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Ugandan gay rights activist honored

Grit Hofmann, Monika Guarino October 1, 2015

Ugandan gay rights campaigner Kasha Nabagesera has won a Right Livelihood Award for her outstanding courage and commitment in a country in which gays and lesbians have to contend with prejudice, hatred and violence.

Portrait of Kasha Nabagesera with a rainbow flag in the background. Copyright: DW
Image: DW

Ugandan gay rights activist

Everyone recognizes her face. That's why she has to hide. Kasha Nabagesera had even appeared on national television in her dauntless campaign for gay and lesbian rights in Uganda.

"I can't count how many times I've been beaten," she told DW. "I really, really have to watch my back."

Although the 36-year-old can hardly leave the house these days, she sees a positive side to all the threats. People can no longer deny the existence of gays and lesbians in Uganda.

In recognition of her work and her courage, Kasha Nabagesera has now been honored with a Right Livelihood Award. Better known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prizes,' the awards support people "from all walks of life" who offer "exemplary answers" to challenges facing the today's world.

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera was born in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. She was expelled from several schools and later almost from her university for being gay. She has been a human rights activist since she was 21.

Nabagesera has also been speaking out internationally about the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGTBI) people in her country. After addressing the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007, she was repeatedly harassed and threatened. Undaunted, she continued her struggle for acceptance of LGTBI people in her country. In 2011 she received the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and in 2013 she was given the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. The Right Livelihood Foundation has called her one of Africa's most courageous human rights activists.

Kasha Nabagesera holds a copy of the LGBT magazine Bombastic. Copyright: DW
Kasha Nabagesera co-founded Bombastic to reach out to people who are hostile to homosexualsImage: DW

Climate of fear

Uganda's gay community is said to be at least half a million strong. "We have many people living together secretly, as best friends; others pretend to be married," Kasha Nabagesera says.

The country's gay rights activists are taking considerable risks to change people's attitudes. They are organizing an annual parade, which is already in its fourth year. They are publishing a magazine called Bombastic, to share what it's like being gay in Uganda and to reach out to a hostile environment. Kasha Nabagesera is a co-founder and editor.

Volunteers distribute the magazine, leaving it just about everywhere, including the parliament building, media houses and churches. Copies of it have been burned and distributors threatened.

Gays and lesbians in Uganda are getting help from abroad. But at home, they're being harassed and intimidated by the media, the very organizations they would ordinarily depend on to speak up for them.

Media witch-hunt

Over the past few years, Ugandan tabloids have been launching attacks on gay people, publishing dubious stories, printing names, addresses and pictures, and even inciting violence.

"These are the people who are pelting stones at us; these are people who are pointing fingers, who are sexually abusing us, who are beating us," Kasha Nabagesera told DW. "We need them to report positively, so that we can minimize the risks."

The front pages of several Ugandan tabloids with sensationalist headlines about gay people. Copyright: DW
Ugandan tabloids have been attacking gay people, humiliating and degrading themImage: DW

In 2014, a harsh anti-gay law came into force, prompting an international outcry and cuts in Western aid. The legislation broadened colonial-era penalties, providing for life imprisonment for "aggravated homosexuality," seven years for "attempting to commit homosexuality" as well as harsh penalties for the "promotion of homosexuality." An early draft obliged Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities. Uganda's constitutional court later struck down the law on a technicality.

Kasha Nabagesera says more and more people in the country are coming out, defying renewed threats of more repressive laws. "I am really, really hopeful for the movement in Uganda," she told DW. "Even when some go, others come on board."

She is intent on continuing to travel all over Africa – as an ambassador for a new self-confidence within the LGTBI movement. "The challenge is there," she says, "but we also register some successes that keep us going."