Kato Killing Must Serve as Catalyst for Change
US president has mourned murder of Ugandan Gay activist – Ugandan leaders should do the same. By Veronica Oakeshott - International Justice - ICC ACR Issue 287, 2 Feb 11
I met David Kato on his last trip to the United Kingdom, just a few months before his brutal murder last week. He was in London to attend an international conference on HIV and AIDS.
It is hard to imagine someone so physically small taking on the Ugandan establishment, but that is exactly what this softly spoken gay rights activist did, every day of his life.
While Ugandan politicians debated new anti-gay legislation, religious leaders preached the evils of homosexuality and newspapers printed vitriol and incited violence, Kato talked passionately about his right to live safely and openly as a gay man.
He did not dwell on the time he spent in hiding or in jail for his activism, but simply pointed to the impossibility of doing HIV prevention work amongst the gay community in such circumstances.
A few days ago, battered to death in his home, this tiny man paid the ultimate price for his huge courage.
His murder was the culmination of 16 months of terror for the Ugandan gay community.
In October 2009, David Bahati, a Ugandan member of parliament, introduced an anti-homosexuality bill into parliament. The bill proposed the death penalty for homosexuals who pass on the AIDS virus; life imprisonment for “intent to commit homosexuality”; and a public requirement to report gays to the authorities.
There was condemnation from around the world - but in Uganda the bill was widely welcomed. It is currently making its way through parliament.
Kato and his colleague Frank Mugisha, chair of the human rights organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda, were two men who dared speak out. Finding little sympathy at home, they travelled abroad to highlight their struggle and call for help.
In early 2010, as policy adviser to the UK’s all-party group on HIV and AIDS, I organised Mugisha’s visit to the Westminster parliament to meet the then foreign office minister and openly gay legislator, Chris Bryant. It was, for Mugisha, a vision of what politics could be like.
“At this moment [in Uganda] it would be political suicide for a [member of parliament] to come out and support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” he marvelled.
Six months later, back in Uganda, the national newspaper, Rolling Stone (unrelated to the US magazine of the same name), splashed a story across its front page, outing Uganda’s “top one hundred homos”. The piece gave names and addresses of gay men - amongst them Mugisha and Kato, whose faces were pictured in the paper. On the front page a banner read, “Hang them!”
The lives of both men were in danger but instead of hiding, they fought back. Kato successfully took the newspaper to court winning the paltry sum of 1.5 million Ugandan shillings (650 US dollars) for invasion of privacy and a permanent injunction preventing Rolling Stone from running a similar story again.
The court case was still running when I saw Kato last November at the London AIDS conference. Even then, after months of hell, he was in fighting form, reminding delegates that gay rights were not just about privacy but the right to be open about who you are, without fear.
He was politely heard out, even praised for his bravery by some delegates, but a few others - also supposedly AIDS experts - tried to cut discussion of gay rights short with remarks like, “It is nothing to do with us”, or “These are private matters”.
But Kato’s murder shows how wrong they were. Someone wielding a hammer killed Kato, but it was public opinion, stoked up by the press, and certain preachers and politicians, that turned him into a figure of hate.
In the end, it must be Ugandans themselves who decide they have gone too far. But despite the murder, there are no signs of a change of heart. Even the pastor at Kato’s funeral last Friday, according to Reuters, saw fit to denounce homosexuality, saying, “People are turning away from the scriptures. They should turn back; they should abandon what they are doing.”
Meanwhile, the managing editor of Rolling Stone said in a statement that he condemned the murder of Kato and felt sorry for his family, but told the London-based Guardian that he had “no regrets” about publishing Rolling Stone’s front page story.
The president of the United States has found time to make a statement mourning Kato’s death. It is time for Ugandan leaders to do the same.
If Kato’s death can be a catalyst for change, he will not have died in vain.
Veronica Oakeshott is an IWPR consultant, currently coordinating an election-reporting project in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.