David Kato, murdered a year ago for his outspoken advocacy of gay rights in Uganda, reaped the whirlwind for his heroism. Now the subject of a new documentary to premiere next week in Berlin, Kato’s life (and death) stands as a continuing rebuke to the proponets of discrimination against homosexual in Uganda and other African countries where the pursuit of equality for all faces monumental barriers of ignorance mixed with tradition.
The subject of homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa deserves energetic and thoughtful examination. Kampala is not Cleveland — and certainly not London or San Francisco. The same degree of tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles in Berlin or Rio cannot be expected in Accra, Lusaka or Lagos. Yet the virulent anti-gay laws and official statements now routine in Africa are shameful and counter-productive. Ultimately, African governments, and their civil societies which too often behave uncivily on the subject of gay rights, must accept that gays and lesbians in Africa must be afforded a baseline of rights, dignity and equality.
Just how to promote a gay-friendly political agenda in Africa isn’t easy to know. The frontal attack on bigotry against gays in Africa, which is being led by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, is justified but may simply embarass African leaders into further intransigence on a subject that brings them little or no praise with their domestic constituents. On the other hand, the silence of the entire private foreign-aid community — both big and small do-gooder NGOs, so vocal on traditional subjects of African deprivation and injustice — have essentially nothing to say about the perpetual abuse and (sometimes) lethal disregard experienced by gays and lesbians in Africa.
The solution is of course the emergence of home-grown gay rights movements, first within African cities and than at the national level. Such a strategy, while wise, carries enormous risks. In Kampala, a thriving cosmopolitan city where ethno-racial diversity is celebrated and women’s formal rights are frequently realized, David Kato sought to bring a small measure of attention to the routine mistreatment of homosexuals and the impossibility of rational discourse in public spaces about the reality that some Ugandan men and women, for whatever reasons, choose to same-sex partners. Kato paid with his life. And even in death, the official Ugandan establishment ignored him, leaving the task of celebrating his sacrifice to those who do not depend on Ugandan society for their sustenance.
In time, more Ugandans of intelligence and sensitivity will come to recognize that in Kato they have as much of a hero as anyone else. Until then, we have Kato’s own words to ponder.