Frank Mugisha, a prominent young advocate for the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, has been chosen to receive the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Mr. Mugisha is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a leading organization of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) movement in the East African country.
In Uganda, LGBTI organizations operate in a dangerously hostile climate, and Mr. Mugisha is one of the few openly gay LGBTI activists. As a spokesperson for the movement, he amplifies the voice of one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
“Frank Mugisha’s unbending advocacy for gay rights in Uganda in the face of deep-rooted homophobia is a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit,” said RFK Human Rights Award Judge Dean Makau Mutua, Professor of Law and Dean of the University at Buffalo Law School (SUNY).
Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Uganda, and the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill would make homosexual activities punishable by life in prison, and, in certain cases, by death. Currently, 80 percent of Ugandans support the bill. Mr. Mugisha courageously pursues his work at great personal risk, and has received numerous death threats. In January 2011, Mr. Mugisha’s colleague David Kato, a former advocacy and litigation officer for SMUG, was murdered. It is believed that Kato was targeted for his role in the Ugandan LGBTI movement.
“Frank Mugisha has fought courageously in support of the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, despite death threats and even exile,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “He has become a leading advocate for sexual minorities in a country where they are persecuted, jailed, and their lives destroyed. We are proud at the RFK Center to begin our partnership with Mr. Mugisha to advance his invaluable work within this movement.”
Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will present Mr. Mugisha with the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony on November 10th at the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Mr. Mugisha joins 42 RFK Human Rights Award Laureates from 25 countries as the recipient of the 28th annual prize, initiating a multi-year partnership with the RFK Center.
“For me, it is about standing out and speaking in an environment where you are not sure if you will survive the next day; it is this fear that makes me strong, to work hard and fight on to see a better life for LGBTI persons in Uganda,” said Mr. Mugisha. “The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award gives me courage and hope that my work, which may not be accepted and recognized in my own country, is making a change with this international visibility.”
Mr. Mugisha, 29, began advocating for LGBTI rights and HIV/AIDS awareness as a university student in 2004. He spearheaded the support group Icebreakers Uganda, which provides resources and support to those who are openly gay or are coming out of the closet. After being targeted for arrest, Mr. Mugisha was smuggled out of the country to seek safety in exile, later returning to Uganda to resume his work. As a result of his vocal advocacy, Mr. Mugisha has lost jobs and friends and become estranged from family. Still, Mr. Mugisha is held in the highest esteem by the LGBTI community, and activists and supporters chose him to lead SMUG on the basis of his effectiveness, credibility, and integrity.
SMUG, a network of Ugandan organizations advocating on behalf of the LGBTI communities, was founded in 2004 as a coalition of LGBTI human rights organizations to unify and strengthen sexual minority groups and communities in Uganda. SMUG’s objectives are to advocate and lobby for equality for all, to bolster LGBTI visibility through media and literature, and to empower activists through leadership and social entrepreneurship trainings. The organization also fights against HIV/AIDS in LGBTI communities and speaks out against sexual orientation-based violence.