Slain Ugandan gay rights activist commemorated

February 1, 2011

One week after Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in his home, vigils and commemorative services are being held in honor of his life and ministry.

In New York, where a winter storm Feb. 2 kept many suburbanites out of the city, some 20 people gathered in memorial for Kato at the Church Center for the United Nations, where they read from parts of Uganda's still-pending anti-homosexuality bill, defining the "offense of homosexuality" and the "aiding and abetting of homosexuality" and also from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1948.

Thirty-seven countries in Africa, including U.N. General Assembly member states, have Colonial-era anti-homosexuality laws on the books, said the Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, the Episcopal Church's program officer for Africa and the Middle East, and a native of Uganda.

It's time, he said, for the church to step in and "to pray the devil back to hell," referencing a movement in Liberia in which mothers and grandmothers who wanted an end to that country's long civil war came together in prayers for peace.

"Make it loud," said Sabune, pointing to the United Nations' headquarters across the street. "The General Assembly can't sit there and talk about human rights and let this happen.

"They cannot talk about human rights when people are being killed for sexual orientation," he added.

On Feb. 3, a candlelight vigil will be held at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York beginning at 4 p.m. and followed by a silent procession to Uganda House, headquarters of the East African country's permanent mission to the United Nations. Another vigil will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, at 5 p.m. local time at 6 Spin Street (opposite Church Square).

Sabune pointed out that Kato returned from South Africa to Uganda in 1998, the same year Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming, in what has come to be considered a hate crime based on Shepard's sexuality.

"Everyone told him, Uganda is not a place for you," Sabune said. "David has given his life; what are we going to do?"

Kato had received several death threats since October 2010 when his photo had appeared on the front page of a newspaper alongside that of retired Ugandan Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo under a banner reading "Hang Them." Both men have been outspoken advocates for human rights in Uganda, where current laws on homosexuality carry sentences of up to life imprisonment.

On Jan. 3, a judge in Uganda's High Court ruled in favor of Kato and others who had filed a complaint against the now-defunct newspaper "Rolling Stone." The ruling states that all Ugandans have a "right to privacy and dignity."

During the U.N. chapel service, prayers were offered for Senyonjo and others who will carry on Kato's work.

"David will be greatly missed and it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his leadership," said Val Kalende, board chair of Freedom and Roam Uganda, an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) advocacy organization in Uganda, according to a press release. Kalende, who is Ugandan and openly lesbian, will deliver a keynote speech at the event at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

"We cannot afford to remain silent as the government of Uganda continues to show its unwillingness to protect the fundamental rights of LGBT citizens," said Kalende, a student at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "There is no better time than this for our government to drop the anti-homosexuality bill and to stop the religious-sponsored homophobia that might have caused David's death and might lead to the loss of many others."

In October 2009, a bill was proposed to the Ugandan Parliament that called for broadening the criminalization of homosexuality and introducing the death penalty in certain cases.

Following international public condemnation, the bill has been temporarily withdrawn, but is expected to be reintroduced in the future. In March 2010, Senyonjo was among those who delivered to the Ugandan Parliament an online petition containing more than 450,000 signatures of people opposing the law.

New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson and Auburn Theological Seminary, where Senyonjo studied theology, have issued a national call for prayer and remembrance to commence on Feb. 3, the first day of the National Prayer Breakfast, whose organizers reportedly backed the anti-gay Ugandan legislation.

"It is vital now more than ever that the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast join us in ending this hatred and violence," said Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected a bishop in the Anglican Communion. "As an act of good faith, we urge that at the National Prayer Breakfast this Thursday, they lead a prayer of compassion and concern for the family, friends and colleagues of David Kato, and pray for their protection from further harm."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, preaching Jan. 30 at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, said Kato "has been a strong voice for the basic human rights of gay and lesbian people. His voice has been silenced. We can pray that others will continue that work, or be challenged by the brutality of his death into some conversion of heart."

Jefferts Schori was in Dublin attending the Jan. 25-30 meeting of Anglican primates, who issued a statement deploring Kato's murder and reaffirming that the Anglican Communion condemns violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. "No one should have to live in fear because of the bigotry of others," the statement says, supporting earlier condemnation of the murder from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The Chicago Consultation, a group of lay and ordained leaders that supports the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, expressed its gratitude to the primates for their statement.

"Even in the wake of Kato's senseless murder and our serious concern for the safety of other Ugandan LGBT leaders and their allies, we celebrate that the Anglican tradition allows us to share common prayer, sacraments and the Gospel call to justice despite our differences," said the Rev. Lowell Grisham, the co-convener of the Chicago Consultation, in a Jan. 30 statement. "We join the primates in renewing our commitment to a world in which no one lives in fear."

The Anglican Church of Uganda, which has not issued any statement about Kato's murder, has said it believes that "homosexual practice has no place in God's design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation, or His plan of redemption."