David Kato and the price of being a gay activist

Frank Mugisha

What you need to know:

  • The evangelical and catholic churches remain important channels for fueling homophobic rhetoric which the state reproduces. To save lives, the Church must preach tolerance. 

Today marks 12 years since the passing of my comrade, colleague, and fellow activist David Kato.  Kato was our  litigation and advocacy officer. He was open about his sexuality and made no apologies for his non-conformity. He was murdered in Mukono we believe for his sexuality and his work.  

Last year we began what we wish to be an annual tradition of both memorializing and honoring this trail blazer and giant. This short essay is part of a series to memorialize and reflect on what his death meant to us as a community but also importantly situate it within contemporary challenges for the community.

When the news of his death reached me, I stayed still for a moment unsure of what course of action to take after. While in disbelief about the news itself, I reflected on whether it was wise for me to go back home because I was away in the United States. It felt unsafe to return home, but I was traditionally obligated and convicted as a colleague  and friend to witness the final send-off of my friend, workmate, and fellow activist, but also be home with my fellow activists and friends. 

The numerous calls from many of our friends, partners and media that were out leading grass root movements froze my phone. They were terrified. I remember one saying that he harbored suicidal thoughts. 

For others it seemed like getting onto the next plane was the most intelligent decision to make. Given the visa constraints for most of Black Africa it also seemed unwise at once.  The precarity of the situation called for a thick skin given that the media was also tone deaf and shrouded David’s death in so much mystery which increased the risk of being queer in Uganda. It should be noted that days before his death David had registered a victory against a local publication. 

The case involved a cover story by the said newspaper, which printed photos of several individuals alleged to be gay, with the caption, “hang them: they are after our kids! Though the court stated rather ironically that the case was not about homosexuality but rather the dignity of the applicants. 

The judge also firmly asserted that the call to violence against sexual minorities, particularly LGBTI persons, was unacceptable. I was happy about the case because I had worked tirelessly  with my colleagues  and the three applicants but also disappointed by the “this case is not about  the homosexuality” mantra.

As we reflect on David’s death it’s important for us as activists and our partners to think soberly about the impact of such trauma on the mental health of our community. A person being murdered in their house raises concerns if any of us are safe. 

Twelve years onwards the condition seems to have stalled and to adopt the popular adage “the more things have changed the more they are the same” We have many times as a community thought about running day to day mental health clinics to support our people.  We therefore use this moment to call upon state and non- state actors to feel and empathize with us much as we may have disagreements; it does not deny us of our common humanity. 

I understand this malaise of homophobia is not unique to Uganda and finds expression in all patriarchal societies throughout the world and is also intensified in Africa because of the lacking commitment to the rule of law through which we can cement and nourish the democratic dividends such as right to bodily autonomy and privacy.  The evangelical and catholic churches remain important channels for fueling homophobic rhetoric which the state reproduces. To save lives, the Church must preach tolerance. 

Dr Frank Mugisha is a human rights and Peace Advocate.