Leader of African Gay Rights Movement Honored in Nuremberg

Kasha Nabagesera, recipient of this year's International Human Rights Award, says it's her Ugandan neighbors who pose the greatest threat to her safety.

Kasha Nabagesera fears the day when she will return home, but promises to go back soon. “My friends are in jail. I also have to be very careful, because they arrest anyone whenever they want. It’s a big risk,” she said this week.

Two months have passed since she arrived in Nuremberg, Germany, to receive the prestigious International Human Rights award granted by the city. She has not yet returned to her home in Uganda. Meanwhile, she is conducting the struggle she has been leading in recent years − for the rights of the gay community in Africa − by remote control from Stockholm, Sweden, where she spoke to Haaretz via telephone.

Nuremberg has come a long way in the 78 years that have passed since the Nazis published their infamous anti-Semitic racial laws that bore the city’s name. In 1945, a series of trials of Nazi war criminals was held there. In 1993, Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan dedicated the “Way of Human Rights” − a series of columns, on each of which is engraved an article from the UN Declaration of Human Rights, each in a different language. Two years later, on the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Laws, the city began awarding a prize to persecuted human rights activists from all over the world, thereby completing its transformation into the human rights capital of Germany.

This year marked the 10th presentation of the biannual prize. The winner was Nabagesera, a 33-year-old black lesbian, who is endangering her life in the battle for the rights of the African gay community. In her homeland, Uganda, same-sex relations, whether among women or men, constitute a crime that carries a life sentence. Last year, a legislative initiative for a stricter punishment, mandating the death sentence for gays and lesbians, was put on hold only due to international pressure. The law was supported by the prime minister and the president.

“I come from Uganda, a beautiful country with very oppressive laws,” said Nabagesera. “It’s very frightening to wake up every morning without knowing whether you’ll return home. It’s very frightening to think that you may receive a death sentence. Even if the law didn’t pass in the end, there’s enough incitement here so that you don’t feel safe walking in the street,” she added.

Nabagesera knows of what she speaks. Two years ago, one of her partners in the struggle, David Kato, was murdered shortly after he won a lawsuit against a local newspaper that took him out of the closet and called for him to be hanged. “Already now, being gay in Uganda is illegal. But that’s not enough for our politicians, so they want to impose a death sentence and to punish anyone who doesn’t report on a neighbor, a sister or a colleague who engages in same-sex relations,” she said.

In the atmosphere prevailing in Uganda, Nabagesera and her friends are more afraid of their neighbors on the street than of the police or government officials. “Many people here had no problem with gays, but after being incited by organizations that act against the gay community, they changed their attitude and now they threaten us, delegitimize us, point at us in the street and want to burn down our houses,” she explained. “The greatest threat doesn’t come from the government, but from the people among whom I live. Our society is the greatest threat to me,” she summed up.

That is why she is focusing her struggle on an attempt to increase awareness of gay rights among citizens. “The way people think is the important thing. Even if the laws were to change, we won’t be protected as long as people don’t change their way of thinking,” she says. As an example, she mentions South Africa, “where the laws are very progressive, but despite that, many gays and lesbians are raped and murdered.”

Nabagesera was subject to the hostility even when she was still at school. “I was expelled from several schools only because I fell in love with girls or sent them love letters,” she says. “At the time, I still didn’t know that it was illegal to be gay or lesbian. When I investigated, I discovered that the problem exists not only in Uganda but all over Africa, and in effect all over the world. And then I said to myself that I had to do something.”

Today, 10 years later, she feels that the battle is worthwhile. “When I started fighting for our rights, nobody talked about it. People refused to talk about this subject. Our president said that there are no homosexuals in Uganda. They told me that I was seized by a demon, but we went out, we spoke to people and told them: ‘We’re here to stay. Let us live in peace.’” Now, she says, after a decade, a discussion has finally begun in the country.

Despite the constant threat hovering over her, Nabagesera continues to organize demonstrations in support of gays, attends international conferences and gives interviews to the media in Uganda and worldwide, to promote the values for which she is fighting. But because her life has been threatened, she is forced to hide and is constantly on the move.

Sculptor Dani Karavan, who will soon be celebrating his 83rd birthday, is one of the judges on the prize panel. “Nuremberg was the symbol of Nazism,” he says. “Awarding the prize for human rights is a victory over that. What could be more anti-Nazi than that?”

Karavan also found symbolism in the fact that the ceremony in which the prize was awarded to Nabagesera was held in the Nuremberg Opera House, situated in the square named after Richard Wagner, the anti-Semitic composer who was a favorite of the Nazis.

“In a place named for Wagner, an audience stands for 15 minutes and cheers a young black lesbian, against all the principles of Nazism and the racial laws they tried to promote,” he said. “She’s an amazing and courageous woman who speaks clearly and fearlessly, who is active in a country where she could be killed in the street without anything happening,” he added.

Speaking from the dais when she received the prize, Nabagesera said that society must know how to repair its mistakes, “instead of being self-satisfied and pretend that everything is all right.” Despite the danger, she remains optimistic. “We’re making progress. I’m very optimistic, even if I may not get to enjoy the fruits of my struggle. Future generations will be able to benefit from the freedoms I’m fighting for,” she said.