The bludgeoning death of gay activist David Kato this week in Uganda stunned the gay community around the world and prompted Kato's angry allies to point the finger of blame at Christian-fueled homophobia in the East African nation, and at conservative Christians in the United States who have long ties to anti-gay forces in Uganda.
"David's death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S Evangelicals in 2009," Val Kalende, the woman who heads "Freedom and Roam Uganda," a gay rights group, said in a statement. "The Ugandan Government and the so-called U.S Evangelicals must take responsibility for David's blood."
Gay activists have been furious with Christian conservatives from America
-- such as evangelist Rick Warren and politicians including Republican Sens. James Inhofe, Tom Coburn and Mike Enzi -- for their support of Christians campaigning against homosexual protections in Uganda, which has a notorious record of discrimination against gays.
The critics say that U.S.-based support was especially notable in a March 2009 forum in the capital, Kampala, that featured a trio of well-known Christian pastors from the so-called ex-gay movement. They say that forum helped inspire Christian parliamentarians in Uganda to propose draconian measures against gays and lesbians, including a bill pending in the Ugandan parliament that would allow for the death penalty for some homosexual activity.
Still, that legislation is only one manifestation of widespread anti-gay sentiment in Uganda.
Campaigns to publicly out
homosexuals (or accuse political opponents of being gay, whether they are or not) are common in Uganda, and last September a Ugandan newspaper, Rolling Stone (no relation to the American magazine), ran a cover story
ranting against gays and including David Kato's picture under a banner urging, "Hang Them." Anonymous death threats against Kato were increasing, as they were against many out gays and lesbians, especially after he won a judgment against Rolling Stone.
So it was hardly a surprise that, in an echo of the shootings in Tucson this month that targeted Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, gay rights groups and their supporters blamed homophobia and conservative Christians in particular for Kato's murder -- much as some liberals painted right-wing rhetoric as culpable for the Arizona massacre by a gunman police believe to be Jared Lee Loughner that claimed six lives and injured 13 people, including Giffords.
"Uganda's homophobic witch hunt claims the life of a prominent rights defender," was the title of a press release
on Kato from the New York-based organization, Human Rights First. In Uganda, the gay activist group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), issued a statement
calling "on religious leaders, political leaders and media houses to stop demonizing sexual minorities in Uganda since doing so creates a climate of violence against gay persons." And the popular gay blogger Joe Jervis, known as "JoeMyGod," charged that some U.S. Christians were "complicit"
in Kato's murder.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said
Kato's killing "is a reminder of the heroic generosity of the people who advocate for and defend human rights on behalf of the rest of us -- and the sacrifices they make." And President Obama released a statement praising Kato's
courage and pledging that "At home and around the world, LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] persons continue to be subjected to unconscionable bullying, discrimination, and hate."
Yet like the Tucson shooting, the motives of the assailants remained murky despite the rush to connect them to homophobia.
Authorities were quick to declare that Kato was murdered in the course of a home invasion by a trio of men -- one of whom was in custody at last report -- a sadly prosaic explanation that could in fact turn out to be true given the volatility of the neighborhood where Kato lived.
Of course there could well be much more to the story given the politicized nature of criminal justice in Uganda. In his statement on Thursday, the head of the police investigation, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, seemed most concerned to head off speculation that Kato's murder was tied to his opposition to an anti-homosexuality bill in parliament, and to protect Uganda from international criticism.
"As police investigations are continuing, the public is asked to disregard any insinuations that have been attributed to this unfortunate incident," Kayihura said. "Uganda is a peaceful country and any crime of any nature is taken seriously and to its conclusive end." The statement was also published in a state-run newspaper that headlined its article
, "Kayihura probes murder of homo Bill activist."
Apart from the uncertain motivations of the suspects, the reactions to Kato's death have other parallels to the responses to the Tucson shooting.
For example, many American conservatives started toning down their comments and use of violent imagery -- even as they argued that language and symbols did not inspire the Tucson gunman -- and there are signs some in Uganda and elsewhere are seeking a softer line after Kato's bludgeoning death.
An editorial in Friday's Daily Monitor of Kampala
, Uganda's largest and most influential independent newspaper, called for an "honest national dialogue" about homosexuality and said gay Ugandans "enjoy the same rights and protections of the law as heterosexuals. We cannot send them into exile neither, lock them away, or hang them."
Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin
, a gay rights blog that has closely followed events in Uganda, called the piece "among the most remarkable editorials I've read in years" and noted that gay activists in Uganda also called it "a real big deal."
The leadership of Exodus International, a U.S.-based Christian group that promotes methods to "convert" homosexuals to heterosexuality and has ties to anti-gay Christians in Uganda, issued a statement of condolences
over Kato's murder and expressed opposition to policies "that would harshly punish, imprison and possibly execute those who have same-sex attractions and/or identify as gay."
And just as a few conservatives did after Tucson, some of Kato's opponents reacted to his death by taking the offensive.
Giles Muhame, editor of the Rolling Stone newspaper that outed Kato and dozens of others, told Reuters
that he did not want to see Kato murdered but added: "We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them. We said they should be hanged, not stoned or attacked."
Pastor Martin Ssempa, who was close to Rick Warren until Warren publicly split with him following the 2009 outcry against the Ugandan anti-gay bill, told the BBC
that Kato's death was not the result of homophobia but instead underscored the problem of "gay-on-gay bashing."
And Member of Parliament David Bahati, who has ties to conservative Christian politicians in Washington, told Uganda media
that Kato's murder was unfortunate but was likely due to thieves seeking money Kato had been sent by gay activists overseas. Bahati said police should use the occasion of Kato's killing to "dismantle the illegal networks, particularly financial, which are being used to facilitate gay activities in Uganda, especially in schools. In Uganda most people feel like vomiting when they come across gay practitioners or activists."
American evangelical activists involved in the March 2009 symposium against homosexuality also reacted sharply.
"Naturally, I don't want anyone killed, but I don't feel I had anything to do with that," Don Schmierer told The New York Times
. But he complained that now he was getting hate mail.
"I spoke to help people," he said, "and I'm getting bludgeoned from one end to the other."
Scott Lively, who worked with Schmierer, suggested that Kato may have been killed "by a gay lover" and said he would continue to speak against homosexuality even as he condemned violence.
"It is not wrong to speak against homosexuality any more than it is wrong to speak against other behavioral disorders such as alcoholism and bulemia, or other sexual sins such as adultery and polygamy," Lively wrote on the Defend the Family website
. "Anyone who were to take such criticism as permission to hurt another person is simply crazy and you can't silence all legitimate criticism of a social problem because some crazy person might misconstue it."
In the end, Kato's brutal death, like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the suicide of the gay college student Tyler Clementi in September, shocked the nation because it showed in vivid detail what ugly language looks like when it is embodied in actions -- whether those words inspired the deeds or not.
In the United States, at least, the shock and grief of the Arizona massacre led to the catharsis of a communal memorial service and a degree of self-examination. Uganda may have further to travel.
At Kato's funeral on Friday, after statements from Obama and others were read, scuffles broke out as an Anglican priest showed up and started using a microphone to denounce homosexuality. "The world has gone crazy," the pastor said
. "People are turning away from the scriptures. They should turn back, they should abandon what they are doing. You cannot start admiring a fellow man."
Calm was eventually restored, but local villagers refused to bury the body and so a group of Kato's friends carried his coffin to the grave and buried it themselves.