Video source: RFKcenterComm
Mugisha leads the Sexual Minorities Uganda organisation.
Mugisha told Associated Press that he hopes to persuade other human rights groups to join the struggle for gay rights.
As a young gay activist, Mugisha said he has been beaten and harassed for speaking out. He added that he's not afraid of his government, but rather of the people on the street who want to eliminate gays.
Mugisha, reflecting on the Kennedy award, said it may afford some protection by raising his profile.
The biggest motivation to continue his work, despite death threats, is his daily interactions with Ugandan gays and lesbians, he added.
"They just look at you when you talk to them, and they feel there's hope," he said. "They feel there's a voice out there speaking for them."The award was headlined in the notorious Ugandan Red Pepper tabloid newspaper, responsible for initiating an anti-gay outing campaign several years ago, as 'Bum Driller Gets JF Award'. Interestingly the text was an almost direct lift from AP and other news reports.
Introducing Mugisha, Kerry Kennedy, daught of Robert Kennedy and President of the Centre, said "Frank Mugisha exemplifies Robert Kennedy’s vision of moral courage. "
"As a result of his advocacy, Frank was threatened and targeted for arrest. He had to flee his country to seek safety, where he could have lived a peaceful life."
"Instead, at grave personal risk, he returned to Uganda where he and seven courageous colleagues took part in a public media campaign proudly identifying themselves sexual minorities."
"Today, Frank, the Robert F Kennedy Partners for Human Rights joins you in your struggle. We are committed to bringing all the resources of our organization to our new 6 year partnership with you."
"We will listen to your needs. We will develop a long term plan. We will work with you, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. You will never be alone."
On Twitter, Mugisha wrote "best part was when Kerry Kennedy made every one say "We are there for you.""
Accepting the award Mugisha said:
"Over the years, I have lost jobs and friends, and most of my relatives don’t even talk to my family because of me. Despite intimidation, harassment and fear of rejection, I have continued doing my work with the hope not only to be understood, but also to effect real change in society – the change I know will come someday. "
"We may not be accepted and recognized in our own communities, but with this award we know that we are being heard and there is hope."Also speaking at the ceremony were Senator John Kerry and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.
"I will continue to speak out. I will continue to demand that my government create laws and policies to protect LGBTI persons from violence and discrimination. I will continue to advance human rights in my country. I will continue to challenge the criminalization of homosexuality. I will continue to educate my country to accept diversity."
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was established in 1984 to honor courageous and innovative individuals striving for social justice throughout the world.
Frank Mugisha's speech:
Mrs. Robert Kennedy, Honorable John Kerry, Members of Congress, Kerry Kennedy, board of directors of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to thank the RFK Center for this recognition. And thank you all, my friends from SMUG, my partner and my family, for coming to attend this very important ceremony.
I thank you also for the increasing support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex struggle in Uganda and elsewhere in the world.
A few years ago I would never have envisioned that I would be addressing this kind of audience; that I would have you listening to me; and, that I would feel respected, honored and loved for the work I am doing in my country, where I am not even regarded as human.
When I started speaking out about my rights as a gay person, my idea was to change the way my friends and neighbors saw me and other people like me. I wanted to be understood.
Over the years, I have lost jobs and friends, and most of my relatives don’t even talk to my family because of me. Despite intimidation, harassment and fear of rejection, I have continued doing my work with the hope not only to be understood, but also to effect real change in society – the change I know will come someday.
My country is among many that still criminalize homosexuality, and if convicted for a same-sex act, I would be sentenced to life in prison. The law criminalizing homosexuality that has existed on Ugandan books for over a century has increased harassment and arbitrary arrests for LGBTI persons in my country. However, the existing law has not stopped legislators in Uganda from creating an even more oppressive law that would not only continue to criminalize homosexuality, but would also call for the killing of homosexuals.
Religious fundamentalists, longstanding culture, ignorance and the media have also contributed to the increased homophobia in Uganda. The LGBTI community faces constant discrimination, violence and human rights abuses. We are denied access to basic rights such as healthcare, education, work. We fear for our lives. This year in January, my friend and colleague from SMUG, David Kato was murdered. For me it is still hard to believe that David is gone. He stood up for everyone, not only for LGBTI rights, but for all human rights. For me, David was a mentor, a brother, and a friend. He was and remains a symbol of hope.
Many of my friends in Uganda have lost jobs, been expelled from school and disowned by their families because of who they are. These everyday challenges break my heart, as I have been a victim of this discrimination myself. But I’m often brought to tears when I remember one particular friend. He was a young Ugandan gay man. At the age of 19, he passed away in hospital, struggling with HIV/AIDs. His life was cut short, not because of the illness, but because he was denied care and support. Not only was it difficult for him to access adequate healthcare, but he could not maintain proper treatment because after he came out to his family – when he told them he was living with HIV/AIDs and was a homosexual person – he was abandoned. Without any income, he struggled, living a life of discrimination until his last day.
Last December, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon expressed concerns about human rights violations due to sexual orientation and gender identity. Paving the way for the first ever resolution condemning discrimination against LGBTI persons worldwide.
In addition, the Human Rights Council at the United Nations recently reviewed the human rights situation in my country. The state joined anti-gay sentiments and echoed false accusations that we coerce children to join homosexuality. We challenge these accusations.
Why would any person ever accept being coerced to join a group that is hated, harassed, and considered inhuman by Ugandan society?
During meetings at the UN, my country accepted some of the recommendations and promised to investigate and persecute violations against LGBTI persons. This is going to be my role to play: I will follow up on this commitment and make sure that my country does indeed live up to the obligations made to the Human Rights Council.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Robert Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself. But each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And, in the total of those acts will be written the history of our generation.”
In my way, I am working to change that portion of events, which is in my power to change.
Today, I receive the RFK Human Rights Award, symbol of human rights for all. It is an encouragement to individuals and groups around the world struggling to be recognized in societies where they are not accepted.
We may not be accepted and recognized in our own communities, but with this award we know that we are being heard and there is hope.
The RFK Human Rights Award is another voice for our message this year, adding to the voice of the United Nations.
The RFK Center, through this award, tells the world, that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people are entitled to full equality. LGBTI persons in Uganda, Africa and elsewhere are standing up, with the support of our allies, refusing to be treated as second class citizens.
This award, and the long-term partnership that we are starting with the RFK Center, brings new energy, inspiration and courage.
I will continue to speak out. I will continue to demand that my government create laws and policies to protect LGBTI persons from violence and discrimination. I will continue to advance human rights in my country. I will continue to challenge the criminalization of homosexuality. I will continue to educate my country to accept diversity.
I welcome your support and I thank you.
Remarks by Kerry Kennedy:
I’d like to read to you from the New York Times:
In March, 2009, three American evangelical Christians, whose teachings about “curing” homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States, arrived in Uganda’s capital to give a series of talks.
The theme of the event, according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda” — and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.
For three days, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality.
The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”
One month later, after conferring with the Americans, a bill was introduced in Parliament to impose a death sentence for homosexual behavior.
That conference and the follow-up legislation exemplify the attacks endured by Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex – LGBTI – community. And give us some sense of the quality of mind and spirit that enables this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate, Frank Mugisha, to face the difficulty, the danger, the pain of activism.
In November, 2010, a Uganda news magazine published a series of articles outing members of the LGBTI community, beneath a headline which read, “hang them.”
In response, neighbors surrounded one outed lesbian’s home, hurling rocks. Other victims of the involuntary outing were threatened with death and beaten.
When confronted by the violence he had instigated, the magazine’s editor responded: “I was only trying to protect Ugandans from those seeking to “recruit children to homosexuality.”
On January 26th, 2011, Frank Mugisha’s dear friend and colleague at Sexual Minorities Uganda or SMUG, David Kato, whose photograph appeared with Frank’s in the same issue, was beaten to death. In response, the same editor justified outing the victims by saying: “We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them.”
In a country where 96 percent of the population believes that homosexuality should be rejected by society, LGBTI citizens face bullying, discrimination, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, cruel punishment, torture and death based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Activists who work to expose such abuses are frequently targeted.
The homophobia of Uganda’s citizenry is not only a cultural phenomenon; it is enshrined in law.
Under Uganda’s legal system, homosexuality is a criminal offence that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The Anti –Homosexuality Bill, proposed in 2009, and still under consideration by Parliament, seeks to further entrench discrimination and hatred against LGBTI people. It would: make consensual homosexual acts punishable by life in prison and in some cases, by the death penalty; effectively prevent medical treatment; and, make failure to report, punishable by imprisonment.
Even if the bill fails, its supporters have already called for harsher enforcement of the country’s existing draconian laws.
It is in this atmosphere of legalized brutality that Frank Mugisha leads SMUG, an umbrella group for LGBTI activism in Uganda.
When Frank was 7, his father died, and his mother raised Frank and his younger brother outside Kampala.
Frank attended all boys Catholic schools until college, where homosexuality was considered sick and sinful, and those suspected of being gay faced humiliation and expulsion.
He prayed to God that his burden would be lifted, but, like Jeremiah, he became the unwilling prophet of tolerance and compassion.
During high school, the time of life when most kids are struggling to fit in, Frank spoke forcefully on behalf of sexual minorities. And then, at 16, when he knew he would be ostracized and hated, he came out to his friends.
Frank Mugisha exemplifies Robert Kennedy’s vision of moral courage. Even as a teenager, Frank braved the disapproval of his fellows, the censure of his colleagues, the wrath of his society. For moral courage, Frank paid a high price.
Members of his family stopped speaking to him. Friends denied knowing him. No one would hire him. He was harassed, humiliated and abused. He faced hostility, threats, intimidation.
With undaunted courage, he forged ahead, offering counsel and refuge to those who felt isolated and abandoned because of the way they were born.
In 2004, emboldened by an article he read about gay rights activism, Frank founded Icebreakers Uganda, to offer support for sexual minorities.
As a result of his advocacy, Frank was threatened and targeted for arrest. He had to flee his country to seek safety, where he could have lived a peaceful life.
Instead, at grave personal risk, he returned to Uganda where he and seven courageous colleagues took part in a public media campaign proudly identifying themselves sexual minorities.
Soon after, Frank assumed leadership of SMUG a network of Ugandan organizations advocating on behalf of the LGBTI minority.
Under Frank’s leadership, SMUG advocates for equality, bolsters LGBTI visibility through media and literature, and empowers activists through leadership and social entrepreneurship trainings. SMUG also fights against HIV/AIDS in LGBTI communities and speaks out against gender- and sexual-orientation-based violence.
Frank described his work simply: “I wake up every morning, and say: I have to do what I have to do. If I receive a phone call that someone is already in jail and I risk arrest myself by going to the prison, I just go. If I receive a phone call about someone who needs my support about coming out, I meet them and talk to them.”
Just as Frank is there to answer the call, we, at the RFK Center, call for change.
Today, Frank, the Robert F Kennedy Partners for Human Rights joins you in your struggle. We are committed to bringing all the resources of our organization to our new 6 year partnership with you.
We will listen to your needs. We will develop a long term plan. We will work with you, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. You will never be alone.
Robert Kennedy said, “those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.”
From this day forward, we, at the RFK Center are your companions.
I would like everyone in this room to stand up. And I’d like you to say, with conviction and heart, all at once,
WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE!
Look around this room, Frank, and know every person here is on your side.
There is a Ugandan proverb that says: “Old men sit in the shade because they planted a tree many years before.”
Frank, I believe that because of your courage and with the support of your companions, you will enjoy the shade of the tree you have planted, as will the thousands of Ugandans for whom you have advocate.
It is an honor for me to join with my mother, Ethel Kennedy, and with Senator John Kerry, to present you with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for 2011.
Remarks by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner:
I am so happy to be here, and to join in this ceremony honoring Frank Mugisha and his organization Sexual Minorities Uganda. It is great to see Ethyl, whose endless energy and lifelong commitment to human rights continues to be an inspiration to us all, and Kerry, who has been a partner to me in the human rights vineyards for the last quarter century.
I was very proud to serve as a judge for these awards for several years and then as a Board member of the RFK Center for Human Rights. I served with pride first because of the extraordinarily important work the Center does in supporting frontline human activists, and because the Center honors the legacy of Robert Kennedy, who was a personal hero of mine and an inspiration, as he was to so many in this room and in our country. I was in high school when Robert Kennedy ran for President in 1968. At a particularly difficult moment in this country’s history he inspired me, as he did so many others, to get engaged and involved. I stood on a street corner in Chicago passing out campaign flyers for RFK because to me he represented the best of America, and he was a messenger of hope and possibilities at a time when our nation was so deeply divided.
Sadly, we are again living through a period when our nation is again deeply divided, and when too many people are losing hope and turning away from public service. Yet I believe that there is much reason for hope, and a greater need than ever for people, especially young people, to answer the call to public service, whether in government or outside. From where I sit I can see an opportunity for us to proudly lead in the world, based not only on our military might or our economic power, but on the strength of our ideals. Founded on the principles of human rights and individual freedom, this country continues to be a beacon to the rest of the world on the things that matter greatly to those of us assembled here.
For the last two years I have been proud to serve in the Obama administration, and under Secretary Clinton, to be part of an administration that is redefining America’s global role around the theme of principled engagement. Principle engagement means that we don’t sit on the sidelines, but enter the playing field, whether at the United nations Human Rights Council, or in bilateral relations with countries where the challenges to human rights are formidable. Principled engagement also means a real commitment to universal human rights standards everywhere, and a commitment for example to the proposition that LGBT rights are human rights.
My job takes me to the far corners of the world, where courageous human rights advocates, like Frank Mugisha, struggle for what is right in circumstances that often seem overwhelming. Last month, I met with a remarkable group of human rights activists in Nizhny Novogrod and Kazan in Russia. Last week, I did the same in Rangoon, Burma, where, among others. I met a former student leader from generation 88 who was released just weeks ago after serving 23 years in jail. And though fundamental changes in these places will be long and hard, these and other activists draw courage and strength from our engagement and support.
These people, and others I meet in these distant places, share a special quality, which Robert Kennedy called moral courage. In my favorite quote of his RFK said that moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” He concluded by saying that those with moral courage will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world. Frank Mugisha, we are proud to honor you here today, and want you to know, in Robert Kennedy’s words, that as a man of moral courage you have many companions here today and around the world.
Remarks by U.S. Senator John Kerry:
Thank you, Donna, for that introduction. And thank you, Kerry and Ethel, for inviting me to share in the RFK Center’s commitment to change the way that we treat each other here on Earth—and indeed to seek a newer world. Your efforts over the years have not only kept Bobby’s legacy alive, they have kept the cause of human rights at the forefront of our politics and our consciences.
This room is the right place to celebrate moral courage. It is now the Kennedy Caucus Room, named for three brothers, each of whom broke new ground, took political risks, and advanced the cause of human rights. Embroiled as I am now in Super Committee deliberations, I am daily reminded how we could use Teddy’s legislative skill and vision today. And Robert Kennedy’s leadership, eloquence, and passion—exhibited throughout a career that was all too short—brings us together to recommit ourselves to the unfinished tasks of building that newer world and also to celebrate the special courage of one man’s example.
The truth is some of our greatest accomplishments and advances in expanding human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals who have stood up against evil because they believed in something bigger than their own safety, their own comfort, and even their own lives.
Today, the RFK Center honors another brave human being who stands up for all of us. Frank Mugisha has already had to pay a steep price for his courage. His colleague, David Kato, was brutally murdered. Frank has lost jobs, friends, and the support of some family members. For a time, he even lost his homeland.
He has had to withstand hatred, vitriol, and the small-minded fear that criminalizes people for their identity. And he has had to withstand it all because he dared to stand up and declare that he is a gay man, a gay Ugandan, a gay human being.
Today, we celebrate a man who through his words and his actions daily reminds us that equality is not something that we can parse out to some and deny to others. The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people are not something different to be doled out only in select circumstances. They are basic human rights. And human rights are universal, not negotiable.
Frank has chosen to climb a steep mountain. There are those in Uganda who are not satisfied merely with criminalizing homosexuality; they want to impose the death penalty for it. That abhorrent impulse represents the most extreme form of a far more pervasive prejudice. It is a prejudice that is found not only in Uganda, but throughout Africa, and around the world. It may shock you, but, today, over 80 countries in the world criminalize homosexuality.
If this gross prejudice is to stop—and it must—then we must stop it. People of good conscience must take action. And we can do so with the same energy and focus that we have used to fight all civil rights battles here and abroad—by standing up and refusing to cower in the face of hatred and oppression.
Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So the history of our moral advance is the story of good men and good women who understood that truth—and who did something about it. Here, in our own country, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis all understood that they needed to stand and march and even die to upend the status quo and topple injustice. And, around the world, some of today’s greatest advocates for change—from Nasrin Sotoudeh [“Nass-REEN So-TOO-deh”] in Iran to Liu Xiaobo [“LEE-oh Shao Boe”] in China—sit in prison simply because they fought for the rule of law and the right of human beings to express themselves.
There are many whose names we will never know. Who will not receive prizes. Whose courage goes unremarked but is all the more remarkable because they put their lives on the line in the face of beatings, imprisonment, and even death in the near-certainty that their sacrifice will be anonymous. That is a kind of courage so powerful that it is hard to fathom.
As Robert Kennedy said: “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
By standing up for the rights of sexual minorities, Frank Mugisha has earned a place among those rare men and women who have demonstrated a willingness to brave the wrath of society. We need that kind of courage today more than ever, not only for what it can change in Uganda, not only for what it can change for gay men and women everywhere. But we need it in our own lives because without it, nothing will change.
Around the world, the fundamental struggle for dignity—for economic justice, for political freedom, for personal expression—continues every day and in many forms. And without extraordinary courage those struggles will remain anonymous and will, by definition, be less successful.
This year, millions of brave individuals stepped forward as the fight for dignity exploded in the Middle East. The results have been remarkable. Last week, Tunisia held its most open elections in 50 years. Egypt is preparing for parliamentary elections and the opportunity to write a new constitution. And Libya rid itself of a dictator who had stripped away every element of civil society and political expression.
Unfortunately, for each of these victories, there has been a counter-example. In Bahrain, doctors were sentenced to 15 years in prison for the crime of treating protestors. In Syria, thousands have died protesting a regime that has lost all credibility and legitimacy.
So we know that too often the struggle for dignity does not end decisively—with a dictator dead or in prison. Often, indignity just festers, while persecution dominates and persists.
According to Freedom House, 2010 was the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom declined. That’s nearly 2.5 billion people who live in societies that do not respect fundamental political rights and civil liberties. One-third of the global population faces increasing harassment when seeking to practice their faith. And, particularly abhorrent, there are millions of victims of slavery, bondage, and trafficking around the world.
These are not just statistics in a report or a politician’s speech—they are a challenge to the decency of every one of us. These are real lives that have been abandoned to the most depraved instincts—little girls raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, children forced to starve in Somalia, indigenous farmers thrown off their land in Colombia, journalists disappeared in Chechnya, and priests jailed in China.
Each of these episodes steals from our humanity. Together, we pay a price when rights are trampled. And, together, we win when rights are protected.
Real change, as we have seen so clearly this spring, is driven from within. But when there is opportunity for change, America must be there to help. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, Millennium Challenge grants, and other initiatives we can save children’s lives, expose corruption, train journalists, defend advocates of human rights, and provide a lifeline to refugees.
But the most important thing we can do is to stand up at every opportunity to support America’s ideals of democracy and human rights—to use our platform to support those individuals who are striving for reform.
And the battle continues here at home, too, where those words from Tennyson—“the work goes on”—that Bobby and Teddy loved so much, challenge us still to confront injustice. Robert Kennedy was a man of great faith. He studied the Bible. At the height of violence against African Americans during the civil rights struggle, he once quoted the scriptures and asked his fellow Americans, “What if God was black?” It was a profound question. And were he here today, Robert Kennedy would be stunned to see how some Americans can believe in God, celebrate life, talk about love as the center of religion, and then turn their backs on their fellow man. He would challenge us to ask: If God is indeed all-powerful, as we believe, and if he has created us in his image, then who are we to permit discrimination among his children?
I have faith we can win this fight. We can win it in no small part because of organizations like the RFK Center. Sometimes these problems may seem too great to overcome—especially for individuals with little power. But the RFK Center is here to remind us that that is not true. It has been an unwavering anchor that steadies our nerve in times of challenge and celebrates the bravest among us. It is here to show us that with a little focus and a lot of courage, we can change a world that yields only painfully to change.
That is the legacy that this room represents and the legacy that you carry. Robert Kennedy would have been amazed by your work, Frank. And Teddy would have been proud that you are the latest recipient of this award in his brother’s name. Congratulations and thank you for your courageous stand.