Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, an Ugandan lesbian activist and the leader of the Freedom to Roam, a lesbian advocacy group, was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Human Rights Defenders award, Oct. 13 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Nabagesera is the first gay rights activist and the 20th Laureate to receive the Ennals award, considered to be only second in prestige to that of the Nobel Peace Prize. This prize is awarded by a jury representing 10 human rights organizations, including U.S. based Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyers Committee) and Human Rights Watch.
The Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender award is named after its namesake, a significant figure in the human rights world movement who became the first secretary-general of Amnesty International in 1968.
Hans Thoolen, chairman of the Martin Ennals Foundation, in announcing the award to Nabagesera described her as “a leading light, an exceptional woman of a rare courage, fighting under death threat for human dignity.” He also affirmed the jury’s rationale for presenting the first Ennals award to a gay rights advocate: “Let there be no mistake on [what] awaits gay people on the ground, especially for those who openly claim their equal rights…I do hope that the Martin Ennals award of 2011 will contribute to the eradication of homophobia in humans.”
Nabagesera’s remarks were noted for her assertion that “the struggle for human rights is one struggle and no human rights defender should be left to do this work alone. Courage is our virtue, and freedom is our goal.”
Uganda has captured global attention in recent years for the government’s ongoing efforts to legalize state sponsored executions of LGBTQI people, albeit unsuccessful to date. David Bahati, a leading Ugandan member of parliament, noteworthy for his homophobic filled brand of extremism as evidenced in his continuous efforts to advance the “gay” capital punishment legislation (Bahati has been advised by the US-based “C Street” ministries), no doubt created an even more hostile environment toward homosexuals in Uganda this past year that tragically resulted in the murder of David Kato, a gay activist, who was beaten to death in January. Kato and Nabagesera’s names were included in a list of known Ugandan homosexuals, published in October 2010 that also called for the killing of homosexuals in Uganda by the Rolling Stone newspaper. She and Kato sued the newspaper in Uganda’s highest court and publicly confronted the escalating homophobia, by bravely appearing on television and radio on numerous occasions.
An incredibly courageous figure, Nabagesera has been an out lesbian since she was 21 years old. Because of the frightening anti-gay environment in Uganda, she has been forced to move from one location to another, from house to house, to dodge potential violence directed toward her, even death. She was presented the award by Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner of Human Rights, on behalf of Navanthelam Pillay, the UN High Commissoner. Pillay has been an outspoken advocated for LGBTQI persons, asserting that all existing international human rights instruments apply to gay persons.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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