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Legacy Project event features Ugandan activist
by Melissa Wasserman

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Among the 30 bronze memorial markers featured on the rainbow pylons in Lakeview, Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato's plaque was paid special attention July 11 and 12. A part of its fifth-anniversary season celebration, The Legacy Project welcomed Ugandan LGBT activist Pepe-Julian Onziema to remember his friend and talk about the state of affairs for LGBT people in Uganda.

The two-part weekend celebration started with a welcoming meet-and-greet reception and fundraiser at the Sidetrack rooftop on July 11 and continued the next day with "Facing the Future," a program in remembrance of Kato at Center on Halsted. The program included the video "Last Week A Man Was…;" a word from Onziema, who served as the keynote speaker; and a panel discussion that was followed by a Q&A session. All proceeds benefited the Legacy Project Education Initiative.

Affinity Community Services Executive Director and Legacy Project board member Kim Hunt; Director of Operations for Planting Peace, Co-Creator and resident of Equality House Davis Hammet; Andy Thayer, of the Gay Liberation Network; John Ademola, of Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program ( CLASP ); and Jenny Ansay, of the Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors sat on the panel with Onziema. WCPT Radio Host Wayne Besen provided opening remarks and was panel moderator, while Legacy Project Executive Director Victor Salvo made the closing remarks.

"[There were] a lot of diverse and different voices from different perspectives of the problem because there's not one simple way or one sentence that can describe the problem," said Hammet, who knew Onziema prior to the event. "This is incredibly complex. It will take many, many years [and] it will take many, many generations for us to conquer such a nasty hatred that's poisoned our society. The panel was exciting, but what's more exciting is to see everyday citizens come in and get engaged who will hopefully carry on this struggle into their own communities and spread the word."

"I'm happy about the other panelists because the things that I couldn't articulate the way the American audience would understand, they did, which I'm really happy about," Onziema said. "All the perspectives were things that I think about, things that I care about, so for them to be able to share and articulate those things was really important for me."

Currently residing in Washington, D.C., while he is participates in a fellowship under the National Endowment for Democracy, Onziema serves as the program director of advocacy for Sexual Minorities Uganda ( SMUG ) and has received numerous honors over the years.

July 9-13 was not only Onziema's first time visiting Chicago. It was also his first time seeing the Kato plaque, which he helped edit and was dedicated in the fall of 2014. Onziema's first look at the bronze dedication was featured in the program's video, which centered around Kato's life and death. The whole piece prompted an emotional response from Onziema, which he expressed during his speech. In a statement to Windy City Times, he recognized his response came from "that void—missing someone that you got very close to that was part of your day-to-day planning."

"Having this street that has all these rainbows and people walking down the street like there's no care in the world … like I love it here," Onziema said of seeing Halsted Street for the first time and the prominent rainbow flags. "If I was going directly to Uganda from here, Uganda would be in trouble because I'm so inspired and so rejuvenated. ... so I have this energy—the spirit I've received here just a couple of days. [If] I went back, I would be sharing the energy with my colleagues in office and would have renewed spirits."

"We [The Legacy Project] have no agenda personally, beyond simply connecting history to contemporary relevance and giving people a reason to embrace history," said Salvo. "But the truth of the matter is, we're living in the fall-out from the decisions that were made a generation ago. Everything we do today affects what our children will be doing in the future. This issue is much bigger than the United States and I personally believe LGBT people are the fulcrum upon which, in many ways, world history is going to tip because we are part of every family born anywhere in the world."

Onziema, during his keynote speech, also reflected on Kato and discussed the humanitarian crisis in Uganda. He also shared his own experience of coming out and identifying as transgender in the African country. Coming out at the age of 12 and beginning his activism at a young age, he explained he had the support an protection from his family the whole time, which was helpful in his activism. At the event, he said Uganda needs to stay on the radar.

"There are many people who are not knowledgeable and people who are actually ignorant of what's happening in Uganda, so it was important for me to shed a bit of light on that and the fact that my colleague, my comrade is hanging on your streets, you needed to know a bit of background about that," said Onziema, who is optimistic of change happening in Uganda during his lifetime. "That when you pass the plaque, you don't dismiss him and that you do not dismiss Uganda and I think it's just the beginning of information sharing with the community in Chicago. It's a beginning for support for the movement in Uganda or in Africa. I think it has been important for people to get information directly from someone who does grassroots work.

'It was a really exciting event and it was important to solidify David Kato's memory because this is someone who could've easily been forgotten in history, but someone whose contribution ended with his actual life and people who make that ultimate sacrifice should always be remembered," said Hammet. "It was great to see the community support this event."

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