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Unitarian Universalists raise funds for gay rights in Uganda

Donations will support human rights activists fighting homophobia.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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David Kato (AP Photo)

Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato died after being attacked in his home on January 26, 2011. (AP Photo)

In response to a growing number of threats against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people in Uganda, the Unitarian Universalist Association has launched a fund to help human rights activists in that country.

The UUA has partnered with the UU United Nations Office (UU-UNO) to create the UUA/UU-UNO LGBT Uganda Fund. UUA President Peter Morales announced the fund on January 25. Two days later, a Ugandan gay rights activist was fatally beaten.

“Rarely, if ever, has the UU tradition of living our faith been more crucial than it is at this moment,” Morales said in announcing the fund. “Right now in Uganda we have seen an alarming rise in violence and prejudice toward people who are even assumed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Right now, Ugandan citizens, including members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda, fear they will be killed because of this growing culture of oppression against LGBT people.”

Before his death, David Kato, the activist who was killed, had recently warned that the lives of LGBT people in Uganda were in danger. A newspaper in Uganda had published the names and addresses of people suspected of being LGBT prominently on its front page. An accompanying article with the headline “Hang Them,” called for the death of the people listed.

Kato and several other Ugandan activists sued the paper and won. The Ugandan High Court ordered the newspaper to pay damages and to cease publishing the names of people it believed were gay or lesbian.

Kato was a Ugandan high school teacher who moved to South Africa in the 1990s after coming out. He returned to Uganda to advocate for gay rights, organizing the first gay rights news conference in Kampala. In his mid-40s, Kato had recently installed an alarm system in his house for protection.

The Ugandan Parliament is considering a bill that would condemn some homosexuals to life in prison or death. It has created a new level of fear for the country’s gay population.

“The situation remains too dangerous for us to stand idly by,” Morales said.

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda in Kampala are working to protect LGBT people in Uganda, led by the Rev. Mark Kiyimba. “We cannot, in good conscience, allow them to struggle alone,” Morales said. “Even recent anti-bigotry legislation in Uganda will not stop the hatred and violence aimed at the LGBT community.”

Making matters worse, Morales said, is that much of the hateful rhetoric hurled at the LGBT community has been fomented by members of the American religious right, who have gone to Uganda to speak out against homosexuality.

The UUA/UU-UNO LGBT Uganda Fund will disperse the money it collects to organizations within Uganda that are doing human rights work. The Rev. Eric Cherry, international resources director for the UUA, said, “This is an excellent opportunity for American Unitarian Universalists who are committed to the global struggle for LGBT human rights to support the courageous work of our UU partners on the front lines of that struggle in Uganda.”

One of the organizations that will receive contributions is the Eddoboozi Human Rights Defenders Network. Eddoboozi, which means “voice,” supports LGBT rights work in Uganda.

Following Kato’s murder, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda and Eddoboozi released a joint statement condemning the action and calling for the murderer to be brought to justice. “Human rights defenders are invaluable gate keepers of peaceful co-existence in societies around the world,” the statement said. “They set the pace of responsible lifestyles and commit leaders in communities to the issues of the people they lead.”

There are two UU congregations in Uganda. In addition to the Kampala church, there is a fellowship near the village of Masaka. In Masaka, Ugandan Unitarian Universalists operate a school and an orphanage for children whose parents have died of HIV and AIDS.

Morales said that the publishing of the names and addresses of human rights activists shattered the hopes of the LGBT community that they can be safe in their homes. “I can only imagine the terror and despair they must feel,” he said. “My heart breaks for them.”

Yet, Morales added that he has hope. “I believe the people of our faith will answer the call to action. I have seen again and again the strength and resolve UUs summon in response to violence and oppression no matter how daunting the task.”

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