As the voice of Uganda’s gay community, Frank Mugisha has met scores of dignitaries from all around the world while fighting for equality. There’s one he hasn’t met yet: the pope.
As a Catholic, he often feels conflicted about his religion’s stance on his homosexuality—he holds on to his faith, but it’s not easy, said the 32-year-old, who is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, an NGO defending LGBT rights
Mugisha had high hopes ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda this weekend, a stop on the pontiff’s first visit to Africa, a five-day trip that included stops in Kenya and the Central African Republic. Along with other gay rights activists, he had requested an audience with the pope weeks ago but didn’t get one before the pope flew out of Uganda Monday. Instead, he had watched live broadcasts as hundreds of thousands flocked to see Pope Francis in person over the weekend and said he was not surprised he wasn’t granted a private papal meeting.
“But I think the Vatican missed the opportunity to start a conversation on protecting LGBT persons and addressing the critical issues of homophobia, [and what’s] acceptable in the church,” said Mugisha.
The timing matters. It’s been 18 months since a draconian law—nicknamed the “kill the gays” law—banning homosexuality was overturned by a Ugandan court on a technicality; however, homosexuality remains taboo and outlawed under the penal code, making it a jailable offense. Last month alone, five transgender people were violently attacked, according to local human rights groups. In 2014 there were 89 cases of violence against gay people, according to a July report from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, an NGO.
Meanwhile, politicians are campaigning on antigay stances. Members of Uganda’s parliament have vowed to introduce new antigay legislation and on the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival passed a law to crack down on activities of NGOs including Human Rights Watch, which warns the space for freedom in independent civil society will shrink even more. Abed Bwanika, a pastor and presidential candidate in the country’s election set for early next year, has pledged to “rehabilitate homosexuals” if he wins, an idea Ugandan activists claim has been borrowed from visiting U.S. evangelicals—despite the fact that stateside, so-called conversion therapies have been banned in some places, there’s a proposed federal ban, and major medical organizations have spoken out against it.
More specifically, American evangelist Scott Lively has been accused of importing homophobic sentiment and drafting the antigay bill for Uganda. Lively was featured in the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda, which took an unflinching look at the role American evangelicals played in rhetoric that fueled persecution of LGBT Ugandans. Mugisha’s rights group was behind a push to prosecute Lively for crimes against humanity for his influence—the case’s next hearing is set for April, after which it could go to trial.
Pentecostals may have been more visible in Uganda’s antigay political conversations in recent years, but they make up less than 5 percent of the population—Catholics make up an estimated 40 percent of the East African nation’s population. A kind word from the pope could go a long way, some activists say.
Before the papal visit, which also took the pope to neighboring Kenya, where antigay sentiments are strong, and the Central African Republic, some worried the pope’s presence could stir the wrong sort of attention.
“If he provokes the haters, we’re going to be treated badly by society,” said Sandra Ntebi, 33, a human rights activist in Uganda.
A senior Ugandan Catholic church figure reiterated the church’s clear position that homosexuality was “unnatural”—but noted opposition to mistreatment.
“This doesn’t mean you have to persecute gays, that you have to kill them, no,” stressed Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who chairs the Uganda Episcopal Conference. “It’s not like that—call them to practice abstinence.”
The pope did not make any such call for abstinence, but his visit did include meetings with the sick and disabled and listening to a speech by a HIV-positive woman and a former captive of warlord Joseph Kony. While stressing the need for “openness to others” and the need “to build a more just society,” Pope Francis did not specifically tackle gay rights publicly.
Conservative Christianity has flourished in Uganda partly “because of American financial support, but also because the Ugandan first lady is a born-again,” said Joseph Lukyamuzi, 36, executive director of Uganda’s Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability. The nonprofit group describes itself as a secular organization.
Lukyamuzi said with time and exposure, and without the theatrics of some pastors, Uganda could one day be more secular. However, Kapya Kaoma, an academic, activist and Anglican priest from Zambia who was also in the documentary, said there was a “marriage of convenience between Roman bishops and Pentecostal leaders” when it comes to antigay beliefs.
Mugisha is still holding out for his visit with the pope, saying Catholic gay activists were continuing their call to Francis to meet.
“Hopefully we will meet the pope at a future date,” he said. “He’s a good pope, he’s a liberal, but I think he can do more.”