A gay rights activist in Uganda, where a bill that would punish gays with prison or death has stirred worldwide outrage, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington on Thursday.
Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the former U.S. attorney general, was joined by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in presenting the award to Frank Mugisha at a ceremony on Capitol Hill. It is the first time the award has been bestowed on an advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
“It gives me more courage to continue doing the work I’m doing,” Mugisha told The Associated Press ahead of the award. “It sends out a message, not only to my country but to other countries that criminalize homosexuality.”
The 29-year-old Mugisha leads the underground group called Sexual Minorities Uganda, whose members routinely shift locations in Uganda for their safety. Uganda, a conservative East African nation, is one of more than 70 nations that have imposed laws against being gay.
Mugisha blames U.S. evangelical activists in particular for stoking fears and promoting homophobia with a 2009 visit and conference on “rehabilitation” for gays in Uganda. Since then, violence against gays has increased, he said.
After the visit, debate began over a Ugandan bill that would punish gay people with prison or death and would threaten jail time for those who don’t report suspected gays to authorities. The bill was recently revived in Uganda’s parliament.
“I think they are responsible for the bill,” Mugisha said of the evangelical activists. “They held a seminar and openly told Ugandans that they needed to tighten their laws on homosexuality and told Ugandans that homosexuals can be healed.”
Scott Lively, a preacher who leads a group called Abiding Truth Ministries now based in Springfield, Mass., introduced ideas from the “ex-gay” movement to Ugandans and the idea that gays are “recruited,” Mugisha said.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Lively did not oppose criminalization of gays but said he thinks imprisonment and the death penalty are too harsh. He said many criminal sanctions in African countries are harsh but aren’t enforced.
“I advised the Ugandan parliament to focus on rehabilitation and not punishment, which they went the other way on that,” Lively said. “But the law that they did draft is consistent with existing law on their books dealing with heterosexual sex crimes, and no one made a peep about that.”
Ty Cobb, legislative counsel for the largest U.S. gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Mugisha is a role model for gays and lesbians in Africa and the world. The group has connected Mugisha with officials at the U.S. State Department.
“It’s important to recognize that Frank has put his life on the line to represent this community that’s silenced by a government that wants to put you to death for being gay,” Cobb said.
Uganda’s anti-gay bill — and its connection to U.S. evangelicals — prompted international headlines, editorials and attention from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Its award comes with a $30,000 stipend and a six-year partnership to support Mugisha’s work with advocacy and fundraising.