Oak Institute welcomes Ugandan LGBT activist

The College’s Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights has brought a human rights fellow to campus for every fall semester since 1998. This year, the Institute selected Clare Byarugaba to teach a seminar and educate students through her own personal experience. A lesbian activist from Uganda, where politicians have been trying to criminalize homosexuality, Byarugaba is the co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, an organization that defends members of the LGBT community.

The Institute organizes lectures and other events to introduce students, faculty and staff, along with members of the mid-Maine community, to a specific human rights struggle. This semester’s focus is gender and sexual diversity, making Byarugaba and her work apt choice.

The fellow’s work as an LGBT activist focuses mainly on her home country’s recent discriminatory laws. In Feb., Uganda enacted legislation to penalize “homosexual activity” and efforts to promote or defend such activity. Although the law was overturned on technical grounds in August, backers have vowed to push a new version. Byarugaba and her group have promised to keep resisting such political attacks.

Despite being only 27 years old, Byarugaba is exceptionally accomplished. She helped organize Uganda’s first gay pride event and has joined the Refugee Law Project, an organization currently under investigation by the Ugandan government. In 2011, the U.S. State Department granted her the Human Rights Defenders award.

Last winter, a popular Ugandan tabloid released Byarugaba’s LGBT identity to the public against her will just after the anti-gay bill became law. The newspaper described her as a “gay recruiter.” Just a few years ago, a similar tabloid targeted David Kato, a prominent gay rights activist in Uganda who then was a candidate for the Oak Fellowship. He was later murdered in his home. As both a lesbian and a human rights activist, Byarugaba has received many physical threats and has had to move several times to remain safe. Her family rejected her due to her sexual orientation, but she continues to persevere despite the challenges.

Associate Professor of Government and faculty director for the Oak Institute, Walter Hatch, said Byarugaba began crying when he told her by phone that she won the 2014 Fellowship. “You just saved my life,” she said. Hatch demurred, saying the new Oak Fellow is the one saving lives.

Byarugaba’s presence on campus this fall offers an exciting opportunity for the local community to learn about human rights, especially LGBT rights, in Uganda and around the world. Upcoming Oak events include a showing of the film “God Loves Uganda” and a visit from Roger Ross Williams, the film’s director, on Oct. 15, as well as a spoken word performance by “Sister Outsider,” featuring two of the world’s leading female slam poets, to take place on Nov. 5. In the spring, the Oak Student Committee, led by co-chairs Grace DeNoon ’15 and Divya Bisht ’15, will continue the conversation on LGBT rights through lectures, documentary screenings and other events.