It’s a long way from Uganda to the Riverdale campus, where a classroom building this year bears the name of Frank Mugisha.
Mugisha, 33, has been on the forefront of a perilous campaign to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from repression. He has been harassed, beaten, jailed, and subjected to death threats, and yet he continues to fight for equality through social media, political advocacy, and legal action.
His work has attracted international attention. He has been honored with a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and a Norwegian Rafto Memorial Prize. Still, he said he was inspired when he saw that classroom building on Monday, and met the Riverdale student who brought his work to the forefront of the school’s collective conscience.
Mugisha came to the school as this year’s recipient of the Jolli Humanitarian Award. Robert Connolly '16 wrote an essay supporting Mugisha for the honor, and he introduced Mugisha at an assembly of the Middle and Upper School on Monday. “The fight for gay rights is really the fight for human rights,” Connolly told his peers.
Mugisha said that anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has been imported by evangelical Christians who have spread “extreme homophobia across the country."
"This is not our culture," Mugisha said. "This is very new."
Mugisha's organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), fought successfully to overturn a law last year that would have made homosexual relationships punishable with life imprisonment, but he said another similar bill is expected to be introduced this year. His group also has filed a federal lawsuit in the United States against Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries on the grounds that he violated U.S. law by influencing the laws of a foreign country and promoting government-sanctioned violence against gay people.
Mugisha described how gay, lesbian, and transgender people in Uganda stay closeted out of fear of losing their homes, their jobs, their friends, and being subjected to beatings, death threats, and imprisonment. He said he recently told a young gay Ugandan that he was coming to Riverdale to speak, and asked for advice about what to say. He recounted that the young man said to him: "Frank, do you think people really care so much about us? Because all I hear is how homosexuals are sinners. We will never go to heaven. No one is on our side."
Mugisha said he told the young man about how he had been nominated for a humanitarian award by a young person in an American high school. "This kind of gesture gives us hope," Mugisha said. "It is very important when someone is struggling to know they have someone on their side."
"Most of the LGBT persons cannot speak for themselves and that is why they need your voice," he said. "They are very afraid. When you stand up for one person, you are the hero for one person. Robert Connolly is the hero today for the LGBT movement."
The Jolli Humanitarian Award was created by Gregg S. Hymowitz, a former Riverdale parent and school trustee, with the goal of introducing the student body to someone who has made a substantial difference in the world and inspired leadership and courage in others.