those seeking to “recruit children to homosexuality.”
On January 26th, 2011, Frank Mugisha’s dear friend and colleague at Sexual Minorities Uganda or SMUG, David Kato, whose photograph appeared with Frank’s in the same issue, was beaten to death. In response, the same editor justified outing the victims by saying: “We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them.”
In a country where 96 percent of the population believes that homosexuality should be rejected by society, LGBTI citizens face bullying, discrimination, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, cruel punishment, torture and death based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Activists who work to expose such abuses are frequently targeted.
The homophobia of Uganda’s citizenry is not only a cultural phenomenon; it is enshrined in law.
Under Uganda’s legal system, homosexuality is a criminal offence that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The Anti –Homosexuality Bill, proposed in 2009, and still under consideration by Parliament, seeks to further entrench discrimination and hatred against LGBTI people. It would: make consensual homosexual acts punishable by life in prison and in some cases, by the death penalty; effectively prevent medical treatment; and, make failure to report, punishable by imprisonment.
Even if the bill fails, its supporters have already called for harsher enforcement of the country’s existing draconian laws.
It is in this atmosphere of legalized brutality that Frank Mugisha leads SMUG, an umbrella group for LGBTI activism in Uganda.
When Frank was 7, his father died, and his mother raised Frank and his younger brother outside Kampala.
Frank attended all boys Catholic schools until college, where homosexuality was considered sick and sinful, and those suspected of being gay faced humiliation and expulsion.
He prayed to God that his burden would be lifted, but, like Jeremiah, he became the unwilling prophet of tolerance and compassion.
During high school, the time of life when most kids are struggling to fit in, Frank spoke forcefully on behalf of sexual minorities. And then, at 16, when he knew he would be ostracized and hated, he came out to his friends.
Frank Mugisha exemplifies Robert Kennedy’s vision of moral courage. Even as a teenager, Frank braved the disapproval of his fellows, the censure of his colleagues, the wrath of his society. For moral courage, Frank paid a high price.
Members of his family stopped speaking to him. Friends denied knowing him. No one would hire him. He was harassed, humiliated and abused. He faced hostility, threats, intimidation.
With undaunted courage, he forged ahead, offering counsel and refuge to those who felt isolated and abandoned because of the way they were born.
In 2004, emboldened by an article he read about gay rights activism, Frank founded Icebreakers Uganda, to offer support for sexual minorities.
As a result of his advocacy, Frank was threatened and targeted for arrest. He had to flee his country to seek safety, where he could have lived a peaceful life.
Instead, at grave personal risk, he returned to Uganda where he and seven courageous colleagues took part in a public media campaign proudly identifying themselves sexual minorities.
Soon after, Frank assumed leadership of SMUG a network of Ugandan organizations advocating on behalf of the LGBTI minority.
Under Frank’s leadership, SMUG advocates for equality, bolsters LGBTI visibility through media and literature, and empowers activists through leadership and social entrepreneurship trainings. SMUG also fights against HIV/AIDS in LGBTI communities and speaks out against gender- and sexual-orientation-based violence.
Frank described his work simply: “I wake up every morning, and say: I have to do what I have to do. If I receive a phone call that someone is already in jail and I risk arrest myself by going to the prison, I just go. If I receive a phone call about someone who needs my support about coming out, I meet them and talk to them.”
Just as Frank is there to answer the call, we, at the RFK Center, call for change.
Today, Frank, the Robert F Kennedy Partners for Human Rights joins you in your struggle. We are committed to bringing all the resources of our organization to our new 6 year partnership with you.
We will listen to your needs. We will develop a long term plan. We will work with you, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. You will never be alone.
Robert Kennedy said, “those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.”
From this day forward, we, at the RFK Center are your companions.
I would like everyone in this room to stand up. And I’d like you to say, with conviction and heart, all at once,
WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE!
Look around this room, Frank, and know every person here is on your side.
There is a Ugandan proverb that says: “Old men sit in the shade because they planted a tree many years before.”
Frank, I believe that because of your courage and with the support of your companions, you will enjoy the shade of the tree you have planted, as will the thousands of Ugandans for whom you have advocate.
It is an honor for me to join with my mother, Ethel Kennedy, and with Senator John Kerry, to present you with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for 2011.