This is the first in a series of stories on people, places and organizations from all walks of life that you should know. Today’s profile highlights David Kato, who was murdered in Uganda in 2011. I asked activists who knew and worked with Kato to reflect on his life and legacy.
In the six years since David Kato Kisule was found bludgeoned by a hammer outside of Kampala, Uganda, plenty has been written—both positive and negative—about the former teacher who turned activist when he held a press conference in 1998 to jump-start the gay rights movement in his country. But while accounts of his life, temperament and even the events that led to his death differ depending on who is speaking, few would argue that his untimely death was a clarion call for the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) rights movement in Africa and beyond.
To understand Kato as a revolutionary, it’s important to know what he was up against in a country that has shown little to no tolerance for the community he embraced. Laws banning same-sex relations in Uganda date back to British colonial rule, and anti-LGBTI rhetoric became worse when evangelicals from the West came to Africa to inflame an already bad situation (Roger Ross Williams’ documentary God Loves Uganda tackles this subject quite well). Despite death threats and numerous arrests and beatings by police, Kato pushed ahead and co-founded Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) in 2004.
When the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed in 2013, “aggravated homosexuality” became punishable by life in prison. Despite the law being annulled on a technicality by the Constitutional Court several months later, to this day the LGBTI community is not protected by the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual Ugandans. Moreover, the threat to HIV/AIDS treatment and education and the specter of violence and death remains very real, forcing many to flee to neighboring nations such as Kenya, only to face squalor and persecution in refugee camps.
Kanobana Mwanje Franco, the founder of the Foundation for Gender and Sexual Rights in Uganda, knows that danger all too well. Franco became an activist during high school in 2007 and mobilizes and empowers the LGBTI community at a grassroots level, even as he struggles to balance his high profile with his personal safety. For Franco and others like him, the fate of David Kato is a constant reminder of the importance—and inherent dangers—of their work.
“Kato was an activist who would sacrifice anything to see that the voices of LGBTI persons are heard,” said Franco.
That sacrifice came to a head in October 2013, when the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone exposed and called for the hanging of 100 “homos” (including Kato) who they claim were indoctrinating school children into homosexuality. In January, Kato successfully sued the publication, but the moral victory was short-lived. Just a few weeks later, he was murdered in what authorities have alternatively deemed a robbery and personal dispute. An arrest and conviction of a suspect followed, but while the criminal justice system closed the book on the Kato murder, those who knew him well are adamant that his death was the direct result of his outspoken ways and the Rolling Stone exposé. At his own funeral, Kato and the LGBTI community were demonized by a priest who preached: “You must repent. Even the animals know the difference between a male and a female.”
Among the mourners that day was Hush Ainebyona, executive director of the Action For Community Change Initiative in Uganda, who recalls the priest’s actions as “full of judgment for LGBT people” and “a sad moment.”
“One thing I remember about him [Kato] is that he lived his life not for himself but for other LGBT people in Uganda,” said Ainebyona. “He died a hero and will always be remembered.”
In and outside of Uganda, Kato remains a martyr whose shadow is never far behind activists fighting for equal rights in other African nations and the world.
“David’s vision was for a Uganda devoid of religious extremism and where the human rights of all persons, including LGBT and HIV+ people were fully respected,” said Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican activist and recipient of the David Kato Vision and Voice Award in 2012. “He was brutally killed before his dream could be realized, but like every other visionary, he has inspired countless other individuals and groups to take up his cause. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, they buried Kato, but they didn’t know that he was a seed.”
On the fifth anniversary of Kato’s death, friend John (Long Jones) Wambere memorialized him in The Guardian by stating: “The impact David had on me after his death was even greater than when he was alive. He never believed in failing. He believed in the rule of law and seeking justice. He always encouraged me to stand firm and not bury my head in the ground. His death made me stronger.”
Although he never had the opportunity to meet Kato, Ugandan refugee Ronnie Aine Mugisha said, “He is someone everyone still talks about as a great defender of human rights.”
David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate. He was a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom.” President Barack Obama, 2011
Kato’s legacy lives on. In addition to the aforementioned David Kato Vision and Voice Award, his name was added to the Legacy Walk in Chicago, a public display that celebrates LGBT history and its people. Interviews he did with filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall are preserved in Call Me Kuchu, a documentary film about his life. SMUG, the organization Kato helped start, continues to advocate under the leadership of executive director Dr. Frank Mugisha for policy changes and an end to human rights injustices and discrimination in Uganda.
For Nigerian activist Bisi Alimi and others working tirelessly to carry on that legacy, it’s Kato’s fierce resolve that makes them reach higher.
“David Kato went to where many of us could only dream,” said Alimi. “He was fearless, strong and vulnerable at the same time, a complete essence of human.”
Listen to Kato’s 2009 NPR interview and view the trailer for Call Me Kuchu: