The New York Times’ piece is a reasonable attempt to paint a more nuanced picture. Gay activism everywhere is fraught with risk so those who go into it so that they may live a safe and cushy life need to have their heads examined. Incidentally, I spoke with Mugisha the other day and he came across as a thoughtful person with a pragmatic view of the limits to what could be achieved in a country like Uganda where heterosexuals don’t show affection, let alone talk about sex and/or sexuality, in public.
Mugisha makes the point that individual Ugandan politicians are homophobic – as they are in the United States of America. Some of our Ugandan relatives are accepting of our sexuality while others shun us when they find out – as is still the case in the West despite decades of entrenched activism, more liberal attitudes and better access to education. There is a high level of misinformation fed to the masses in Uganda – imported from [mostly] American right wing religious orders. On balance, Ugandans are no more homophobic than any other collection of people one can think of.
Mugisha’s life is in danger – understandably so since he has willfully chosen (we spoke about this and he was quite animated about what he does, suggesting that he likely can’t see himself doing anything else) to be the face of gay activism in Uganda. It is a bold and admirable position to take but one which would have put him at risk in San Francisco had he lived there in the times of Harvey Milk. Yet Uganda is still about 30 years behind Milk’s San Fransisco in terms of gay rights acceptance so it stands to reason that Mugisha’s life will continue to be in danger – not from the entire country, but from individuals, such as Milk’s assassin, who will not be representing the will of the entire country. As it happens, Milk was killed by a political rival, not by the entire people of the United States or San Francisco for that matter. Mugisha’s allusion to the killing of David Kato (in far less clear circumstances) highlights the same fact; that Kato was not killed by the entire country and so his death cannot be used to tar all Ugandans as homophobes.
Mugisha tries to remain balanced in this op-ed which is how I found him when I spoke with him recently. One senses that he understands that the so-called “help” from agenda-driven personalities such as the BBC’s Scott Mills (he of the Worst Place to be Gay silliness) is more often than not a hindrance to bridging the gap between the gay community and the rest of the country in a place like Uganda. People like Scott Mills have hours and hours of air time to plug so they must look for the most inflammatory, terrible material to keep their audiences tuned in. That is what he did with the travesty of a documentary that he produced in May 2011.
Mugisha deserves to be supported so that the organization he heads, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) becomes a professional entity that can withstand the waves and survive after him. Uganda now has a plethora of gay activist groups (more than 20 of them, some with just one executive) with highly questionable financial accountability, fictitious members’ lists and mediocre credentials. Some individuals from these groups that are peddling exaggerated claims, and sub-standard initiatives on the ground. This hodgepodge of groups is nonetheless receiving funding from foreign donors for Lord knows what since the grassroots remain clueless as to their activities.
Mercifully, Frank Mugisha himself still seems to stand above that kind of self-serving, opportunistic, grubby mindset which, sadly, is all too common in every sphere of life in Uganda up to and including in the high echelons of all the religious orders. One hopes that he will not be drowned out by the morass of maladministration one senses in some of the gay activist groups sprouting up like mushrooms – or by a malevolent hand which, yes, remains a real possibility.