"I am a gay Ugandan man," said David Kato, speaking in 2009 at a U.N.-sponsored meeting on a proposed "anti-homosexuality bill" that could impose life imprisonment for gay sexual activity, or even the death penalty in some cases.
It was a stunning statement in Uganda, which is why Maria Burnett, Human Rights Watch's senior Africa researcher, remembers it so clearly. "It wasn't something you hear in public, especially where government officials are present."
Kato gave an analysis of the bill — and then fled the room along with several other people, all worried they might be arrested.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Kato was bludgeoned to death in his home outside Kampala. Police say the motive was robbery, and they have arrested one suspect while searching for another who had worked for Kato.
One of Uganda's most prominent gay activists, Kato was among the few living an out-of-the-closet life in a deeply homophobic society. Whether or not that is what got him killed, he remains a symbol of courage, now silenced, in a country that does not tolerate and actively discriminates against gay people. Late last year, a newspaper in Uganda published photos, names and addresses of gay people, including Kato, with a small caption reading "Hang Them." Even at his funeral, the intolerance didn't stop: A local minister suddenly started condemning homosexuality.
Homophobia is rampant in many African countries. In Uganda, homosexuality is illegal, although people are rarely prosecuted for being gay. The country has practiced a kind of harsh version of "don't ask, don't tell, don't be seen." The anti-homosexuality bill, which was introduced nearly two years ago, would make people who committed "aggravated homosexuality" (defined as having same-sex relations if one is HIV positive or with someone under the age of 18, or being "a serial offender") subject to the death penalty.
The bill caused an international uproar when it was introduced, and the U.S. State Department has urged the Ugandan president not to support it. But it is still pending. Although some American evangelicals who have visited Uganda and preached that gays can become straight have disavowed the shameful bill, their work certainly hasn't helped dispel anti-gay fervor in the country.
Uganda is not alone in its attitudes toward gay rights, but for the moment, the spotlight is on it. The country should reject this appalling bill immediately and decriminalize homosexuality. The United States gave Uganda $526 million in aid in fiscal year 2010. More than half of that goes to programs to combat AIDS and HIV, and the State Department is reluctant to pull that as leverage. But if the bill passes, that should be reconsidered. Maybe it would persuade Uganda's lawmakers to move into the 21st century.