Oak Fellow discusses combatting homophobia

On Sept. 17, this fall’s Oak Human Rights Fellow Clare Byarugaba spoke on the issue of LGBT rights in Uganda. Byarugaba was selected as the Fellow for the campus’s Oak Institute for Human Rights due to her work in leading the movement to overcome her country’s recent controversial legislation, which criminalized homosexuality. Byarugaba presented her work to a large audience in Ostrove Auditorium.

As co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Uganda, Byarugaba defended herself and the Ugandan queer community from governmental oppression through demonstrations, support networks and lobbying. The law that spurred Byarugaba into action was known as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, passed on Feb. 24, 2014. The act targeted any type of homosexual action and also prevented the queer community from finding allies amongst their country by banning any form of LGBT support.

Thus, the bill not only criminalized homosexuality, but it imprisoned other Ugandans suspected of  “promoting the homosexual agenda.” Engaging with someone who has the intent to commit homosexual actions warranted life imprisonment, while providing food or shelter for homosexuals could result in five to seven years in prison. As Byarugaba explained, these provisions were open to interpretation and bias, and legal action was at the discretion of officers and watchful citizens. In addition, the climate cultivated by the anti-gay movement encouraged residents to respond to the bill with acts of mob violence.

The backbone of the anti-gay movement originated from the work of multiple American Evangelical Christians, most notably Scott Lively and Rick Warren. These missionaries manipulated pre-existing homophobia to control the population through religion, justifying their actions with biblical references and using churches as a base support to circulate petitions.

The anti-queer ideology was therefore incorporated into religious sermons as a way to manifest hatred against homosexuals. In “the place where I expected to find tolerance, I found a breeding ground for homophobia,” she said.

The result was an ideology that Byarugaba admits she could not win against. Rather than try to tell people their beliefs were wrong, she appealed to what she saw as a greater injustice: the denial of basic human rights. “A person is a person through other persons,” she said. By this, Byarugaba meant that the struggle her movement faced was part of a greater struggle to “extend rights to all Ugandans.” She defined the success of a democracy as a measure of how it treats its minorities; the anti-gay law was therefore “an indicator of the government’s attempts to restrict the human rights of all Ugandans.”

Her path to becoming a successful and outspoken activist was by no means a safe or calm one. The previous leader of Uganda’s LGBT movement, David Kato, was murdered at the hands of anti-gay violence after a newspaper published his identity and address. Byarugaba faced the same situation as the result of her work, and had to move houses frequently. In addition, she faced daily death threats and could not use public transportation out of concern for her safety. This did not hinder her efforts, for the backbone of her work is “optimism and hope,” she said.

All of Byarugaba’s work was worth it, she told the audience, when the law was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Uganda. “We are at least free for a few months,” Byarugaba said, addressing the possibility of another anti-gay law on the horizon. For now she continues to work with police, organize events and document incidents of violence to strengthen her coalition’s position and influence. Part of this includes prosecuting Scott Lively under U.S. law for the violence he instilled in her home country. There’s still much to accomplish in Uganda, she said, and her ultimate hope is to emulate the strength of the LGBT movement in the United States.

To students and faculty wanting to get involved, Byarugaba requested that they write to their senators in order to pressure the United States to take a stronger stance on LGBT internationally. However, her greater message was solidarity. She communicated that only by standing together, both domestically and internationally, could the issues of LGBT rights be overcome. With variations of the Anti-Homosexuality Act spreading to surrounding countries, some cases harsher than in Uganda, the necessity for solidarity is far from antiquated. Byarugaba believes that through solidarity, people can solve the worst of the world’s problems.

At the conclusion of Byarugaba’s speech, students and faculty from across campus joined her onstage. Joining hands, they demonstrated solidarity to a standing ovation.