Beyond Barbarism: David Kato, Uganda, and the American Right

I, like many, am deeply saddened by the news of the violent death of David Kato, a prominent Ugandan LGBTI activist. David was murdered in his home on 26 January in a village near Kampala. Although the motives for his murder are not yet confirmed, it is highly suspected that David was the target of homophobic violence due to his vocal criticism of the proposed Ugandan Anti-​Homosexuality Bill, and LBGTI rights in Uganda more broadly.

The bill, before parliament since 2009, further criminalizes homosexuality (it is already illegal thanks to the combined force of lingering British colonial law and governments’ unwillingness to eradicate it) making it punishable by fine, imprisonment, and in certain cases, death. It is significant that in late 2010, David’s picture — along with numerous other gay Ugandan activists — was published in Rolling Stone (unconnected to the US magazine) alongside a banner that read “hang them”. In light of David’s murder, appeals have been made by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), Behind the Mask, the Africa Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics, Human Rights Watch and others for a full and impartial police investigation into David’s death. This would include an analysis of any possible links to organized violence against LGBTI individuals and communities – a crucial next step in the aftermath of David’s death. However, while identifying the person or people behind David’s murder is of great symbolic significance, it is unlikely that a police investigation will be able to address the larger issue at stake — the complex landscape of homophobic violence in contemporary Uganda.

David was a vocal critic of racist and orientalist readings of Uganda as barbarically backward and hopelessly homophobic. On a trip to the UK last year, David gave a series of talks on the problems with predominantly white gay and queer organizations in the UK painting African countries as blocking the civilizational progress towards the global recognition of LGBTI rights — a road which modern western countries were supposedly paving. For David and his colleagues at SMUG, this overly simplistic perspective of the situation in Uganda erased the ongoing violence that queers continue to experience in the modern western world. David spoke of his shock when he heard stories of gender-​queer people being attacked and harassed in London when international gay rights activists in Uganda had portrayed an image of the United Kingdom as the land of the free for LGBTI individuals and communities.

Moreover, David challenged the preconception that somehow homophobia was the ontological property of Africans. Not only was this patently wrong, it also neglected to recognize the campaign of homophobic hatred being pushed by right-​wing American church leaders and politicians in Uganda for the past decade. Since 1999, organizations such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the Family have been ideologically and economically invested in circulating this narrative as a way of cementing their own political and moral agendas in Uganda. Although most American religious leaders now deny their initial support for anti-​gay legislation, David held that these well-​funded institutions and individuals (backed in some cases by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR funds) had already helped sow the seeds of homophobic hatred. He challenged the double standard of some gay rights movements to denounce the actions of African nations while ignoring their own governments’ implication in the political, historical, and economic factors of the situation.

As the world learns about the shocking murder of this inspirational young man, there is a danger that it will be inserted along a larger narrative about “homophobic Africa” that perpetuates problematic civilizational discourses of “moderns” vs “pre-​moderns”. As cultural critics like Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Jasbir Puar have pointed out, this foundational myth has been the justification for imperialist ventures, colonial intervention, and outright war for centuries, and has particular currency in the contemporary “war on terror”. Gay liberation has successfully been used to bolster the force of the invaders in many contexts, a popular pattern that Puar has termed “homonationalism”. The term describes the resonance between gay rights movements that, for example, deploy narratives of African countries as inherently backward with nationalist mythology used to justify imperial invasion (i.e., saving the women of Afghanistan). These stories mutually enforce each other, building a national imperial project in the name of (supposed) gay liberation. It is my hope that in light of David’s brave intellectual and activist work, international onlookers will not capitulate to the hegemonic propulsion of this narrative by ascribing David’s death to a problem with “Uganda”.

Of course, this is not to deny the agency of the Ugandan government in the worrying escalation of homophobia. President Yoweri Museveni and his parliament need to distance themselves from proposed legislation that further threatens the rights and lives of LGBTI people living in Uganda and to take proactive steps towards greater acceptance of sexual diversity there. But we may also combat the rise in homophobic violence in Uganda by understanding the web of historical, political and economic connections that make up the landscape we are looking at and by putting pressure on those inculcated within it. This, for me, is what David Kato was fighting for.

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