Remembering fearless Ugandan LGBT+ activist David Kato Kisule, who was brutally murdered in his home 10 years ago

Maggie Baska
·6-min read

On 26 January, 2011, the gruesome killing of LGBT+ rights activist David Kato Kisule shocked the world.

Considered to be a father of Uganda‘s gay rights movement and often described as “Uganda’s first openly gay man“, Kato was a teacher who dedicated his life to fighting for LGBT+ rights, facing threats and risks to his safety.

A founding members of the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), which advocates for LGBT+ Ugandans, Kato bravely spoke out against the country’s gay sex ban, which resulted in a tabloid newspaper calling for his execution. Weeks later, it got its wish, as he was attacked in his home and killed.

In the decade since his untimely death, the struggle for equality and visibility for LGBT+ Ugandans continues. And now, the gay community in Uganda and across the world has marked every 26 January as #KuchuMemorialDay in his honour.

Who was David Kato Kisule?

David Kato was a teacher and LGBT+ rights activist in Uganda. He was born into the Kisule clan in its ancestral village of Nakawala, Namataba Town Council, Mukono District.

He was educated at King’s College Budo and Kyambogo University and taught at various schools including the Nile Vocational Institute in Njeru near Jinja, however he was dismissed without any benefits in 1991 because of his sexuality.

He taught in schools around Johannesburg, South Africa. But he returned to Uganda in 1998. Upon his return, Kato decided to come out in public through a press conference. He was arrested and held in police custody for a week due to this action.

In 2002, he joined the faculty at the St Herman Nkoni Boys Primary School in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Masaka (Masaka District).

Involvement with underground LGBT+ rights movement in Uganda.

Throughout his life, Kato was heavily involved with the underground LGBT+ rights movement in Uganda. He eventually became one of the founding members of the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an umbrella organisation which advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights of LGBT+ Ugandans.

LGBT+ people face major discrimination in Uganda, actively encouraged by political and religious leaders. Under the Penal Code, “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” between two men carries a potential penalty of life imprisonment.

The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 was passed on 17 December, 2013 with a punishment of life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality”. The law brought Uganda into the international spotlight and caused international outrage, with many governments refusing to provide aid to Uganda anymore.

According to a series of confidential cables written by a Kampala-based US diplomat and later released by WikiLeaks, Kato spoke during a November 2009 United Nations-funded consultative conference on human rights. During the conference, Kato spoke on the issue of LGBT+ rights and the anti-LGBT+ atmosphere in Uganda. It was said that members of the Uganda Human Rights Commission “openly joked and snickered” during the speech.

Kato had quit his job as a school teacher by 2010 to focus on his work with SMUG. He was given a one-year fellowship at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, a centre which provides fellowships to vulnerable and threatened human rights activists as a reprieve from the dangers they face in their own countries.

Ugandan tabloid called for Kato’s ‘execution’.

In October 2010, David Kato was among 100 people whose names and photographs were published by the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone. The article called for the execution of the individuals who it claimed were “homosexuals”.

Kato and two other SMUG members who were listed in the article sued the newspaper to force it to stop publishing the names and pictures of people it believed to be part of the LGBT+ community.

The petition was granted on 2 November, 2010. On 3 January, 2011, the High Court ruled the Rolling Stone’s publication of the lists and the company inciting violence threatened Kato’s and the others “fundamental rights and freedoms”. Kato’s colleague and fellow gay rights activist Julian Pepe Onziema told The Guardian that Kato said people had been harassing him and warning they would “deal with him” following the ruling.

Only a few weeks later, on 26 January, Kato was assaulted in his home in Bukusa, Mukono Town, by a man who hit him in the head with a hammer. Kato later died en route to the hospital.

In November 2011, Sidney Nsubunga Enoch was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murdering Kato.

International outrage and Kato’s enduring legacy.

David Kato’s murder sparked outrage across the world, with international governments calling on Uganda to legalise homosexuality. Then-US president Barack Obama condemned Uganda’s anti-LGBT+ laws. Former UK prime minister David Cameron said the UK would reduce aid to countries that refused to legalise homosexuality.

John Wambere, Kato’s friend and co-founder of gay rights advocacy group Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, said Kato “sacrificed himself serving the LGBTI community” in Uganda.

Speaking to The Guardian on the fifth anniversary of Kato’s death, Wambere said: “The impact David had on me after his death was even greater than when he was alive. He never believed in failing.

“He believed in the rule of law and seeking justice. He always encouraged me to stand firm and not bury my head in the ground. His death made me stronger.”

Kato’s legacy is celebrated among activists in Uganda and the rest of the world on the anniversary of his death, with many using #KuchuMemorialDay to remember his work.

PinkNews has a free iOS app which will keep you up-to-date with all the latest news, features, interviews and exclusives. You can download it here.