David Kato, the First Openly Gay Man in Uganda

“The LGBT community brings us solidarity; we have a sense of belonging. When we came out, we knew it alone, and we suffer it for many years. But the minute you find, ‘ah, this one is like me, so we are brothers, so we are friends, so we are partners in the struggle.' My work mostly is to document violence and cases of discrimination. So whenever an LGBT individual gets into a problem, I always have to rush out.”
-David Kato

(TW: Mention of corrective rape)

In this article, we are going to discuss David Kato, described as Uganda’s first openly gay man and the father of the queer movement in Uganda. While David Kato is not a well-known name in the North American queer community, he was - and is - renowned in the queer community of Uganda. He was also well known in international politics, even though it was incredibly dangerous for him to even be on the radar in his own country, as same sex relationships are illegal in Uganda. His life was made even more dangerous because the citizens of Uganda tend to attempt to enforce the laws against homosexuality with their cruel methods. That is what eventually led to Kato’s death, and that is what we are going to explore.

While, from a historical perspective, it is very unlikely David Kato was the first openly gay man in Uganda, he was certainly the first to rise to notoriety in the twenty-first century, and that was a conscious decision. Kato had the opportunity to move to South Africa, which had much better laws and communities in regards to queer rights, but he went back to Uganda. He said throughout his career that he never planned to leave his home country. 

He also had the opportunity to stay in the closet. As a well-regarded teacher, people wanted his skills, but they didn’t want him to be gay. So if he had wanted at any point to hiding identity, he could have. In fact, he would probably have been shown as an example of what other queer people should do by homophobic citizens in Uganda. But he chose not to. He was very public about his sexuality, and he, in fact, came out during a press conference. He was arrested for this and held in police custody through Christmas. His placement was a very deliberate one, in Uganda and the spotlight.

Throughout his life, Kato was a fierce activist for the queer community. In November 2009, Kato spoke in the UN to debate queer rights; his audience included the Ugandan Human Rights Commission. Though we do not have the transcripts, as the existence of the talk is only known due to a Wikileaks release, we know the reaction. The audience didn’t care. It was reported that they “openly joked and snickered.” After Kato had finished his initial speech, he was forced to be rushed out as rumor had started that he would be arrested otherwise. This left no one to defend his position and allowed the next speaker to rile the audience with homophobic rhetoric, causing cheers and banging on the tables. 

Speeches were not the extent of Kato’s involvement in queer activism. Beyond his position as one of the founders of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), he also made sure to participate in a very direct form of activism. He worked with the queer community documenting human rights offenses. And in a much more personal approach, he was known for letting lesbians who were victims of attempted corrective rape stay in his home. He worked to help the people he encountered in any way he could; he was more than an activist, he was also a philanthropist.

And now we pause for a second to discuss vocabulary politics. In our articles word choice is integral. From labels to phrasing, there is nothing we say that isn’t a very conscious choice. And when we use the term philanthropist we want to remind you of that, because the term philanthropy is a strange one. The definition according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

“the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people.”

It seems like a simple definition. So why is this term only ever applied to upper-class people? It doesn’t say “the practice of giving over thirty-five thousand dollars…” so it isn’t a term made for the upper class. And when we use it for David Kato it is not meant to imply that he was rich, because he wasn’t. Kato may not have had much in his life, but he shared all he had. Kato gave all he could to the queer community for his entire life, and that earns him the right to have the title of philanthropist. Not because how much he objectively gave, but because of how large his sacrifices were.

Among these sacrifices is the hatred people had for him because of his campaign to improve the quality of life for queer people in Uganda. One newspaper even went so far as to publish an edition with a picture of David Kato and his address, calling for the man’s execution. This was not the first time the newspaper had published something like that. In fact, they had done the same thing to some of Kato’s colleagues. Kato responded by suing the newspaper and winning. But his address was already out there and lack of privacy was a dangerous thing for someone in his position. 

He had not consented to this information to be released. The information he did allow to be released was given for the specific and conscious purpose to let other queer people know that they were not alone. In the end, it was his biggest sacrifice and his most dangerous risk.

It was not long after his victory against the newspaper that Kato was murdered. He was killed on January 26, 2011. A friend of his was on the phone with him when he died. The police claimed the murder was caused by a personal dispute and arrested someone in connection to that. Kato’s friends and the international community are very well aware that the investigation and trial were highly biased, and it seemed very much like officials didn’t want to deal with the fact it was a hate crime against one of the country's most famous activists. Officials often complained that Kato had brought shame onto the country by pointing out their offenses, so upon his death, they avoided taking responsibility as fervently as possible, ignoring the international community's outrage.

After Kato’s death, his funeral was overseen by a priest who, through the ceremony, condemned queer people and all Kato had been fighting for throughout his life. His friends took the microphone and stopped the priest forcing him out. They were then forced to bury David Kato elsewhere with an excommunicated priest overseeing the ceremony.

Being forced out of one’s home is an unfortunately common trend in the queer community, from Uganda to England to Sierra Leone to Japan to America, there is no country where you won’t find queer people who were forced to leave their family home, or their hometown, or even their country. There is nothing more important than the safety of the queer people, but we sometimes forget that there are people that stay. While many of us ran as fast as we could, for as long as we could, to as far away from small towns and local life as possible, and there is no shame in that, some of us stayed. 

David Kato was one of the ones who stayed. He is one of the founders of the queer movement in Uganda; he created a community where there wasn’t one. He stood his ground, stood in solidarity and paved the way for the queer people who will come after him. 

But he also died. It is wrong that he was forced to choose between his safety and helping others, but he was, and he chooses to help. We must remember those people; the queer people who still live in the small town where they grew up, who go to every school board meeting to fight on the local level, who don’t get to celebrate pride or are organizing the first pride in their city. Those people are creating queer history just as much as the people who speak to international conferences. David Kato did both and deserves to be remembered for both.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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Beaten to Death. Retrieved June 30 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/world/africa/28uganda.html

Kilborn, S. The Funeral of David Kato: How Uganda’s Leading Gay Activist Was Laid to Rest.

Retrieved June 30 from http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/01/26/david_kato_s_funeral_how_uganda_s_leading_gay_activist_was_laid_to_rest.html

Rice, X. (2011, January 27.) The Guardian. Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato found

murdered. Retrieved June 30 2016 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/27/ugandan-gay-rights-activist-murdered

Akinyemi, A. (2016, January 26.) The Guardian. ‘His death made us stronger’: Uganda's LGBT

groups on David Kato’s murder. Retrieved June 30 2016 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/uganda-lgbt-groups-david-kato-murder-5-years-on

Mayamba, J. (2013, March 18.) Daily Monitor. Two years after David Kato's death. Retrieved

June 30 2016 from http://www.monitor.co.ug/artsculture/Reviews/Two-years-after-David-Kato-s-death/691232-1723030-sn8ojuz/index.html

Ingber, H. (2011, November 10.) David Kato murderer sentenced to 30 years. Retrieved June 30
2016 from http://www.pri.org/stories/2011-11-10/david-kato-murderer-sentenced-30-years

SuchIsLifeVideos. Rachel Maddow - The Murder of David Kato. Retrieved June 30 2016 from
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNH2JzKpMAA

Eduoardo C. David Kato -- New York Times -- Subtitulos en Español. Retrieved June 30 2016
from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTC_mcOZ9KU