The Funeral of David Kato: How Uganda’s Leading Gay Activist Was Laid to Rest

Mourners at David Kato’s funeral on Jan. 28, 2011. 

Photo by Marc Hofer/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 28, 2011, two days after he was murdered, mourners arrived for a burial service in the remote village of Nakawala. Down a long dirt road, a hand-painted sign read “Death of David Kato” with an arrow pointing toward a house where the funeral would begin at 2 p.m. Cars and buses lined the road. So, too, did armed policemen.

A bus from the capital had brought his closest friends, each wearing a black T-shirt with David’s face on the front, a rainbow flag on the right sleeve, and the phrase “Aluta Continua” (“the struggle continues”) on the back. As they walked into the yard they made a striking appearance in their identical shirts, but with so many people showing up at once, few of the locals paid the group much attention. Indeed, they were just another curiosity among a swelling crowd that included, impressively, reporters and cameramen from international news agencies, representatives from human rights organizations, embassies, and NGOs, and a host of white, unfamiliar faces the likes of which had never been seen in this typical Ugandan village.

Hundreds filled the yard where several tents had been erected, and people milled about, greeting one another solemnly. Not a few buckled at the sight of the coffin. Two of David’s friends had to hold up a third who collapsed in tears in the viewing line.

Set beneath its own small, blue tent, the white, mid-sized casket had a window in the lid through which mourners could look at David for a last time. He normally wore glasses; they had been removed. His clean-shaven head rested perfectly upright. He was 46 years old; in another two weeks he would have been 47. Although his body wasn’t going to be buried where he had wanted it to be—near his own home about 10 miles away—his well-known attention to detail had been honored: He was beautifully dressed, his body clothed in a dark gray suit, matching pink dress shirt, and tie. Not a wrinkle was visible. Not a hint of the trauma that killed him.

The sun shone brightly.

Almost exactly 48 hours earlier, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, at about 2 p.m., David had been bludgeoned to death in his home. Authorities believed he had been hit in the back of the head in his living room then dragged to his bedroom, where neighbors discovered him unconscious a few hours later, bleeding on his bed. He died en route to the hospital.

Only three weeks earlier, David had won a seminal right-to-privacy court case that he had filed with friends Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera and Pepe Julian Onziema against a tabloid called Rolling Stone (no relation to the U.S. magazine). Rolling Stone had reported that homosexuals were targeting Uganda’s children, recruiting hundreds of thousands of them into the homosexual lifestyle. It then printed the names, addresses, and places of employment of numerous people suspected of being homosexual, along with identifying photographs. The front page featured the headline, “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak,” with a picture of David beneath the words “Hang Them.”

In a land in which homosexuality had been illegal since the colonial era, David Kato had been quietly but openly gay, acknowledging his homosexuality in a press conference as far back as 1998. (He was immediately beaten and imprisoned.) As its oldest, most visible member, he was considered the father of the Ugandan gay rights movement. Many of his colleagues affectionately called him the Grandfather of the Kuchus (the Ugandan term for LGBT individuals), while others called him Security, because he was always looking out for the safety of others. His home outside the capital was a sanctuary for those in need, where he provided shelter, food, and even clothing if someone had become homeless or jobless on account of their sexuality. Having been threatened repeatedly, he had recently installed cameras for greater protection.

He knew the court system like the back of his hand, kept records of every local human rights violation based on sexual or gender orientation, advocated for better HIV/AIDS prevention and health care, and had his finger on the pulse of all the gay (and anti-gay) news on the street, in the press, in the church, and especially in the Ugandan parliament. Indeed, he had devoted the last 12 months of his life to figuring out how to defeat a proposed anti-homosexuality bill that had been tabled by a young parliamentarian, David Bahati, and made homosexuality a crime warranting life imprisonment and, in some cases, the death penalty.

With David’s death, his community had lost a pioneering leader, and since his assailant, or assailants, remained at large, several feared the possibility of another murder within the community. Even though authorities had quickly stated that David’s murder had nothing to do with his homosexuality or gay rights activism, none of David’s friends believed that, especially since the police had yet to charge anyone with the crime or properly investigate the murder. Not even anti-gay activists accepted the police’s statement; some claimed David had been killed by an angry ex-lover.

In light of the circumstances surrounding David’s death, the fact that some of his friends were willing to wear distinguishing T-shirts at the funeral—exposing themselves in a way none of them had done before—telegraphed a newfound courage in one of David’s most enduring beliefs: the power of visibility. He believed a person has to step out of the shadows and be seen in order to be recognized as an equal human being. “If we keep on hiding,” he once said of the gay community, “They will say we are not here.”

There was a PA system, and, one by one, David’s friends, colleagues, and members of his family rose to eulogize him. His brave mother, Lydia, and twin brother, John, got up to speak. Some sang. Law professor Sylvia Tamale spoke passionately of the need to end homophobia and respect those so cruelly marginalized as “abali bebisiyaga” or “people who eat garbage.” Her use of that pejorative term for gays and lesbians was shocking to the crowd, creating an audible stir. That Professor Tamale would talk of the rights of homosexuals and use common swear words seemed to many in the audience not only disrespectful but also disturbing.

For all of David’s humanitarian efforts and public activism on behalf of LGBT rights, the irony was that few people outside that world had any idea that he was gay, especially in Nakawala. The villagers didn’t have access to city tabloids like Rolling Stone. They didn’t know the rumors surrounding David’s death—that he might not have been killed by a random act of violence, but, rather, that he might have been targeted specifically to shut him up. The furthest thing from most people’s minds would have been that David was murdered because of his leadership within the gay community. In truth, few knew that David had been anything other than a schoolteacher.

Yet there was a definite sense that this was no regular service and David no ordinary man. Not a few were amazed when a statement was read from President Barack Obama, praising David for being “a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom.” Villagers wondered how David Kato Kisule from Central Uganda had been important enough to warrant the attention of the president of the United States, but they had little time to wonder before a gust of wind tore through the yard, lifted one of the tents, and hurled it onto the roof of David’s father’s house.


People screamed. Others gasped in horror. Nobody was hurt, but everyone was stunned. In this staunchly Christian community, where David’s late father had been a minister, not a few were shaken by the violence of the wind. Was this a sign of God’s displeasure? If God was angry, who had offended Him?

With the tent still flapping on the nearby roof but safely secured, Father Thomas Musoke, the local Anglican priest, began to give the final homily. It was not the one he had planned on delivering. Listening to Professor Tamale and David’s other colleagues, hearing President Obama’s words, surveying the press and the number of white faces in the audience, he had begun to realize that David Kato had been an abasiyazi. And as Father Musoke looked around at David’s friends, easily recognizable in their black T-shirts with rainbow sleeves, he had realized each one of them was an abasiyazi too.

His conscience would not allow him to bless in Christ’s name an unrepentant sinner who had defied God to the last. Kato was going to hell. Thus Father Musoke believed his obligation now was to try to save the others.

“May the Lord be with you,” he began calmly, holding a Bible in his left hand, the microphone in his right, a bright blue robe distinguishing him as a man of the cloth. “Brothers and sisters in sorrow, Kato is dead. He can’t repent nor change, but from what I have witnessed here and heard in condolences from as far away as Europe and America, [I can tell you] all of those are wasted!” He looked squarely at Kato’s friends. “It’s time for you to repent and return to God.”

By now, others were also beginning to realize that homosexuals were present, and several in the crowd began to chant with approval at the priest’s words.

Father Musoke continued, his words gathering pace. “You should know the truth and recognize man was meant for woman! The world has gone crazy! People are turning away from the Scriptures. They should turn back. They should abandon what they are doing. Jesus came to rescue the sinners … and Jesus came purposely for you sinners I’m seeing here. … You must repent! Even the animals know the difference between a male and a female. How can human beings claim they don’t know the difference between a man and a woman and that the two have different roles?”

Laughter rang out at the thought of people acting like beasts.

“I was informed of Kato’s death. But I wasn’t aware of the work he was doing. Kato is gone. He can’t repent. He can’t change. The Lord is telling you to change! Sexual immorality is too much!” The pastor and some members of the crowd felt a surge of righteousness, and men and women kept looking over at David’s friends who were standing together in a clearing. A group of homosexuals had not been seen in public like this before. Everyone’s face was clearly visible.

Kasha, Pepe, Victor, and the rest instinctively gathered closer together for protection, some mute with horror at what was taking place, some beginning to shake from fear, and still others whispering urgently, “He must be stopped!”

The pastor saw evil in his midst. He saw an evil that would be punished by God, and he shouted a prayer into the microphone that rang out through the speakers to a chorus of cheers, “The prayer we pray is for … the total destruction of your group! Completely! Completely! And every believer, every person that knows God, REPENT!”

Kasha had had it. Tall and thin, her eyes covered with mirrored sunglasses, she walked up to the priest, grabbed the microphone out of his hand, and walked away with it into the crowd. But the priest didn’t stop. He kept on shouting, and Kasha turned around. She walked under a tent, climbed onto a chair, and, as calmly as she could, while shaking a finger in the air, called out, “We have not come here to fight!”

Cameramen swirled their lenses in her direction.

“We have not come here to fight!” she repeated. “We have come to bury our friend. You are not the judge of us! As long as he’s gone to God, his creator, who are we to judge Kato?” Then, unleashing a torrent of pain and anguish—she had helped identify David’s body—and years of pent-up fury with the church and authoritarian figures persecuting her and her friends, she screamed, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!”

Marching back out onto the grass, she continued calling out, “Enough is enough for goodness’ sake! We came here in peace!”

A few of David’s friends pleaded with the pastor and the crowd, “Let David rest in peace!” but the pastor categorically refused to bury him.

“Do not bless him,” a young man agreed.

The pastor turned to Kasha, “You should repent! God, he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah just because of gays!”

Kasha yelled back, “Let his creator judge him! Not you! Not any of you here!”

Off to the side, tears streamed down Victor Mukasa’s face as he was comforted by a friend who sensed Victor’s terror. “Whatever they are saying, they’ve killed David,” the woman said. “They’ve not killed us. We are still living.”

With the police watching, ready at any moment to step in, scores of people began to converge on Father Musoke and Kasha. In the crush, several men from the village, astounded that they were in the presence of homosexuals, looked variously at the men and women in black T-shirts and questioned aloud, “Even that one? You mean we really have grown people who do such things in Uganda?”

A female voice cried out, “They’re planning to hit us!” while a man exclaimed, “We are not going to promote gays!”

The pastor began to push through the mob to get inside the house, and several policemen helped protect him as he did so. To David’s friends, the message was twofold: Do not touch the priest, and this concludes the service.

His friends were distraught.

“Please,” they cried.

No one would help them. In fact, the villagers refused to have anything to do with David’s body and would not accompany it to the gravesite in the woods behind the house.

“Let’s just take him ourselves,” said someone.

“Get the casket. Let’s go,” said another.

An elderly bishop who had been excommunicated by the Anglican Church for supporting the gay community—and who had been disinvited from saying a few words at the funeral—joined the small procession behind the coffin. Bespectacled and gray, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo still wore his collar, pontifical ring, and pectoral cross, the latter hanging from a chain that rested against his broad chest and swayed ever so slightly as he walked. He had worked closely with David through the years, had known David for a long time, and had himself suffered persecution just for being an ally. At the gravesite, he watched the pallbearers lower David’s coffin into the ground, knowing it would be up to him, a technically silenced bishop, to finish the service in the name of the Lord.

“You may be different from me,” he said in his sharp East African accent, standing amid those who had dared to gather. “Myself, I am straight. I’m not LGBT. But I have known these people who are LGBT. I respect them for what they are, and I believe they are going to Heaven.”

The small group of mourners cheered faintly. Tears streamed down Victor’s face as he looked out from beneath a cap that read “Out & Proud.” Nearby, a man broke down, covering his face with his hands. Kasha stood stoically behind the bishop, her tall figure a pillar of strength, her sunglasses reflecting the scene. Friends leaned against friends. A few threw rose petals onto his coffin. To the side, sitting in a chair that someone had brought for her, Kato’s mother, Lydia, continually tried to catch her breath. She stared at the coffin in pain, her chiseled face worn with interminable grief.

“Like you others, they are going to Heaven!” The bishop continued. “If they don’t believe, that is another matter, but if they are believers, don’t be discouraged. I know people have been discouraged even not going to church, because they are being abused. As I found today, people are abusing them.” He shook his head. “Please don’t be discouraged. God created you. God is on your side. … This is the gospel I am preaching.”

He paused. “My church was not happy with what I said. Because they want me to condemn. But God showed me No, no, no. God showed me that Christ doesn’t discriminate [against] anyone. I am free because I know the truth! And I will stand for that truth. So please, we pray for the soul of David Kato.”

Everyone bowed his or her head. Some closed their eyes.

Bishop Christopher carried on, emotion catching his breath. “I have known him. I have respected him and his love of the human race. And that is the best thing God left us. God loves you, Kato.” His voice cracking, he looked down at the casket and blessed the body with a wave of his right hand. “He knows you. He brought you into the world. And you have done your work. So rest in peace.”

Sunlight filtered down through the trees. Silence held everyone together. Some knelt to touch the casket now draped by a rainbow flag. For a moment the world was still, calm, unbelievably sad, and emptier than it had been a few days before when David—son, brother, teacher, helper, uncle, friend—had been alive. But there was no hatred at the grave, just loss—the kind of loss that comes from having loved.

A messenger arrived. Word was that the homosexuals were going to be stoned in their cars, or worse, if they didn’t leave. This was exactly the kind of thing that David had fought against his whole life—the inability to be recognized as a gay person lest you become attacked for who you are. Such a threat at a funeral seemed unconscionable, but David’s corpse was evidence that no one was safe. And so his friends fled, but as they passed through the yard one last time as a group, there was only one face that the villagers and police saw repeatedly: David’s—going by on all of those T-shirts. As if to remind everyone that a man can be hunted, maligned, cast out, mistreated, and even killed for being different, but his light cannot be extinguished by the actions of others.

David Kato’s legacy was marching on, his presence as strong as ever. Indeed, the final words of the day were not spoken aloud but quietly delivered on the backs of his friends as each one headed for the road. The struggle for freedom that David had lived and died for would continue unabated. Each T-shirt read: Aluta Continua. Aluta Continua. Aluta Continua.

Sources for this account include video footage of the funeral taken by news agencies and individual reporters, local and international news reports, and firsthand accounts from colleagues and friends of David Kato’s.

Also in Outward: Photos of gay life in Kampala, Uganda.