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Frank Mugisha: RFKHR Awards gave Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community international prominence

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By Ohimai Amaize

One evening in the spring of 2011, Frank Mugisha was in the middle of work mobilizing advocacy against Uganda’s anti-gay legislation when he received a phone call. It was Ethel Kennedy, founder of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights on the line. Mugisha, who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)—the country’s largest LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization, was used to receiving phone calls from people around the world, offering support or inviting him to speaking engagements. “So, I thought, maybe this is one of those phone calls,” he said in an interview over Zoom. But this was different. The Kennedy matriarch was calling to notify him of his selection as the recipient of the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

Mugisha recalls his reaction after Kennedy broke the news and asked him if he would accept the honor: “I was a bit hesitant and then I said, of course, yes!” The rest of the conversation was warm and friendly. “She was like, ‘Oh, that's really nice. I've seen your pictures and I like them, and the work you're doing in Uganda is very important. We just know, we support that work,’” Mugisha said.

For Mugisha and his team at SMUG, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award came at a very difficult time in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda. In the previous year, in August 2010, Rolling Stone, a local newspaper, had published a front-page story that featured the full names, addresses, photographs, and social hangouts of 100 allegedly gay and lesbian Ugandans, under the headline, “Hang Them”. In January 2011, barely two weeks after a high court injunction preventing the newspaper from any further publications that outed gay people, Mugisha’s friend and LGBTQ+ activist David Kato whose picture was featured on the front page of Rolling Stone, was beaten to death at his home. That same year, a revised version of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was re-introduced in the country’s parliament. A previous draft, infamously dubbed the “kill the gays” bill, had stipulated the death penalty for homosexuality.

Feeling “isolated” and “alone,” amid the anti-gay hostility of the Ugandan society, the news of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ recognition of his work became one of the happiest moments of Mugisha’s life. “I think about it now and the happiness wasn't just for myself, it was for the community,” Mugisha said. “We are victimized by Ugandan society. We felt like outcasts, unwanted by anyone. So, for me, the award meant that out there, someone recognizes that what we're doing is legitimate human rights. It was the first time I felt that affirmation, and I was like, yes, the community deserves this.”

Reflecting further on the award, Mugisha said the recognition brought a groundswell of visibility and opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda, gave them a sense of security and inspired them to work harder. “And all this wasn't anticipated at that moment when I first got the announcement. But then after that, we just exploded into this internationally recognized community,” he said.

This article is part of #RFKStories—an ongoing series of reports from interviews with past Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureates.