Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Thursday, 3 February 2011

David Kato, inspiration to Uganda's gay community

By Anna Cavell
BBC News, Uganda

Funeral of David Kato
David Kato came to personify the fight for homosexual rights in Uganda

A prominent gay rights campaigner in Uganda, recently found beaten to death, played a key role in drawing international attention to the country's homophobic laws and helped the silenced gay community to find its voice.

David Kato was a small man by Ugandan standards. He wore glasses and had the air of an intellectual.

He wore well-cut suits and was softly spoken. And he was very brave.

David Kato, gay rights activist in Uganda who was recently murdered
After being attacked, David Kato had become frightened of travelling alone

Homophobia in Uganda is different to homophobia in Europe. It is not just that people do not like homosexuality or that they do not like to consider what homosexuals might do together.

Here it is seen as an abomination. Gay people are reviled - a bit like how rapists are in other countries.

It is not surprising, then, that few gay people in this country disclose their sexuality, and that fewer still are prepared to challenge the views of society.

David Kato was not one of these people. He had been campaigning for the right to live openly as himself for years, and many times he suffered the consequences.

He had been physically attacked in the past. Recently, he had become frightened to travel alone.

'Hang them'

Just before Christmas, there was a hearing at Uganda's Media Council, in which Kato challenged a tabloid newspaper called Rolling Stone.

This is not the well-known music and politics magazine, but a small-circulation Kampala publication which had printed the names of gay people under the headline "Hang Them".

With more dignity than I could have managed, David Kato ignored the sniggering and swaggering men as they prowled about the room waiting for proceedings to begin

Although a number of people were named in the article, he was the only one who came to the hearing.

The staff of the paper, all young men, resembled nothing so much as school bullies summoned to the headmaster's office.

With more dignity than I could have managed, David Kato ignored the sniggering and swaggering men as they prowled about the room waiting for proceedings to begin.

He kept his eyes on the papers in front of him, making notes and perhaps trying not to remember an earlier hearing when these men had turned up accompanied by a gang calling for his killing.

On that occasion, he had managed to escape - he had literally run away from the court house.

Drag fashion show

Despite the threats though, gay people in Uganda are growing bolder.

In August last year, the first openly gay bar, Sappho Islands, arrived in the capital.

It provides a focal point for the community and it was here that the eventual victory over Rolling Stone was celebrated.

Rolling Stone publication
Rolling Stone outed homosexual people under the headline "Hang Them"

This was also where David Kato's funeral party set out from. It is a place, I was told, where gay people feel safe, where they can be themselves.

At the weekend, members of Kampala's gay community organised a drag fashion show at another bar downtown.

The event had been in the diary for a while, but going ahead with it just a few days after David Kato's murder was bold.

The audience was modest in size, the community understandably nervous, but what it lacked in numbers it more than made up for in enthusiasm.

There is a growing perception among Ugandans that gay people here are rich because foreigners give them money, and that they do not need to work anymore

Each be-sequined diva was greeted with shrieks and cheers from the audience.

These were not the most sophisticated drag artists I have ever seen - one of the performers was wearing a skirt with a slit so high, there was really no ambiguity at all about his gender.

The excitable host leapt on stage to demonstrate how the act of concealment should be achieved.

All in all, it was not a very polished performance, but it was a joyful one. The people on that stage were elated.

This was a rare opportunity to dress as they liked, and be who they wanted, just one day after they had buried the elder statesmen of their movement.

Growing resentment

The country's now infamous anti-homosexuality bill is a double-edged sword for Uganda's homosexual community.

Of course it incited a level of hatred not seen before, but it also invigorated their campaign.

The legal battle against Rolling Stone was fought with the help of money from gay rights and other interest groups, and demonstrations in support of the campaign were held around the world.

Members of the Ugandan gay community mourn
David's death will be a loss to a community struggling to find a voice

But there is a flipside to this international backing - it is starting to breed resentment internally.

There is a growing perception among Ugandans that gay people here are rich because foreigners give them money, and that they do not need to work any more. That kind of bitterness, in a country as poor as this one, is likely to be corrosive.

We do not know yet why David Kato was killed.

The police say it was likely to have been a case of aggravated robbery.

Friends and colleagues say otherwise, but no-one denies that homosexuals here are at risk of physical attack.

Talking to the media after the victory over Rolling Stone, Kasha, the owner of the Sappho Islands bar and herself a courageous activist said, "I'd like to thank all those who continue to walk the journey of freedom with us. You are the true heroes."

Undoubtedly, the likes of Kasha and David take heart from outside support, but it requires bravery like David's to come out and make a stand by yourself.

His lawyer told me that in that hearing against Rolling Stone, there had not been an international organisation to hide behind.

David had come forward as an individual. He had come to fight for himself.

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