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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