As Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, he is a leading advocate for change and will be speaking at the up-and-coming Black Tech Fest, a three-day festival celebrating Black culture that is a sister event to London Tech Week. Here Dr Frank Mugisha discusses the importance of creating inclusive environments that enable people to be themselves.
Why are you speaking at Black Tech Fest, and what will you be focusing on?
I’m extremely interested in diversity issues, especially LGBTQ+ rights, and feel this is an opportunity to highlight what is happening, especially in the global south. So, I’ll be covering LGBTQ+ rights globally, but with a focus on Africa.
As a well-known LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, what advice do you have for UK employers on better supporting this community, especially people from conservative or religious backgrounds where they may not feel empowered to be themselves?
Many UK companies have very good policies on diversity that support LGBTQ+ employees. Still, corporations need to create more conducive and supportive environments that enable employees to be their authentic selves.
For instance, having support groups provide opportunities for people to engage and speak out about their experiences and ensure that the organisation’s culture is not overtly heteronormative. An example of this is when an employee is asked about their relationships – if they’re married or single. Some people from conservative countries may not be comfortable disclosing their sexuality. So, it’s important to have an environment that accepts everyone.
Sexual orientation is one of the questions that most organisations in the UK ask about when collecting employee data. Do you think this is wrong?
When someone has lived with discrimination, at first, they may not feel comfortable with such a question, whereas later, they may be. The question may put off some employees. However, I understand that asking the question helps organisations identify individuals to set up support groups.
How can employers create an environment that enables LGBTQ+ people to know that the company is a safe and welcoming place?
One way is having openly LGBTQ+ people represented in senior management. This gives anyone coming in a level of comfort, where they feel like they belong. They should clearly outline their diversity and inclusion and anti-discrimination policies and provide a free space where employees can form support groups around diverse issues.
Do you feel that LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion are not discussed as much as race and gender in tech?
There is more discussion around race and gender than LGBTQ+. But I feel there is a balanced mix of LGBTQ+ people who do or don’t feel safe working in tech.
Experience shows that heterosexual people will mostly stereotype someone they perceive as gay in tech, leading to some in the LGBTQ+ community shying away from ‘coming out’ in the sector.
Equally, we have management teams and the tech community saying they are the largest employer of LGBTQ+ people globally.
The tech community is relatively young and operates in a very modern way. Everything is almost enshrined in a ‘rights agenda’. The LGBTQ+ community in the global north, especially the gay men, have taken it for granted. Whereas, here in Africa and the global south, we still struggle to remove old laws and have equal rights.
Do you think there’s a colour issue given that being LGBTQ+ and white is almost a privilege in the north?
Yes, definitely. You’re not discriminated against in the same way. People ask me weird questions such as ‘did you know you’re gay?’ You also find that communities are more accepting of a white LGBTQ+ person but not a Black LGBTQ+ person.
The Ugandan parliament has passed the Sexual Offences Bill, making some sex acts criminal. What can organisations in the north do to show their allyship and provide support?
There’s a lot that can be done. Our work is majorly supported by partners and friends from the global north because, as you can imagine, we don’t have much local support. Especially financially because our countries are struggling and very conservative. I can’t even put together a fundraiser here in Uganda for LGBTQ+ rights without risking arrest.
We would appreciate first of all financial support from the partners, and secondly, solidarity. Historically, the LGBTQ+ community in the north went through similar struggles or even worse than we are now. They understand what it means not to be accepted, bullied and imprisoned because of who you are. So, the solidarity for us is so important because, at some point, we want to get to where the UK or North America are right now.
Organising and building movements are things we can also learn from different partners as is, most importantly, how to amplify our voices. As you can imagine, we don’t have any media here that will even interview me and publish it. They will either get into trouble or themselves are extremely conservative, homophobic and transphobic. The world has to know what is happening in Uganda.
Finally, different campaigns and movements around the world require different approaches. Getting directly in touch with the activists on the ground is good, as is following our work on social media and making sure that the voices don’t die out.
Are there any Ugandans in power who have a voice and could influence a more positive attitude?
Well, I think that we do have LGBTQ+ Ugandans everywhere, maybe even among the highest-ranking government officials or the police. But the problem is that the LGBTQ+ community has been victimised so much. Uganda has created an environment that makes it almost impossible to live your everyday life and be open. So those who could come out and influence changes have so much to lose.
How do you keep yourself safe?
First, being openly gay helps me survive because people already know who I am in most places I go. So, I am less scared of the outcomes. If someone gets arrested, and I go to the police to help them get out, it means the police already know who I am. Secondly, I’m not worried about being ‘outed’ in the newspapers. Keeping myself very public, I believe that the international community would ask questions if something happened to me. Uganda would not want to be in that situation.
As you’re such a prominent figure, do people from your community ask you for help and advice?
Yes, and it is very important. I get all sorts of questions and requests. Sometimes they call me if they have been arrested, have nowhere to live or have been attacked by mobs. Some people just want to talk because they’re stressed out. They don’t know who to speak to about their sexual orientation and just want a listening voice to tell them it’s okay. And some people want to join the struggle and ask how I navigated coming out.
Are there any areas that business leaders need to be aware of when approaching someone from the LGBTQ+ community who is Black?
Yes, one is religion, as they will have tried to suppress their sexuality because of it. Secondly, their family. It would be good for companies to understand how LGBTQ+, especially Black, employees navigate their sexuality with their families. And whether the families are supportive.
How important is it for business leaders to show empathy as part of LGBTQ+ inclusion?
I don’t advocate for empathy for LGBTQ+ because I don’t want the individual to feel victimised. Empathy is good, but it should go with policies and openness. Giving me privileges and feeling sorry for me because of who I am doesn’t allow me to explore my full potential. And then I feel like it’s me against the other employees. It’s important to have the opportunities that allow you to be who you are.
People don’t tend to talk about being LGBTQ+ and Black at the same time. Do you think it needs more discussion?
I don’t think so because I believe that each situation is unique. And definitely, Black LGBTQ+ people will have different challenging issues than their white counterparts. It is something that the tech community needs to recognise.