Courageous champion of human rights, working for change through nonviolent means. One of the few openly LGBTQ+ activists in his country of Uganda.
Mugisha knew he was gay when he was a young teenager, but his Catholic faith told him to pray those feelings away. When he finally came out to his family, they tried many times to “cure” him. And though they were eventually accepting, they continued to wish he would not be so open with others. Being gay in Uganda was very risky—many Ugandans viewed it as both unchristian and un-African. Laws also criminalized the LGBTQ+ community, and you could be jailed for simply for identifying as gay.
While at college in 2004, Mugisha saw that many of his LGBTQ+ friends were struggling, so he started Icebreakers Uganda to guide those who were coming out to their families. The organization advised, provided housing, and offered ways to help make this difficult and personal revelation less stressful. However, his real activism began a few years later. In December 2013, Uganda’s parliament passed a law that criminalized homosexuality; the statute carried penalties up to and including life in prison. A newspaper published the names and contact information of 100 gay men and women, leading to harassment by neighbors, family, and employers. One of those identified was lawyer David Kato, among the first openly gay men in Uganda, a close friend of Mugisha’s, and the founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Kato sued the newspaper and the courts ruled in his favor, but three months later, he was murdered in his home.
In the aftermath of Kato’s death, Mugisha became the executive director of SMUG and set to work on an international campaign to bring awareness to Uganda’s human rights violations against the LGBTQ+ community. Though he regularly faced death threats and intimidation, lost jobs and friends, he never flinched from the fight. Mugisha engaged in major court battles to challenge the strict laws, and his courage paid off. In August 2014, a judge overturned the law. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment remains high in Uganda, and the threat of further legislation exists, but Mugisha draws strength from adversity. “For me, it is about standing out and speaking in an environment where you are not sure if you will survive the next day.”
In 2016, Frank Mugisha was arrested and detained for his outspoken work on LGBTQ+ rights during the Uganda Pride celebration. His arrest led to significant international criticism and pressure. He bravely continues to work for the security, equality, and dignity of Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community.
“As a gay Ugandan, I know I am one of thousands. But as someone who has chosen to be out and is still living in Uganda, I am in a minority of fewer than 20 people.”
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