Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha has been awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington D.C.

Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the former US attorney general, was joined by Sen John Kerry to present the award to Mugisha. It marks the first time the award has been bestowed on an activist working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

“It gives me more courage to continue doing the work I’m doing,” Mugisha told The Associated Press. “It sends out a message, not only to my country but to other countries that criminalise homosexuality.”

The award comes as Uganda’s parliament once again considers a bill that would punish homosexuals with prison or death.

29-year-old Mugisha leads an underground group whose members routinely shift locations in Uganda for their safety. Uganda, a conservative East African nation, is one of more than 70 nations that have imposed laws against being gay.

Mugisha blames US evangelical activists for stoking fears and promoting homophobia with a 2009 visit and conference on “rehabilitation” for gays in Uganda. Since then, violence against gays has increased, he told the international press.

After the visit, debate began over a Ugandan bill that would punish gay people with prison or death and would threaten jail time for those who don’t report suspected gays to authorities.

“I think they are responsible for the bill,” Mugisha said of the evangelical activists. “They held a seminar and openly told Ugandans that they needed to tighten their laws on homosexuality and told Ugandans that homosexuals can be healed.”

Kerry Kennedy, president of the centre that bears her father’s name, said the award is meant for someone who is “the Martin Luther King of their country, somebody who has stood up to government oppression at great personal risk”.

She said progressive churches, human rights groups, the US government and the United Nations should take a stronger stand to counter the impact of “right-wing evangelicals” in Uganda.

“What we see here in Uganda is the US exporting our so-called family values,” she told the AP. “We bear responsibility for that as a country. We need to set the record straight about what true US values are.”

Kennedy said the pursuit of gay rights is consistent with everything her father, the brother of President John F Kennedy, had stood for.

“I grew up in a family where we believed the United States should stand for something and that it was important to export the US vision of a more just and peaceful world,” she said. “That’s why Robert Kennedy travelled to South Africa in 1966 when most Americans had never heard of apartheid.”

Mugisha said he hopes to persuade other human rights groups to join in the struggle for gay rights.

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