Robert Connolly stands in front of the Frank Mugisha building on the Riverdale campus.
Frank Mugisha is a gay-rights activist in Uganda, a country where gays and lesbians are persecuted and proposed legislation seeks to imprison them for life.
Mugisha’s courageous advocacy impressed Robert Connolly, a Riverdale junior, who wrote an essay nominating Mugisha for Riverdale’s annual Jolli Humanitarian Award. An academic building is named for Mugisha this year, and Connolly’s essay is prominently displayed in the building’s foyer.
The Jolli award honors humanitarians who are making a difference in the world and it encourages sophomores, who make the nominations, to consider what it means to change a community, a country, or the world for the good.
“I was really happy that I could do this for Frank Mugisha and bring this topic to light at Riverdale,” Connolly said. “He is putting his life in danger for his cause.”
Connolly’s interest in Mugisha and gay rights in African countries was sparked by an experience that his older brother, Nicholas ’14, had on a Riverdale-sponsored trip to Botswana. Nicholas had an opportunity to meet with an organization that provides a safe haven for young gay Botswanans, who live in constant fear of violent reprisals. “He was really moved by that,” Connolly said.
Last year, Connolly learned that legislation had been passed in Uganda that would make homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment and public support of gay rights punishable by a minimum of seven years in jail.
The law drew condemnation from a number of European countries and the United States, which reacted by cutting or suspending aid to Uganda. The law was overturned on a technicality in August by the country’s constitutional court and has been reintroduced.
Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, has helped to bring international attention to this issue. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year; in 2011, he received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Connolly noted that while gay rights have received increased acceptance in the United States, some American missionaries working in Uganda have fanned opposition to gays there and elsewhere in Africa. These preachers are “exporting homophobia” to Africa, he said, adding that he wanted his Riverdale classmates to understand how America is influencing gay rights in Africa.
Mugisha will not be able to come to the campus to meet Riverdale students, but Connolly said that a human-rights lawyer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., who has worked with Mugisha on these issues, is scheduled to visit.
"Robert's presentation demonstrated his thoughtfulness, but also the immediacy of this issue,” said Ricky Lapidus, Assistant Head of the Upper School and Director of Learning. “Frank Mugisha's plight can seem far away from Riverdale, and in many ways it is, but human rights issues are all our responsibility, and Robert convinced the Jolli committee and, more importantly, his peers of that truth. There were many worthy nominees, but Frank Mugisha seemed to us to be a terrific choice."
Connolly is a member of the football and lacrosse teams. He says that Latin, history and science are his favorite subjects. This week he planned to participate in the Upper School’s science symposium, presenting research he did last summer at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Previous Jolli Humanitarian Award winners are Pernille Ironside, a child advocate for UNICEF who has worked in war zones around the world; Rachel Lloyd, an anti-human trafficking advocate; Geoffrey Canada, an educator, activist and former leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of a women’s peace movement.