I stood on the Trenton train station platform last week waiting for the 6:26 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., and found myself thinking of the 10-year-old boy enduring anal rape by an adult man in the shower in the football facility of Penn State University.
Even in the early morning darkness, I had a clear mental image of the assault described by the assistant coach who witnessed it. I had just walked by a newspaper stand blazing with headlines about the child sexual abuse charges against the man, Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, who has been arraigned on 40 charges related to sex crimes against boys by a grand jury in a 23-page report. University officials first ignored and then lied to the grand jury about their failure to report the child abuse to authorities.
After I boarded the train, my only thought was that it get through Pennsylvania as quickly as possible, so I could turn off the picture of the child rape. I wanted to put the horrific, immoral crime out of my mind, because it made me almost gag or cry whenever I thought of it.
Throughout history, adult men have raped male and female children. It is close to being the most heinous crime, short of taking a child’s life. Sexual abuse survivors suffer bodily invasion, loss of power and trust, and possible lasting pain and sorrow that can destroy positive feelings about sexuality. It was a horrendous story out of Penn State, and it brought back memories of the pervasive rapes by the pedophile Catholic priests.
My head had cleared by the time I arrived in D.C. to attend the 28th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, given annually by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. This year’s award went to Frank Mugisha of Uganda, who the center described as “a leading advocate fighting for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community in Uganda and against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make “homosexual activities” punishable by life in prison on the first offense and death sentence for aggravated offenses.”
Photo: Brendan O’Donnell
I learned more about Mugisha’s exemplar life and work when he appeared onstage with Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, who is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, and other dignitaries. He looked small and frail, but I soon learned that the only aspect about him that seems diminutive is his height. When Kerry Kennedy detailed why he had received the award, I realized that he had the heart of a lion.
“Frank Mugisha knew at 14 he was gay,” Kennedy said, “and he came out knowing full well that he was taking great personal risk, and he was going to have to suffer harassment and abuse throughout his life if he chose to remain in his homeland.”
She added that the extent of the abuse hurled at sexual minorities in Uganda is unimaginable to people living in a free society. As a result of coming out as a gay man, Mugisha has lost jobs, friends, and is estranged from his family. He was expelled from his homeland because of his advocacy, but chose to return and fight for the rights of sexual minorities — knowing that he could lose his life in the effort.
Uganda is “one of 80 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death,” Kennedy said. She estimated that while homosexuality is opposed by almost the entire society, of the “32 million people who live in Uganda, about 500,000 are undoubtedly homosexual, but only few people — one of them Frank — are willing to speak for them.”
“Frank told me that he gets up every day in a hostile climate to advocate for these persecuted people, because he believes ‘I have to do what I have to do,’” she said.
This past January, one of the other few people who did speak for gay people’s rights — Mugisha’s colleague David Kato, an advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) — was brutally murdered in his home.
“Yet Frank continues to courageously provide leadership for the movement in the face of constant death threats and in the aftermath of the ruthless killing,” Kennedy said.
Since 2007, Mugisha has led SMUG, which advocates for LGBTI rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and support for openly gay people in the form of counseling and suicide prevention services. An important aspect of the RFK Human Rights Award is that for the next six years, the center will work with Mugisha, SMUG members, and others to advance the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda.
Not only will Mugisha go home with this beautiful honor, but he also has the promise of resources from a well-recognized nonprofit. Now he is not quite so alone. In fact, Kennedy asked everyone in the audience to stand and join her in a pledge to Mugisha, saying together in one strong voice: “You are not alone.” Chills went down my spine.
Kennedy ended her speech by referring to a lovely Africa proverb: “Plant trees when you are young, so when you are old you will enjoy their shade.” She assured the newly honored Human Rights Award Laureate that with the help of the RFK Center, he would be able to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant together.
The theme of the morning was a simple one: personal moral courage, so fundamental to Robert Kennedy’s beliefs. His daughter mentioned it, as did two other speakers who followed her to the podium: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
In their brief congratulations, both quoted the following words of Robert Kennedy’s, because they applied to Mugisha’s life and work:
“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”
These words rang in my ears as I took the train home. Unquestionably, every single adult connected with the Penn State sexual assault case failed the moral courage test that Mugisha passes each day of his life in Uganda.
Sandusky’s alleged crimes against young boys go beyond any discussion of morality and courage — and a jury of his peers will make a final determination as to his guilt or innocence. If he lived in Uganda, he probably would be hanged without any sort of a trial, because, as Kennedy told us, “most people there believe that gay men rape teenage boys.”
I wish everyone on the Penn State campus — especially the students who cheered fired head-football coach Joe Paterno — could have listened to Mugisha’s acceptance speech. He said that LGBTI rights are human rights, universal and non-negotiable. He said we must be people of good conscience who stand up and take action when we see something that is terribly wrong and hurtful to others — and that we all must celebrate moral courage wherever and whenever we find it. He assured us that even in Uganda, “Change will come.”
I was fortunate last week to see a personification of moral courage. It made the train ride home — even through Pennsylvania — much easier to bear.