KAMPALA, Uganda - Four years ago, Frank Mugisha begged his colleagues to join him for his first demonstration in support of gay rights in Uganda. Only four came along.
Last week, during a march against gender-based violence led by the gay advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda, the Ugandan activist saw more than 30 colleagues walk the streets of Kampala holding gay rights posters.
“For us, this is a sign of progress,’’ Mugisha said, pointing to the white tarpaulin under which his group assembled after Monday’s hourlong march. “We are no longer afraid of anything. We even have a banner.’’
Uganda’s homosexuals have been in the spotlight since a parliamentarian introduced a tough antigay bill in October 2009. World leaders condemned the proposed legislation, though many in Uganda applauded it.
Still, Mugisha carries a sense of optimism that is slowly germinating within the tightly knit gay community. The mere fact, Mugisha said, that Ugandans are now having a national conversation on gay rights is itself an achievement. In the past, the subject was taboo.
“We see a shift in public opinion, and I guess it’s because many Ugandans are talking about homosexuality a lot,’’ he said. “There are some local leaders who are now willing to meet and talk to us. The only problem we have is the belief people have that we are promoting homosexuality and recruiting children.’’
Activists believe the controversial law will never pass, and now they are pursuing legal action they expect will make it too costly for people to be hostile to gays.
Sexual Minorities Uganda, with help from the New York-based advocacy group Center for Constitutional Rights, filed suit last week against a Massachusetts pastor in US federal court. The lawsuit accuses Scott Lively of being the intellectual force behind the antigay bill.
Lively, who is based in Springfield, gained worldwide prominence in March 2009 when he traveled to Uganda to address the Parliament on “exposing the homosexuals’ agenda.’’ He told lawmakers that “the gay movement is an evil institution that’s goal is to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’’
A week after the conference at which Lively spoke, a bill was introduced that would allow gays to be executed under certain circumstances in Uganda.
The court complaint asserts that Lively issued a call in Uganda to fight against a “genocidal’’ and “pedophilic’’ gay movement, “which he likened to the Nazis and Rwandan murderers.’’ The suit asks for a judgment that his actions are illegal and violate international law and human rights.
Lively says his words were taken out of context and denies any wrongdoing.
Sexual Minorities Uganda believes that if it wins the suit, other American evangelicals it accuses of spreading antigay propaganda would stay away from Uganda.
“It’s been a long journey,’’ said Pepe Julian Onziema, a gay activist who works with Mugisha. “The suit against Lively is something we had been brainstorming about since he came here in March 2009. We felt, ‘How can someone come from someplace and tell our people that we homosexuals are lesser citizens?’ We felt really insulted.’’
The lawsuit against Lively is part of wide-ranging legal action that local gay groups are considering against individuals they consider hostile to the rights of homosexuals.
A similar suit is about to be filed at home against Simon Lokodo, the Ugandan ethics minister who personally broke up a gay conference recently, saying they were not authorized to meet.
Sexual Minorities Uganda also wants to bring to court David Bahati, the parliamentarian who introduced the antigay bill; three local pastors who championed the bill; and Lokodo’s predecessor.
Bahati’s original legislation proposed the death penalty for some gay acts. Bahati has said he has since dropped the death penalty provision, though the latest version of the bill has not been made public.