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Canada’s Refusal to Allow Ugandan LGBT Activists into the Country Speaks to a Wider Hypocrisy

Canada just denied visas for nine of ten Ugandan LGBT activists who want to attend World Pride 2014 in Toronto this summer. The move is yet another example of the Canadian government's contradictory practices when it comes to opposing the rampant...
May 29, 2014, 8:21pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A contingent of Ugandan LGBT activists were recently denied visitor visas to attend World Pride 2014, which will be held in Toronto this summer. The move comes as a surprise given the Canadian government's strong, condemnatory stance on Uganda's repressive regime criminalizing homosexuality.

The contingent of activists—composed of ten men and women who are all currently risking their lives in the fight for LGBT rights on the ground in Uganda—were invited to a human rights conference at the University of Toronto taking place June 25–27. Just one member of the contingent, keynote speaker Dr. Frank Mugisha, a highly prominent advocate and a 2014 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, is able to come to Canada on a multiple-entry visa he had been issued for previous travels.

Brenda Cossman, conference co-chair, told the Toronto Star that it remains critical to the global solidarity movement that the contingent be able to attend the World Pride human rights conference. The conference wants to hear from the delegation so that effective allyship is possible from abroad.

"We are at risk of losing their voices," said Cossman.

Dr. Mugisha is a lawyer and the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an umbrella NGO that describes itself as aiming "to liberate LGBT in Uganda." SMUG is a network of organizations serving LGBT people across Uganda that came about in 2004, including smaller organizations like Icebreakers Uganda (serves LGBT Ugandans who are in the process of coming out), Spectrum Uganda (focuses on the health and well being of LGBT Ugandans), and the Transgender Initiative Uganda.

Mugisha was close friends and colleagues with the former advocacy officer at SMUG, David Kato. Kato, considered a father of the Ugandan LGBT rights movement and "Uganda's first openly gay man" was murdered in January 2011 shortly after successfully suing a tabloid for publishing the names, photos, and addresses of 100 suspected LGBT Ugandans with the order to "hang them." Several people on the list were viciously attacked, and many went into hiding afterwards.

Mugisha is himself the plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by SMUG and supported by the Centre for Constitutional Rights, against American evangelical Scott Lively and Abiding Truth Ministries (considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) for his work on the Anti-Homosexuality Act and in cultivating a culture of homophobic populism in Uganda. Lively has personally endorsed the death penalty for LGBT individuals.

What's worse, The Fellowship Foundation or "The Family"—the same US religious group that organizes the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House—also provided "a base of inspiration and technical support" for the Anti-Homosexuality legislation in Uganda.

Since the bill was signed into law in February 2014, SMUG reports that anti-gay attacks have increased ten-fold, including lynchings, mob violence, evictions, arson, blackmail, firings, and arrests. Within days of the legislation going into effect, another list of 200 alleged homosexuals was printed in a newspaper. Dr. Mugisha's name was on it.

Uganda has made life hell for LGBT people.

John Baird, Canada's foreign minister, took a strong stance against the legislation in February, antagonizing Ugandan politicians who frame their virulent legislation as anti-colonial. "This act is a serious setback for human rights, dignity, and fundamental freedoms and deserves to be widely condemned," he said at the time. "Canada will speak out."

Baird went on to invoke the legacy of David Kato, who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his own Ugandan home.

Why, then, has Canada denied 9/10 visas to a contingent that includes Kato's friends and colleagues, who are currently fighting for LGBT rights on the ground in Uganda? The hypocrisy is stunning. The applications were rejected due to a combination of reasons. It appears the government is concerned the ten would seek asylum in Canada, a worry that is deeply disappointing, especially in light of Baird's comments. Other official reasons for their refusal into Canada include: lack of previous travel history, lack of family ties in Canada (really?), and insufficient funds for the trip. Read: too poor.

Hardcore Evangelical Americans are not alone in providing material support for the Anti-Homosexuality Act on the ground. Previously, Ottawa provided nearly half a million dollars in funding to an anti-gay religious group to do development work in Uganda. When taken with the backstory of Canada quietly bankrolling groups that support homophobic legislation and denying visas to LGBT Ugandans, Minister Baird's condemnations of Uganda carry little weight. For that matter, so do President Obama's. Until Western governments admit their complicity in both colonialism and in fueling supposedly anti-colonial homophobic populism, indictments of Uganda ring hollow.

In a piece recently written for the  Guardian, Mugisha explains the paradox succinctly: "I want my fellow Ugandans to understand that homosexuality is not a Western import and our friends in the developed world to recognise that the current trend of homophobia is."

VICE reached out to Baird's office for comment and was referred instead to Minister Chris Alexander's office at Citizenship and Immigration, which is currently working with MP Craig Scott to try to expedite the reapplication process and reverse the decision:

"Our Conservative government was among the first to speak out against state-sponsored homophobia in Russia. We welcome resettled gay refugees from Iran and around the world. We have led the international response to repression of the LGBT community in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Citizenship and Immigration Canada will continue to do everything it can, under our immigration laws, to make this conference a success. Under Canadian law, decisions on individual visa applications are made by highly trained public servants," a spokesperson said.

MP Craig Scott has said he expects "the right thing" to be done in the end. With the conference set for the end of June, the clock is ticking to process the applications that will be resubmitted this week, according to Cossman. It seems, however, that the story of Canada's role in supporting (or undermining) LGBT rights in Uganda goes beyond issuing ten temporary visas—and that's a larger conversation we haven't had yet.

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