Americans must Heed the Cry of African LGBTI Victims

“Actions speak louder than words!”
by Melanie Nathan Dec 22, 2011.

SAN FRANCISCO – Shorty after Secretary Clinton and President Obama spoke out about LGBTI Global human rights, the bloggers and press began to buzz with statements and comments from those impacted by the speech and memo, respectively.  The most sought after statements came from advocates such as the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate, and the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Frank Mugisha, who has now written an article for the New York Times, expressing the perils of being gay in Uganda.

While Mugisha speaks about his own situation, he concludes that if one is actually an unknown gay person (LGBTI) in Uganda, the danger is far worse; and we realize here in the U.S.A. we have a much bigger role to play.  It is time to heed the call of our homosexual, lesbian and transgender friends abroad.

“I remember the moment when my friend David Kato, Uganda’s best-known gay activist, sat with me in the small unmarked office of our organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda. “One of us will probably die because of this work,” he said. We agreed that the other would then have to continue. In January, because of this work, David was bludgeoned to death at his home, with a hammer. Many people urged me to seek asylum, but I have chosen to remain and fulfill my promise to David — and to myself. My life is in danger, but the lives of those whose names are not known in international circles are even more vulnerable.” says Mugisha in his article   at

We have to understand that the fight we have as LGBTI people in the U.S.A. and many Western parts of the world is about equality. We already have the right to our factual (de facto) existence. We are accepted and in many instances tolerated as a minority community – as long as some would have it ‘we do not have our rights under the law, but we are still treated as a fact.

For liberal and some middle minded Americans our fight for equality is an imperative one and we are the current frontier in the fight for civil rights.  As bad as this still is, we are not about to die in a systemic fashion prescribed by law! The latter is the potential for living gay in Africa.

Although many gays and lesbians and transgender people are still shunned – our lives and existence are not stopped by our sexual orientation, even though we suffer hardship as a result of our lack of civil rights and are often targets of hate crimes.  We have the criminal law on our side.   We can continue to openly have partners and social scenes, clubs, organizations and we can come out onto the streets to fight for our civil rights.

In  most of Africa and all countries where homosexuality is criminalized, the LGBTI people are basically not entitled to their physical de facto existence.  Criminalization asks homosexually oriented people (all inclusive) ‘not to be’ or ‘ to be someone else’ in relation to their thoughts, needs, and lives and if they do not think and perform in a hetero-normative way, they are outcasts and criminals and subject to institutionalized brutality as well as street violence.

Mugisha says: “The right to marry whom we love is far from our minds. Across Africa, the “gay rights” we are fighting for are more stark — the right to life itself. Here, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer brutal attacks, yet cannot report them to the police for fear of additional violence, humiliation, rape or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities. We are expelled from school and denied health care because of our perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. If your boss finds out (or suspects) you are gay, you can be fired immediately.

People are outed in the media — or if they have gay friends, they are assumed to be “gay by association.” More benignly, if people are still single by the time they reach their early 20s, what Ugandans call a “marriage age,” others will begin to suspect that they are gay.

Now Secretary Clinton and President Obama have spoken about these hardships and about LGBTI rights and people in an international  human rights and foreign policy context.  The U.S.A has expressed an overt  intention to fight criminalization and to provide sanctuary for LGBTI people from around the globe – this abounds our press, but dare I ask is it mere words?  Many believe that it is a way for the Obama administration to bring LGBTI back into election mode. I have a hard time believing that to be the President’s prime motive and really believe that he wants to help.

However, we all know that old adage, “actions speak louder than words,” and in this instance for those words to have any impact in Africa, beyond political fuel here at home, a whole lot needs to happen that has yet to be touched upon.  Perhaps the State department needs some prodding from those of us in the trenches.

From what I hear the amount of money committed to working with this issue and possibly set for overseas NGO’s  is miniscule compared to what needs to be accomplished.  A full strategic protocol needs to be in place and I have yet to find the protocol or hear the details. I will keep asking.

Though few and barely funded,  there are organizations that can help place people or provide resources, but only well after they have already taken great risks and spent untold sums of money and made it to foreign shores. Most cannot even try for lack of immediate resources.  And even then the few who make it are placed with the huge burden to prove their sexuality to a foreign countries which may offer asylum.

There is no single organization operating abroad and in the USA, with the prime function of identifying at risk LGBTI people in Africa, to assist in getting them out of their situations, which mean out of their countries. For as long as homosexuality is criminalized, we must establish routes and means or foreign LGBTI people to leave their countries by choice, to  include resources to keep them  safe.

There is no evidence of U.S.  AID  money promised for such an undertaking.  Providing routes for transit does not exist and such immediate asylum is not possible under various aspects of international refugee law and the local immigration laws of Western countries are not  helpful.

But most caught up in the brutality described by Mugisha are stuck in villages and cities with no safe place to go to. All these pole want to do is live their life according to their natural born orientation. Instead they are demonized and cast out.

Mugisha speaks to the American evangelical export of old myths that recently fired up the anti-gay fervor in Uganda:

“The way I see it, homophobia — not homosexuality — is the toxic import. Thanks to the absurd ideas peddled by American fundamentalists, we are constantly forced to respond to the myth — debunked long ago by scientists — that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. For years, the Christian right in America has exported its doctrine to Africa, and, along with it, homophobia. In Uganda, American evangelical Christians even held workshops and met with key officials to preach their message of hate shortly before a bill to impose the death penalty for homosexual conduct was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in 2009. Two years later, despite my denunciation of all forms of child exploitation, David Bahati, the legislator who introduced the bill, as well as Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem and other top government officials, still don’t seem to grasp that being gay doesn’t equate to being a pedophile. “

This serves to amplify the duty we have as outsiders, to rectify the wrongs imposed by our own religious right.  We must clean house at home and we must send in the counter-educational troops which will involve other  programs including religious ones, courting missions in the country to teach tolerance; while at the same time providing safe shelter for temporary housing and  passage abroad, for as long as homosexuality is criminalized with its harsh consequences, we must provide safety.

As a LGBT Human Rights advocate myself, I am able to showcase my activism through my writing and have attracted many LGBTI readers from Africa and abroad.  Many victims have found a way to contact me, and keep in touch with me through various means.  Some are currently on the streets in their countries, having been outed by family members, others are holed up in huts with weapons at the ready as neighbors beat down doors yelling profanity and threatening death.

I have approached various organizations for help. I am told there is nothing I can do!  I refuse to believe that. I am working toward finding routes to help LGBTI people escape Africa….. until such time as Africa turns around and accepts the de facto existence of all its inhabitants according to what is indeed a natural order and not the contrary which they now subscribe to.

We here abroad must do much more. Let us hope that our representatives can hear the call of our neighbors through our words and the brave pen of  warriors like Frank Mugisha.

Melanie Nathan
[email protected]

Note the new Obama Initiatives:

  • Combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad.
  • Protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination.
  • Ensure swift and meaningful U.S. responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad.
  • Engage International Organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination.



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