“God Created You”: Bishop Supports Gay Ugandans, Defies Death Threats

Standing by the graveside of slain Uganda gay rights advocate David Kato at the end of last month, many of the gays and lesbians in attendance at his funeral wept. They were grieving the death of a beloved friend and mentor but they were also shaken by the interruption of the ceremony by a homophobic pastor, who told them that they were all destined for hell. The local pastor exhorted on homosexuals to repent or be punished by God before the microphone was snatched away one of Kato’s supporters.

It might have seemed that the last person the activist’s friends would turn to for support at the moment would be another religious leader. Especially given that the church in Uganda was at the head of the drive for the draconian anti-homosexuality bill still pending in Parliament.

But 79-year-old Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, in his purple cassock and small wire-rim glasses, stood at the head of a huddle of Kato’s friends and supporters, many of them in black T-shirts bearing the image of their beloved leader. “I know that some [gays and lesbians] are discouraged and even not going to church because they are being abused. Even today they are being abused. But please don’t be discouraged. God created you and God is on your side,” said perhaps the only member of Uganda’s clergy ministering to the LGBT community.

I had hardly slept”

For Senyonjo himself, it had taken an act of great personal courage to be at the January 28 funeral. Kato’s death increased the bishop’s concern for his own safety. A longtime advocate for homosexuals in the country, Senyonjo was expelled from the Church of Uganda in 2001 when he first started working with gays and lesbians. In October of last year, the bishop’s picture appeared with Kato’s on the front cover of the local tabloid that many in the LGBT community believe stirred up hatred and led to the activist being bludgeoned to death in his own home. Above their photos in the newspaper, the Rolling Stone, was a headline that amounted to a death threat: “Hang Them,” it said. 

Kato’s murder frightened Senyonjo to the extent that he almost didn’t want to go to the memorial for his friend and former colleague. “At first, I thought I did not want to go out of doors today but then I thought I wanted to get to the funeral,” he said. Senyonjo received a call informing him of the murder at around midnight the day the activist died; the news kept him awake almost all night. “I hardly had slept, but I was determined to be at the funeral of David,” said the bishop.

Speaking on the phone the day after Kato’s murder, Senyonjo said he was shocked by the death of his friend, who he had known for the past seven years and worked with at the religious LGBT organization Integrity Uganda. “I was very much surprised. I didn’t know that they [people in Uganda who are anti-gay] would be so serious as to kill somebody like that who had been mentioned in Rolling Stone. But it seems they are.” The release of the tabloid saw the Kampala homosexuals outed in the publication evicted from their homes, fired from jobs, and one lesbian stoned by her neighbors. 

Police in Uganda insist that Kato’s death was not related to his sexual orientation. They have arrested two people in connection with the murder; one has apparently confessed. Inspector General Kale Kayihura said that the death was the result of a personal disagreement over some money the man was owed by Kato. “According to the suspect, he negotiated with the deceased to be paid money as he was to be used as a sexual partner,” said Kayihura.

But the LGBT community in Uganda has said that they fear a cover-up by a government trying to downplay the homophobia in the East African nation. The proposal of last year’s anti-gay bill in the country’s parliament provoked a firestorm of criticism in the international community, with donors—who account for about a third of the nation’s annual budget—threatening to withhold aid if it was passed.

As a result, Bishop Senyonjo is skeptical of the suspect’s all-too-convenient confession. “What was said, to me, is very suspicious.” While he admits he isn’t exactly sure what happened to his friend, Senyonjo still believes that Kato was targeted as the result of the hate stirred up by the Rolling Stone. “I think he has been among the people hunted down.”

The Threats are There, But the Struggle Will Go On”

Senyonjo’s work on behalf of Uganda’s gays and lesbians has never been especially safe; the bishop has received death threats many times before. When his church stripped him of his pension for working with homosexuals, there was a controversy in the local papers and the threats of mob justice against him got so bad that he stayed in exile in the United States for six months.

But Kato’s murder makes threats against the bishop’s life seem even more immediate. Senyonjo’s adult children were so concerned about his safety that they called a family meeting the day after it occurred. The bishop said his children are putting pressure on him to step up security at his house in a quiet Kampala suburb. “Me, I don’t even have a guard but [my family] may want me to have one,” he said.

The bishop’s youngest son, Andrew, said that while the threats to his father’s safety have always been there, the murder has intensified the family’s worry. “Somebody who has been in the newspapers a couple of months ago with the front page saying ‘Hang Them,’ then after two or three months, he gets killed. It’s scary. It gives you something to think about,” said Andrew, adding that he and his siblings are in the process of deciding how best to protect their father. “We are trying to figure out what we can do.”

Despite the increased risk, Bishop Senyonjo has continued with the work of shepherding Uganda’s LGBT community. If he didn’t, it’s unlikely that anyone else would. After the other pastor’s invective against gays at Kato’s funeral, locals from his ancestral village refused to carry the casket to where it was to be buried. Some of the gays and lesbians in attendance grabbed the activist’s white and gold coffin, which was draped with a rainbow flag, and hauled it themselves to a space between the dark green trees and foliage to be buried.

They would have had to bury Kato, who identified as Christian, without a blessing from any member of the clergy had Senyonjo not stepped in. “I believed that it wasn’t right just to dump the body there without prayers. I couldn’t bear it at any cost,” he said later.

It’s because of this sense of responsibility to gays and lesbians in Uganda that Senyonjo says he will keep speaking on their behalf, in spite of the dangers. “I know my calling and I cannot just pull out because of the threats; the threats are there and the risks are there but the struggle will go on,” he said.