Uganda’s ambassador to the United States abruptly withdrew on Friday as the keynote speaker for a Jan. 16 Martin Luther King Day event sponsored by the United Negro College Fund in Greenbelt, Md.
The withdrawal by Ambassador Perezi K. Kamunanwire came one day after United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael L. Lomax sent him a letter saying UNCF supporters had expressed concern over an anti-homosexuality bill recently introduced in the Uganda Parliament. The letter was triggered by an inquiry from the Blade.
“Yesterday I was asked for comment by the Washington Blade, the oldest and second-largest circulation LGBT newspaper in the country,” Lomax told Kamunanwire in his letter.
“UNCF’s history and mission make us especially alert to violations of human rights, wherever they occur,” Lomax said in his letter. “So while we recognize that these issues are matters of internal Ugandan policy, we are dismayed at present polices in Uganda (and in many other African countries) criminalizing sexual orientation, and we view with alarm the draconian penalties, including the death penalty that the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill would impose if passed.”
Lomax added, “Given the interest expressed in the Washington community, I hope that you will address this issue when you speak at the King Day and take questions at the conclusion of your remarks.”
The Blade contacted the United Negro College Fund after a black LGBT resident of the D.C. area sent an email to the Blade expressing “shock, sadness and disappointment” that UNCF would invite a Ugandan official to speak at its King Day celebration given Uganda’s widely known record of anti-gay persecution.
“With the pending legislation there in Uganda, the death penalty for those found ‘guilty’ of being LGBTQ, I don’t think Ambassador Kamunanwire is the most appropriate speaker for Dr. King’s birthday,” said the LGBT resident, who asked not to be identified.
Prior to Kamunanwire’s decision to withdraw as a speaker at the King Day event, UNCF spokesperson Joye Griffin told the Blade UNCF invited the ambassador to speak “based on his career as an educator and scholar,” including his role as a professor at U.S. colleges.
“As one supporter put it, he has impressive credentials and his record indicates that he has spent a lifetime of engaging intellectually in the exploration of freedom struggles both here and abroad,” Griffin said.
In his Jan. 12 letter to Kamunawire, which he released to the Blade, Lomax said he would be appearing at a separate United Negro College Fund event in Minneapolis to commemorate Martin Luther King Day in which the daughter of human rights advocate Bishop Desmond Tutu would appear.
“As I am sure you know, UNCF was founded 68 years ago in response to the pervasive denial of educational opportunities to African Americans,” Lomax said in his letter. “Non-discrimination is at the heart of what UNCF has always stood for. Our policy prohibits discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status and disability.”
Lomax told Kamunawire in his letter that UNCF is “partnering with the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, on an initiative that has formed a working group to take stock of LGBT issues affecting students and faculty on our campuses and to establish a mission, goals and objectives to address those issues.”
In a press release issued on Friday, UNCF announced that Lomax apparently cancelled his appearance at the Minneapolis event and would replace Kamunanwire at the King Day celebration in Greenbelt.
The release says Lomax “will speak on human rights and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He will be substituting for the scheduled speaker, the Ugandan ambassador to the United States, Perezi K. Kamunawire, who withdrew after Dr. Lomax requested that he address the anti-homosexuality bill now pending in the Ugandan parliament.”
Kamunawire and a spokesperson for the Embassy of Uganda in Washington couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.