De-Gaying Uganda

David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay rights activist, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in broad daylight at his home in Uganda, dying on his way to the hospital. News of Kato’s death reverberated throughout the world as friends, leaders, activists and human rights organizations paid tribute to a man whose lifelong legacy championed human dignity in the face of man’s inhumanity to man.

Kato, a teacher who eventually quit his job, to focus all his attention on Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a non-governmental organization based in Uganda’s capital Kampala. SMUG advocates for the protection of Uganda’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. David Kato was SMUG’s advocacy officer and, some would argue, the founding father of gay activism in Uganda.

He came out to family members before leaving for South Africa. In transitional South Africa, where vestiges of apartheid and anti-sodomy laws were still in place, he saw these issues dismantled through activism, witnessing firsthand the power of individual conviction grouped by a common cause for the creation of a greater good. Struggle against apartheid gave birth to a multiracial democracy; social justice based on activism lead to the growth of South Africa’s LGBTQA movement. By the time Kato returned to his native Uganda in 1998, he was equipped with a cause, schooled in commitment, armored with an agenda, focused on its execution. He spent a week in police custody for activism the very year he returned. Once released, he plunged head and heart into Uganda’s underground LGBTQA movement.

In 2009, American evangelical Dr. Scott Lively led an anti-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda. Days after the conference, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced to Uganda’s parliament. The Bill proposed

the death penalty for some homosexuals. The bill came under intense pressure from human rights activists and governments around the world; its ratification is pending, shelved. But homophobic sentiment, national bigotry and hatred was fueled and justified along religious grounds from then on.

Case in point: a short while after the 2009 anti-gay conference, Kato’s picture was placed on the front page of Uganda’s tabloid magazine Rolling Stone, where the headline written in bold capital letters read as follows: “100 PICTURES OF UGANDA’S TOP HOMOS LEAKED”. Above the front page photo of Kato was an urging by the paper: “Hang them”. Death by execution, the paper suggested, would rid Uganda of gays such as Kato, so kill him. His photo was plastered on the front page for the country and world to see; his name listed among one hundred others to be targeted. Kato sued the paper on grounds of violation of privacy and won, but often spoke of violence and death threats thereafter, making police allegations that his murder was actually a robbery gone awry (rather than a hate crime spurred by fearless advocacy for freedom of sexual expression and orientation), somewhat suspect.

There are many who argue the recent influence by white American evangelicals in Uganda is what led to Kato’s death. Their terror tactics awakened something in Ugandans that was never there to begin with. After all, gays have been in Uganda since the beginning of time. What American evangelicals did was manipulate Ugandans because of their devotion to the Christian faith, manipulated the Bible, adopted terror tactics through religious-speak where hatred targeted an easy scapegoat—homosexuals. Kato’s colleagues say to rid Uganda of foreign intervention is to free their country for the better.

There are others who argue Africans tolerate homosexuality in much the same way they tolerate extramarital affairs or polygamy. Desire is tolerated, understood, even accepted; but a homosexual lifestyle, abandoning the duty of marrying someone of the opposite sex for a lifelong commitment to someone of the same sex, is what African social norms find moral reprehensible. Why? Because the desire is human but the lifestyle is foreign. One factor that impacts this is the extremely high infant mortality rate. Because infant mortality is so high their is a necessity for many African children to be born. Additionally is the low rate of  traditional African families adopting outside their family structure. So, an African family may raise children from a deceased cousin or sister, but they won’t take a child off the street into their home and adopt. Examples of this type of adoption are very rare in many places in East Africa. A homosexual lifestyle without adoption, threatens the family structure. Homosexual desire, if the person is in a heterosexual marriage with children, does not. The conflict between homosexual desire as acceptable but a homosexual lifestyle as intolerable, is at the heart of the African debate. In other words, the lifestyle makes someone gay, not the desire. Some Africans will argue to tolerate same-sex desire so long as it does not lead to same-sex partnership, commitment, a lifestyle like David Kato’s.

At age 46, Kato left Mr Greenin ja Euron tapaan Come On on valinnut sivuilleen peleja useammalta kuin yhdelta pelivalmistajalta. a powerful legacy that speaks to all but perhaps most loudly to queer Africans of non-conforming genders on the continent and in the Diaspora. It accents our fundamental mission here on earth:  To learn about each other and, in so doing, learn more about ourselves. We are not all the same, though the professional, adult world asks us to be. But we are different, all of us, and different people relate differently to this world, which is what makes the world better and life richer. No one person, no one sexuality, no gender expression, no one gender, no one creative form of being, is more important than another.

Killing does not rid the world of difference. One less Kato in Uganda does not make Uganda any less gay, believe me. One living Kato alive and breathing in Uganda does not make Uganda any more gay. Just as one more woman does not add to sexism or one more person of color adds to racism. We only assume it does or would because our investment in making the world as we want it, denies the world from being what it truly is: diverse, complex, unscripted, multifaceted, nontraditional, untamed, unrehearsed, unpackaged because it is human, human, human.

David Kato is not dead. He soars to our Maker, the One who birthed him gay, radiant, warrior, lover, eternal. And his sword remains in the arena, sharpened for struggle, alive among the smoldering ash heaps that make up its ruins. And so he survives, warrior eternal.

If man’s inhumanity to man truly gives us reason to pause, then pause. Stand still, take a deep, sobering breath then maybe light a candle in the name of David Kato, a man who devoted his energy, intellectual power and physical body to a spiritual cause that is radical by its very definition—LOVE. If the sobering power of a solitary vigil does not speak as loudly as communion with like-minded folk celebrating David Kato’s monumental contribution to the human family as a queer African, come take part in the New York City vigil in remembrance of David Kato on Thursday, February 3, 2011 at the Dag Hammarskojld Plaza on 48th street and 1st avenue at 4pm. This queer African of a non-conforming gender will be there to greet you.

Nick Mwaluko was born in Tanzania, raised mostly in Kenya and other east African countries. Nick came to New York, transitioned from anatomically female to male, and is a playwright.  His play  S/He, the story of a man in a woman’s body, has its second run in southern Florida on February 27, 2011. Waafrika, a lesbian love affair set in a rural Kenyan village in 1992 immediately following Kenya’s first multi-party elections, will have a showcase run in October 2011 following a reading March 30, 2011. Other of Nick’s plays include Blueprint for a Lesbian Universe, Asymmetrical We, Brotherly Love, Trailer Park Tundra, Are Women Human?, and others


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  1. Dear all,
    Nick has written a follow-up piece today on this De-Gaying Uganda post. Please check out Life After Death – Part One and continue the conversation.

    • Diana on 9 February, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    A friend posted this today, and I am grateful that she did. I was overwhelmed when I learned of David Kato’s beautiful spirit and his tragic end. Your tone in the article is a lovely tribute and is full of positivity and inspiration. Thank you for sharing his story.

      • Nick on 10 February, 2011 at 2:45 am

      Dear Diana:

      True, David Kato’s legacy and loss stirred so much in us. It hurts. Thank you so much for sharing your feelings.

    • Amy on 9 February, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Nick ~ I feel that part of Kato’s legacy is continuing to learn and debate and map out ways forward on this issue. SO with that in mind…I do have a follow up question or two for you and others…

    Do you think that Kato was following a “western” approach towards human rights/activism for LGBTQ rights (as you referred to in your article as the homosexual lifestyle versus desire) and if so, do you think (given what you wrote) that perhaps for African countries that something different should be sought or tried? (Not being familiar with it myself – is the S. African approach more western in nature?) What is a good model or approach to address the rights of LGBTQ individuals in African countries/cultures? What can we learn and take from other major changes that have occured in Africa with deeply rooted values and beliefs? (e.g. changes in polygamy, education of girls, FGM, HIV/AIDS, etc…) What can we learn from the Indigenous beliefs, values, approaches towards homosexuality? What have we learned (or can take-a-way) from non-white LGBTQ activism in the U.S. with Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, etc….? Where does the model of being “out” to your family and friends fit into it? (western?)

    On another note – when I read the article and some of the debate that you posted in it – I feel that too much power is being given to this evangelist — he does have a responsibility, but so do the rest of the people who chose to attend and listen and believe and follow and act — and not to acknowledge their role and their power, I believe gives them less power and portrays these Ugandans as victims. Is this also the case with giving too much power to colonialism and anti-sodomy laws still in place in some African countries (e.g. Kenyan laws as vestiges of British colonialism)? I believe there is a responsibility to the people currently in power to either continue with these laws or change them as they have other laws from before independence —- again, looking in the past or outward can also give away power and great a victimhood mentality. We need to be careful with such reasoning and rationale for xyz.

    Obviously very complicated. Thoughts or other questions to share?

      • Nick on 10 February, 2011 at 2:42 am


      Your questions are complicated but necessary, all the more so in light of David’s life and what may have been at the root to his death, both of which you outline in your questions then raise very important concerns about how they were written about in my article.

      In response to your first question, I have this: I’m not sure what model would work for queer Africa, in part because the process of being and becoming queer and non-conforming is so deeply personal and internal. As for coming out, I think we always come out, straight or non. How?
      “What’s your name?”—coming out about gender, race, religion, destiny.
      “Where do you live?”—coming out about socio-economic class, tribe, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, position among the tribe, etc.
      “What do you do?”—coming out about class, education, and the desires, hopes, dreams, potential as a consequence.
      “Are you a boy or a girl?”–obvious, but in some ways what’s rarely asked is “How do you identify?” which would be coming out in a more direct but messy way since we are always identifying, imposing labels that never stick.

      Ok, so what would the process and the model look like? I do not know. But I do think the western/South African model has cost queer Africa soldiers like David Kato. At the same time, I know of no struggle for dignity or equality that has not asked or required the shedding of blood—from Jesus to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X, to Steve Biko, to AIDS awareness, to the abolition of slavery, to women’s rights, to David Kato, full circle back to Jesus. Back to your question: is the price of the ticket for freedom too high? Is queer Africa paying too much through corrective raping of lesbians, murdering homosexuals? Yes, a life lost is a loss to everyone, most especially the inner circle of intimates who know that life exclusively by virtue of their intimate connection to that person.

      So, I am at a loss, I guess. Back to you: what would be a model for queer Africa that would not result in the loss of lives?

      By the way, if I failed to thank you for your thoughtful, in-depth, insightful questions, I am now: thank you so much. On the subject of which, I do believe white American evangelicals are to blame for David Kato’s death because they steered sentiment in directions that were unhealthy for and to the community as outsiders often do by virtue of being on the outside. Most especially, I think white American evangelicals like Dr. Scott Lively take issue with difference, clearly, and probably had little or no respect for the community (of Christians) in Uganda, thereby manipulating their faith by virtue of his arrogance. I think anyone who comes to colonize the minds and hearts of people anywhere must have some measure of arrogance that needs to be written about–at the very least. This doesn’t, in my opinion, subtract from the power of Uganda’s complicity in David Kato’s murder or the community’s failure but does shed light on the nature of events and important plot points that may have murdered David Kato. Power shifts, subsides, dances: the dance was led by Dr. Scott Lively, ending in murder. Ugandans were partners and protagonists in that dance, sure, but white American evangelicals were there. No question in my mind. And because we have seen this form of “intervention” before, and we know what becomes of it, I have a responsibility to write about it given who I am.

        • Amy on 19 February, 2011 at 12:14 pm

        I believe I have more questions than answers…but in reading the other blog on this site re poverty vs. dead aid…there is some overlap in these conversations. Why? Because of looking at how change happens and with a particular focus on African countries. There is also the role of the west both in past “interventions” and current “interventions” and the role of Africans. Waangari Maathai, one of my heroines in this world (from Kenya) talks about the role of leadership in African countries and the role of culture. She mentions how in N. Africa she believes they have had more success with not subcoming to colonialism and also with dev’t because their culture was written down (obviously there are many other factors). And India of overcoming colonialism because of great leaders like Ghandi who rid himself of western clothes and literally portrayed the alignment and importance of Indian culture (clothes, food, way of life, etc…). And then there is the interweaving of LGBTQ – is that a better situation for the community in N. Africa or India? Why or why not? What are the factors at play in shaping values, attitudes, tolerance towards “others” and how does that change happen in various cultures? (recent documentary from an Iraqi or Iranian woman who is lesbian) I cannot say, but I can guess that due to religion it is not a good place in N. Africa for LGBTQ… SO for Uganda, what are the traditional beliefs, values, actions around LGBTQ – and have they been lost b/c they are not written down? And what is the role of leadership and regular Ugandans in in making the world available for expression of differences? What is the will? What is the committment? No doubt western evangelists had a role and saw a vulnerable place and their “mission” drove them to Uganda (as many African countries have driven missionaries to share their religion)… Now let’s move beyond that.

        I also liked the poverty vs. dead aid and the conversation in one of the books about “planners” vs. “searchers” (homegrown) and looking at success and balance of the two….

        It is so complicated, just like the conversation on poverty and development in African countries — but certainly worth the conversations and dialogue.

        1. Amy,
          Thank you so much for your continued and detailed responses to our blog. There are no easy or clear cut answers to many of these issues and through thinking and communicating we open the door to the possibility of change. I think your points about the alignment of local identity and leadership (as in the case with Ghandi in India) is a strong point. I don’t think there is a clear universal answer however, that will work everywhere. Every country, city and town has different reasons why policies for change work better than others. I think if we look to LGBTQ Issues within the US, we see that while some places are creating equality, others are developing policies that will take away rights or the opportunity for future change. Since many of those opposing the rights of the LGBTQ community are doing so with a value based assumption, change is not going to be an easy road. Value based issues are hard to fight and take longer to create instrumental change. The important piece is to increase awareness, continue the conversation and to work with local people on the ground that are aware of the local issue, values, history and cultural impacts. Strategies that have worked in one place may be effective but they require modification and ongoing reform to meet the needs of the local communities. Battles like the current one in Uganda and similar places around the globe are not going to be won quickly or without multiple methods to address change. Thanks again for your thoughts and continue to read and comment on the blog!

    • Michelle on 8 February, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    This is such a moving and powerful remembrance.

    “David Kato is not dead. He soars to our Maker, the One who birthed him gay, radiant, warrior, lover, eternal. And his sword remains in the arena, sharpened for struggle, alive among the smoldering ash heaps that make up its ruins. And so he survives, warrior eternal.”

    It captures the environment he fought in and the soul that it takes to move such incredible prejudice and violence. He is a hero in the truest sense of the word. Thank you for sharing. Long live the legacy and LOVE of David Kato.

      • Nick on 9 February, 2011 at 5:53 am


      So true, even while we are all saddened by his loss, it is David Kato’s legacy and radical love that lives on and on and on, shaking this earth’s foundation forever. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us at this time, Michelle.

    • Tonia on 6 February, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for responding to this tragedy that has reverberated around the world. Your response is thoughtful, deep, spiritual, and moving. You speak to our humanity in a way that embodies the meaning of David Kato’s life work.

      • Nick on 7 February, 2011 at 8:53 am

      Dear Tonia:

      The few people I’ve come across here in New York who knew or spoke with David Kato personally, all say exactly what you wrote: “…humanity…embodies David Kato’s life work.” I paraphrase, but indeed his life’s work embodies our humanity and dignity. Thank you so much for your comments, Tonia.

    • Rebecca on 6 February, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    An excellent omage to a brave man.

      • Nick on 6 February, 2011 at 7:21 pm

      He was brave indeed, David Kato was and is. And he leaves us with an amazing legacy. Thanks for sending out your well wishes, Rebecca.

    • Nick on 5 February, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Dear Amy:
    David Kato was tremendous indeed and his legacy will continue thanks to your interest and care, and those of thers in the community. Thank you, Amy.

    • Amy on 5 February, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Nick, thank you for writing this article and including your own voice and experience… I wish I could have been there for the vigil – I will light my own candle with thoughts for him, his family and the people of Uganda. He sounds like a tremendous person and incredibly brave. I have no doubt his legacy will live on and other voices will emerge.

    • Nick on 3 February, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Jesse, Leah, forgive me for combining my response but this speaks to both of you. Thanks so much for posting. I know David, family, friends and allies will be moved by it so: thank you.

    We had the vigil and the turn out was tremendous, fierce and truly touching to see how many folks David touched. Some had met him personally so a follow-up article will discuss, describe just how powerful his immediate legacy is and hopes for tomorrow.

    He lives on…

    Thank you both

    • Leah on 3 February, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    beautifully written.

      • Nick on 3 February, 2011 at 9:31 pm

      Leah, I know you would’ve really been moved by the vigil. I will certainly keep you posted as to how things develop. The queer community is intent on not letting this death be swept under the rug.

      Thank you for posting in David’s name: truly appreciated.

    • jesse cameron on 3 February, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    What a tragedy David Kato’s murder was – I’m full of rage and deep sadness. Thanks for the thoughtful article Nick. The wheel of time only spins one way – and I’m full of hope that things will get better for all of us.

    • Nick on 3 February, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you Helen. I know he, David, hears all your words and is breathing in your positive energy and wishes.

  2. Thanks Helen. We hope that this awareness brings additional light to the situation.

    • Helen M. Hottner on 3 February, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you for such a wonderfully written article on David Kato. I haven’t read or seen anything this indept and thoughtful. I hope eveyone attends the David Kato Vigil today Thursday, Febuary 3, 2011 at 4pm on 48th Street and 1st avenue.

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