Image Credit: Alisdare Hickson
Content warning: homophobia
June is a month in which the values of diversity, inclusivity and integration are amplified, with the marking of both LGBT+ Pride and National Refugee Week. The precarious state of LGBT+ rights on a global scale means that the issues faced by these communities often coincide. With 71 countries criminalising homosexuality, and 11 of these carrying the death penalty, people each year are forced to flee their homes because of the persecution they face as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
One such individual that embodies this struggle is Ugandan human rights defender and LGBT+ rights activist, David Kato. As part of the University’s schedule of events to mark National Refugee week this year, it was announced that the second new college being built on Campus East will be named after Kato, the first having been named after Yorkshire landowner and diarist Anne Lister.
A schoolteacher, Kato worked in South Africa where up until the end of apartheid, homosexuality had previously been banned. Upon his return to Uganda, he felt galvanised to fight for the same within his home country, stating in an interview that “when I came home... I had the same momentum – I tried to liberate my own community.” He quickly became a notable LGBT+ rights activist within Uganda, even spending a week in jail because of his work.
Kato’s growing notoriety began to put him in increased danger, as well as causing significant challenges regarding his continued work as an educator. He often faced backlash for his work in the classroom, including allegations that he was attempting to groom children. Eventually Kato decided to stop teaching and focus more time on his work for Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug).
In 2010, Kato came to York as a protective fellow on the Human Rights Defenders Programme at the Centre for Applied Human Rights. The programme offers up to ten human rights defenders each year an opportunity for research, networking and rest from their difficult – and often dangerous – working environments. The visiting defenders also form an integral part of the department’s postgraduate programmes.
Kato stayed in York for six months before returning to Uganda to advocate against the country’s pending anti-homosexuality act, which became known as the ‘Kill the Gays Bill’ because of its death penalty clauses (these were later revised to life imprisonment). Overall the act aimed to further broaden the criminalisation of homsexuality and introduce penalties for individuals or organisations that assisted same-sex sexual acts. The situation further escalated already high levels of homophobia within the country. Kato was one of the leading voices against the legislation.
It was at this time in 2010 when Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper began publishing images of individuals they said were gay alongside calls for the execution of homosexuals. These included David Kato himself. Kato, alongside two other complainants, then successfully challenged the tabloid in a landmark court ruling where the judge called for an end to the publication of such photographs, stating that they were a breach of the right to privacy. This huge and well publicised court victory was a major success for the LGBT+ rights movement in Uganda against a large and influential corporation.
Just weeks after this, however, Kato was found murdered in his home in Kampala, after ongoing reports of increased harassment since the court ruling. His killer, sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, claimed during the trial that he attacked Kato after being propositioned by him, but whether this was the true reason for Kato’s death will likely never be known.
The criticism, hatred and harassment Kato faced in the final few months of his life highlight the passion and bravery it takes to be a human rights activist in nations such as Uganda. Despite the stigma and danger faced by activists every day, extraordinary individuals like David Kato continue to advocate for improvements in human rights protection across the globe. Many of them face similar – if not worse – risks. Kato’s life reminds us to be grateful for every one of them.
Unfortunately David Kato’s death – and the international media attention and critique that followed – did little for the progression of LGBT+ rights in Uganda. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed in 2014 before being annulled by the courts a few months later on the grounds of a technicality. Homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda, and attempts to further criminalise have again been made just this year, with the passing of a controversial sexual offences bill. Many aspects of this have been likened to the earlier struck down legislation.
The decision by the University of York to name a new college after David Kato therefore serves as an important reminder of how much is still left to achieve in the fight for LGBT+ equality across the globe, particularly at this time of year. It reminds us that although we celebrate Pride, that many others do not have the luxury to do so. That even here in the UK LGBT+ people still face discrimination and judgement; even more so for the transgender community in particular. The immense struggle Kato faced as an activist is unfortunately not a unique experience, and neither was the homophobia he faced. It is a fact that must not be forgotten.
So I hope that when students walk into their new college for the first time, they recognise how lucky they are to live in a place where an individual as brave, passionate and accepting as David Kato can have their name on a wall. Maybe more importantly though, that they also see it as a sign to always advocate for what it is they believe in, because there is always someone out there who needs you to do so for them; in the way David Kato did for so many, and others still do.