New York Times
January 29, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya — It was late at night and totally dark when I first met David Kato. He had been described to me as “the most out” gay Ugandan and the country’s leading gay rights crusader, reviled by many, revered by a small few — but definitely well known. So I was a bit surprised when he suggested that we conduct our interview in an empty lot behind a disco, down a dark gravel road.
“I’m really sorry about this,” he said to me, sitting just a few feet away but barely visible. “This is Uganda, after all.”
At the time, December 2009, Uganda’s Parliament was considering whether gay people should be executed. A Ugandan politician had crafted legislation, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, after a visit from American evangelicals who advocated a program to “cure” homosexuality. The evangelicals later disavowed any intent to inspire the bill.
In fact, as soon as it was put forward, many human rights groups were forecasting what would happen next. They said that just the notion of the government’s seriously considering the death penalty for gay people would spur lynch mobs and spell open season on Uganda’s gays.
Last October, a Ugandan newspaper published a diatribe against homosexuals with Mr. Kato’s picture, and another, on the front page under the words: “Hang Them.” On Wednesday, he was attacked in his home during the day and beaten to death with a hammer. The police called it a robbery. Mr. Kato’s friends were emphatic: He was killed because he was gay.
However the investigation turns out, Mr. Kato felt certain that he had placed himself at terrible risk. That’s why we met in a vacant lot. That night he told me about his life — how he had gone to Uganda’s best schools, had become a teacher and had lived for several years in South Africa, one of the most progressive countries on the continent.
So I asked him the obvious.
Why come back to Uganda?
“We are few people who are out here,” he said. “Me, I’m a professional teacher, I went to nice schools. My role is to fight and liberate.”
He was a small man with thick glasses and thin wrists. He said police officers had broken his arm and cracked him in the nose after he held Uganda’s first gay rights news conference several years ago. He talked fast, constantly scanning the darkness. He struck me as clearly brave and deeply frightened.
Uganda, which Winston Churchill famously called the “pearl of Africa,” doesn’t feel like an especially intolerant place. Most people here seem free to say what they want, even regarding President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power 25 years straight.
But beneath the mild surface is an intensely strong current of religion. And in March 2009, the American evangelicals came to Uganda to discuss what they called “the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda,” and to assert that gay men often sodomized teenage boys.
Many Ugandans have told me that gay people, historically, had been tolerated in their villages. Perhaps they were looked at a little differently, but they were not viewed as a threat. But now, that had changed.
The Rev. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian who attended the antigay meetings, said the Americans had underestimated the homophobia. “They didn’t know that when you speak about destroying the family to Africans, the response is a genocide,” he said. “The moment you speak about the family, you speak about the tribe, you speak about the future. Africans will fight to the death. When you speak like that, you invite the wrath.”
Don Schmierer, one of the evangelicals who visited in 2009, called Mr. Kato’s death “horrible” and said, “Naturally, I don’t want anyone killed, but I don’t feel I had anything to do with that.” He added, “I don’t spread hate.”
On Friday, Mr. Kato was buried in his home village. Several hundred attended, including a priest who told the mourners to repent. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is still being discussed and may become law this year.