Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights Der­reck Kayango steps in as new CEO

Uganda na­tive Der­reck Kay­ongo takes the helm, dis­cusses his hopes and faith

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUNDERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

Der­reck Kay­ongo is at ease. The newly named CEO of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights glides through the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices at the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety build­ing down­town, greet­ing his new co-work­ers and crack­ing jokes along the way to his cor­ner of­fice.

He’s 6-foot-3-inches tall and slen­der, with a wide, open smile and a per­pet­ual twin­kle in his eyes. But there’s one ma­jor take­away ap­pear­ance-wise: dude has fash­ion sense. To­day it’s dressy jeans, a sport coat, long multi-col­ored scarf, elab­o­rately pat­terned tie and a pink and white pocket square.

Which makes it all the more sur­pris­ing when you find out Kay­ongo’s back­ground. He’s a Ugan­dan refugee who fled the coun­try with his fam­ily at age 10, es­cap­ing a civil war and set­tling in Kenya. He even­tu­ally landed in the United States, gain­ing ma­jor no­tice for found­ing the Global Soap Project in 2009—a project that takes par­tially used bars of soap from ho­tels and re­cy­cles them into new soap to re­dis­tribute to vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions across the world.

But what to make of the man who hails from a coun­try that most of At­lanta’s LGBT com­mu­nity knows as the one that al­most passed a “kill the gays” bill last year? There’s sup­port in place at the Cen­ter for the LGBT com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially with the for­ma­tion of the LGBT In­sti­tute. The ques­tion is where that con­ver­sa­tion goes with Kay­ongo in charge.

Cen­ter’s new CEO on Uganda, un­der­stand­ing LGBT peo­ple

Kay­ongo, who lives with his wife in At­lanta, ad­mits he didn’t know any­thing about the LGBT com­mu­nity when he first moved here in 2000 to head up the Quaker so­cial jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tion, Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee.

“I didn’t understand what that was. Les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der—I didn’t know what those char­ac­ter­is­tics were, or what those si­los rep­re­sented be­cause I had not been ex­posed to it,” he says. “And I think that the word here is ‘ex­po­sure.’ That if we ex­pose you to new knowl­edge, that you evolve based on that new knowl­edge.”

He later be­came re­gional di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional then landed at hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief agency CARE for a decade, making for a ré­sumé strong on hu­man rights, and he doesn’t shy away when asked about no­to­ri­ously anti-LGBT Uganda.

“All I can say is that for a coun­try that is very fa­mil­iar with op­pres­sions of all kinds, how do you turn around and then say you’re go­ing to give a life sen­tence to some­body be­cause of their be­ing?” he says of his home coun­try. “Any­time you don’t have enough ev­i­dence of your con­clu­sions, don’t go to the ex­treme of judg­ment or of an­tipa­thy. A healthy di­a­logue is good but don’t jump to ex­tremes.”

Kay­ongo says he plans to be a voice that speaks out against that work.

A back­ground in faith

Kay­ongo has a strong faith back­ground, get­ting his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from pri­vate Chris­tian school Mes­siah Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia and later serv­ing as an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Beu­lah Heights Univer­sity, an At­lanta Bible col­lege. Mes­siah has made head­lines over the years for its “Com­mu­nity Covenant,” a doc­u­ment stu­dents are re­quired to sign that bans “ho­mo­sex­ual be­hav­ior,” among other things. So does Kay­ongo be­lieve be­ing gay is a sin?

“Ab­so­lutely not,” he says. “I don’t equiv­o­cate about those things be­cause when I start to look at dif­fer­ent kinds of sins, that’s kind of an end­less jour­ney. I will let the the­o­log­i­cal minds think about sin and what it is.”

And as far as the Mes­siah con­tro­versy goes, he says, “I think in­sti­tu­tions are dif­fer­ent from in­di­vid­u­als, and in­sti­tu­tions have to pro­tect a par­tic­u­lar doc­trine that they’ve been sub­scrib­ing to for a long time. In­di­vid­u­als sort of evolve out of those doc­trines faster than in­sti­tu­tions. You can men­tion that about any institution. The Catholic Church, Pres­i­dent Obama also evolved. We evolve.”

‘I want peo­ple … to own this build­ing’

The Cen­ter’s new CEO says that while they don’t take a par­tic­u­lar stand on ev­ery­thing, they do be­lieve in cer­tain rights.

“Our job at the Cen­ter is to be a con­vener of un­der­stand­ing and ac­com­mo­da­tion be­cause once we draw lines and we say ‘You are the other’ then crimes are go­ing to hap­pen and you’re go­ing to en­able peo­ple that don’t even be­long to your moral value be­cause they don’t know bet­ter,” he says. “We are very cog­nizant of [the LGBT com­mu­nity’s] pres­ence and their rights, and the space that they’re talk­ing about is very, very equal to the other rights we are fight­ing for.”

The next LGBT event on the Cen­ter’s cal­en­dar is a panel dis­cus­sion on hu­man traf­fick­ing and LGBT youth set for Jan. 12, the day af­ter an LGBT At­lanta history ex­hibit that de­buted last fall will be taken down.

“I want peo­ple like your­selves to chal­lenge the state, to own this build­ing. And when I say the build­ing I mean all the work that it rep­re­sents, all the things that we can do to­gether to make cor­po­rate Amer­ica bet­ter, to make re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions bet­ter, to make schools bet­ter,” Kay­ongo says, wrap­ping up the dis­cus­sion by ty­ing ev­ery­thing into the broader topic of hu­man rights.

“For me, my vi­brance, my very fab­ric, my pas­sion is around ‘Did you, af­ter you came through your scru­ples and your ag­nos­tic or be­liev­ing thoughts, did you end up say­ing at the end of the day, they are my fel­low hu­man be­ing?”

“All I can say is that for a coun­try that is very fa­mil­iar with op­pres­sions of all kinds, how do you turn around and then say you’re go­ing to give a life sen­tence to some­body be­cause of their be­ing? Any­time you don’t have enough ev­i­dence of your con­clu­sions, don’t go to the ex­treme of judg­ment or of an­tipa­thy.”

—Der­reck Kay­ongo on his na­tive Uganda and its ‘kill the gays’ bill

Der­reck Kay­ongo was named CEO of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights in De­cem­ber. (Photo by Pa­trick Saunders)

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