U.S. Anti-Gay Influence Exposed in Uganda

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday January 4, 2010

The so-called "Culture of Life" spoken of by American evangelicals seems to have played a part in sparking a bill in Uganda that proposes dealing out death to some gays.

The bill was sponsored by David Bahati, a little-known politician who became know overnight all around the globe for the bill he authored that steepens penalties against gays and provides stiff punishments against those who decline to report gays to the police.

In Bahati's original version of the bill, gay men who have repeated sexual encounters with consenting adults of the same gender would be put to death, as would any HIV-positive men who engaged in sexual activity or sexually assaulted others.

There is some evidence that the bill was prompted in part by claims made by American anti-gay evangelicals who visited Uganda nearly a year ago. In March of 2009, several American evangelicals traveled to Uganda and presented what they called the "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals' Agenda." Their talks contained assorted claims about gays and the "dangers" that gays pose to society, reported the New York Times in a Jan. 3 article.

The conference was put together by the Ugandan group the Family Life Network, which purports to uphold "traditional family values." The speakers included anti-gay writer and missionary Scott Lively--author of a book that purports to tell parents how to "gay-proof" their offspring--and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus international, an organization dedicated to the idea that gays can be "cured" through prayer and counseling.

A third speaker was also in attendance: Caleb Lee Brundidge, who claims once to have been gay, but now to be heterosexual. Mr. Brundage heads seminars focused on "healing" gays (that is, attempting to turn them straight).

The views set out by the Americans ranged from highly dubious claims that gays can be "converted" to heterosexuality to wild, undefined assertions that a "gay agenda" was at work "to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity," as well as stereotype-based pronouncements that gay men prey on teenaged boys.

Exporting Hate to Africa
Some worry that the presence of anti-gay "missionaries" in Uganda is evidence that Africans are in danger of becoming "collateral damage" in the struggle by U.S. religious conservatives to deny gay individuals and families equal legal recognition and protections, with those denials based on the claim that homosexuality is a "choice."

Indeed, the repercussions in American society have largely had to do with assigning blame; some have pointed at prominent megachurch pastor Rick Warren, taking his initial reluctance to issue a statement to be approval and even accusing Warren of helping to create the anti-gay bill. Warren refuted this in a video addressed "to the pastors of the churches of Uganda" in which Warren stated that, "As an American pastor, it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations, but it is my role to speak out on moral issues, and it is my role to shepherd other pastors who look to me for guidance... a law that I had nothing to do with, I completely oppose, and I vigorously condemn."

Warren has not, however, denounced his fellow American evangelicals for their purported role in the creation of the proposed Ugandan legislation.

The American evangelicals gave their addresses in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, over a three-day period. The crowds who heard them speak included not only lawmakers, but also law enforcement officers and teachers, the New York Times article reported. The politician who subsequently introduced the bill has said that he counts as friends American evangelicals in U.S. government positions; a Ugandan minister stated plainly that, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

The Times article characterized the controversy that the proposed law has created in Western nations as turning Uganda in to "a far-flung front line in the American culture wars," and noted that in the face of international pressure--including threats to withhold development aid money--the Ugandan government has said that the bill will be revised to scale the penalty back from death to life imprisonment.

For Americans on either side of the issue, the outcome is crucial enough to warrant the sort of response that domestic gay-related issues have generated in the past; in a response reminiscent of the struggle over California's anti-gay ballot initiative Proposition 8, both sides are sending money and manpower to the African nation. "It's a fight for their lives," Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice director Mai Kiang told the New York Times.

American Evangelicals Set "A Fire They Can't Quench"

But the three evangelicals who spoke in Kampala last spring say they had no intention of sparking an attempt to put Ugandan gays to death. "I feel duped," Schmierer told The New York Times. According to Schmierer, he was asked to talk about "parenting skills" and how parents might cope with the news that their child was gay. "That's horrible, absolutely horrible," Schmierer said of the proposal to punish gays with death. "Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people."

Lively, in the meantime, has admitted to talking with Ugandan lawmakers about the bill, though he has also spoken out against the extremity of its proposed punishments, which also includes a sentence of up to seven years in prison for those who fail to report gays to the authorities.

But some see the bill as an almost predictable result of the Americans' involvement. Even before the evangelical message that homosexuality is a "choice" fell on Ugandan ears, the nation's gays endured persecution and threats--as well as violence-spawning myths such as the belief that rape can be employed in a "correctional" manner to "convert" gays to heterosexuality.

"Now we really have to go undercover," Stosh Mugisha, a transman and GLBT equality activist, told the Times. Mugisha was born female, but lives as a man; he says that he was subjected to "correctional rape" by a man who did not "cure" him of either his gender identification or of his attraction to women, but who did transmit HIV to him. In the aftermath of the bill, such vigilante actions--or criminal activities justified by anti-gay sentiment--might, some fear, intensify.

"What these people have done is set the fire they can't quench," Rev. Kapya Kaoma told the Times. Kaoma, who hails from Zambia, attended the conference last March and heard the three Americans speak. He has also investigated the link between American evangelicals and homophobia in Africa. The Americans' rhetoric only made a bad situation worse, Kaoma indicated, saying that the visitors had "underestimated the homophobia in Uganda."

Worse, the American speakers did not have a firm grasp on "what it means to Africans when you speak about a certain group trying to destroy their children and their families," Kaoma said. "When you speak like that, Africans will fight to the death."

Homophobia as Neocolonialism

Kaoma authored an essay that appeared at PublicEye.org in which he recounted the anti-gay conference last spring and investigated the various ways in which American evangelicals have imported the culture wars to Africa. "Family Life Network's [leader, Stephen] Langa pushed people at a follow up meeting to stand up for the tougher law against homosexuality for their children's sake, echoing Lively in charging that Ugandan gays and activists were being paid by U.S. gays to recruit schoolchildren into homosexuality," Kaoma wrote.

"Amid the utter hysteria, any sense that homosexuality has been in Africa from time immemorial was lost. While hardly embraced, and indeed illegal in many countries, at least LGBT people were not hounded by churches and police alike--until American culture warriors came to Africa. Bishop Christopher Ssenjonyo, one of the most progressive voices on LGBT issues in Uganda, expressed his own concerns about the Americans' role to me in March, [saying,] 'I am sure that these lies will incite public hatred against gays,'" Kaoma wrote.

Kaoma's essay noted that homosexuality has been documented to be part of African life prior to the continent's colonization by Western powers. As Western cultures dominated many parts of the world, they brought Christian proscriptions against sexuality--especially polygamy, extramarital ex, and homosexuality--with them. However, today's Africans do not recall the roots of institutionalized homophobia.

Wrote Kaoma, "Ironically enough, although American conservatives repeatedly accuse progressives of being imperialist, it is their dealings with Africa that are extremely imperialistic. Their flow of funds creates a form of clientelism, with the expectation that the recipients toe an ideological line. They put words into the mouths of their African church allies, even writing or rewriting their anticolonial statements to reflect U.S. conservative concerns."

Kaoma goes on to note, "In contrast, U.S. mainline churches repeatedly demonstrate their opposition to neocolonialism of all sorts, not least by supporting the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to fight poverty in postcolonial Africa. Yet American conservatives succeed in dismissing such efforts as neocolonial attempts to bribe Africans into accepting homosexuality, which they characterize as a purely Western phenomenon."

All of this plays into a highly charged situation in which religion and politics are tightly entwined. Kaoma makes reference to incursions by African Anglican churches against the Episcopalian church, which is the North American arm of the Anglican faith. The rupture in the Anglican tradition that started in the 1970s with the ordination of women and accelerated over the issue of gay clergy has been exploited by African churches, which have stepped in as an alternative that anti-gay U.S. Episcopal parishes can ally themselves with as they break away from the mainstream.

"Sadly, the sensitivity of mainline church leaders in the United States to charges of colonialism can silence them from speaking out on LGBT issues," Kaoma writes. "The African attacks [against mainline Western churches] create a dilemma for them: How can they be relevant to their own global North context, while remaining connected to global mainline Christianity? Unfortunately, the fear of isolation leads many social and theological progressives in the church to ignore social justice issues in their daily proclamations. While Episcopalians risked schism to support gay bishops, U.S. Presbyterian and Methodist churches do not openly ordain LGBT clergy. African clergy directly threatened to cut links with Presbyterians in 2004 if they did. Despite the active role American progressives played and continue to play in Africa, they were out-organized."

Kaoma also examined how anti-gay religious conservatives have attempted to use financial incentives to turn African institutions against gays, how conservative American politicians sending funds into the country to undercut progressive influences have spurred corruption, and how American evangelicals purportedly sought to use anti-gay sentiment as a tool in winning converts, especially in the face of increasing numbers of Muslims in Africa. "Thus U.S. conservatives whip up concerns about Muslims and homosexuals simultaneously in their attacks on mainline churches' social witness," Kaoma wrote, going on to conclude that, "The relationship between U.S. conservatives and African religious leaders is inhibiting the right of LGBT people to live freely and without persecution both in the United States and Africa. In Africa, people's lives are threatened not only by vigilantism but also by government action. If we agree that African churches should be allowed to map their own agenda in the global church, then the conservatives should let go of Africa. Unfortunately, they will not, at least not without a fight."

"I'm Telling You, These People Are Not Bad"

American evangelicals have had something of a history with Uganda, with the Bush administration having pumped millions of dollars into the country to promote "abstinence-only" programs as a means of combating the spread of AIDS. Coupled with that is the view from many Africans that homosexuality is "not African," and that it originates from Western culture rather than being an innate part of gay individuals. Those Ugandans who don't subscribe to anti-gay views themselves feel disempowered to speak up; as Muslim taxi driver Haj Medih told the Times, "[I fear t]he police, the government. They can arrest you and put you in the safe house, and for me, I don't have any lawyer who can help me."

Even so, Medih spoke up, allowing his comments to be recorded and posted by the Times. "I'm telling you, these people, they are not bad," Medih said, going on to say that it is up to God to judge people, whatever their sins might be. "They don't attack anybody, and they don't force anybody [to be gay]," Medih added, noting that in his work as a cabbie he had encountered many gay people, and none of them had ever attempted to force him into any sort of sexual encounter.

"I was known as a lesbian in Kampala, and an open lesbian activist who believes in human rights who was promoting ... LGBT rights," Nikki Mawanda told the Times in remarks that were recorded and posted. "I was biologically born female, who is now already in transition to my... rightful gender identity, which is a man.

"I am attracted to women as a man who is attracted to women, but I'm not attracted to women as a woman attracted to women," continued Mawanda. "Though I have female genitals, [that] doesn't mean that I am a woman."

David Bahati himself was recorded, his remarks citing a Proposition 8-style voter referendum in Maine last November that rescinded marriage equality for gay and lesbian families in that state. "Legally, the constitution of Uganda outlaws, prohibits homosexuality, especially same sex marriages," Bahati said. "The penal code act... also makes homosexuality illegal, but does not come out specifically to talk about homosexuality. It talks about unnatural behavior, against the order of nature.

"But as we act we also realize that we live in an international community," Bahati went on. "In America it is illegal to be a polygamist, while in Uganda it's okay. We are living in an international community where we are a bit different, and what just good for America let us not necessarily say that it is good for us here in Africa.

"We have the traditional family that we believe in," Bahati continued. "[Homosexuality is] against the order of nature; it's not part of our values as Ugandans." Bahati spoke of his bill as having the potential to change laws around the world, saying, "...we are thinking maybe this can provide leadership, Uganda can provide leadership in this area of moral decadence, using... this bill as a platform."

Critics From Abroad "Should Just Be Silent"

In an interview with the magazine Christianity Today posted Dec. 17, the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, the Church of Uganda's assistant bishop of Kampala, suggested that foreigners had little place in Uganda's internal legislative debate, saying, "Ambassadors or religious leaders serve us best by not going public, by simply relating to their individual relationships. If they have none, they have no legitimacy to speak. They should just be silent."

However, when asked about media reports that indicate that it was the influence of American religious conservatives that spurred the Ugandan government to draw up such draconian legislation, Niringiye said, "On the one hand, I have no respect for such innuendos because they are suggesting that Christians in Uganda are puppets and so forth. Are there American influences in Uganda? Yes. There is no question that there is a strong homosexual lobby supported by Western groups. That is one of the reasons for the bill.

"We [also] have influences from the Muslim world," Niringiye said. "Let's not give too much credit to the West. This is a global environment. The influences are on either side."

But Niringiye played down the influences from abroad with respect to the bill, saying, "There is a genuine Ugandan call of distaste that seeks to say, 'Our culture is under assault.' There are Ugandans who say we need to stand against a moral tide that seeks to change our ethical, moral values. The decay in Western culture is reflected in its sexual ethics.

"For me, I would like to act here in our culture. We must deal with corruption in our culture as you do in Western culture. They are not the same magnitude, but they still reflect the decay in culture. For us in Uganda, we have to ask, 'How do we act in a way that protects our culture from the decay in sexual ethics that has happened in the West?' That is the challenge for Christian mission in our context. We have a serious responsibility to nurture younger generations. We have a lot of work in our churches to fight the media wars. Media is one huge influence in the cultural decay."

The bill's criminalization of homosexuality and its stipulation of death as a punishment for some gay "offenders" were consistent with other laws in Uganda, Niringiye said. "The law on rape in this country (and I am not stating a position, I'm stating a fact) has a maximum sentence of death, particularly if it is rape of a minor. Therefore, there is the idea that the law that is proposed needs to be [consistent] with other laws on the books."

Added Niringiye, "The background of the law is that there is increasing reporting of homosexual practice. There is definitely a sense that the international homosexual lobby is pushing for homosexual practice to be accepted as normal. Therefore, [they] use the idea of human rights for the protection of minorities. They say that these minorities have a right to this moral choice. It's important to realize that within the culture, homosexuality is not acceptable."

Niringiye pointed out that adultery is also illegal in Uganda, making the criminalization of sex between unmarried individuals of the same gender consistent with the law--although the law also denies gay and lesbian couples the right to formalize their relationship through marriage. However, Niringiye said that his own opinion was that no crime justified the death penalty. "The Church in Uganda has never given an official position on the death penalty," he noted. "My considered reading of Scripture and my considered understanding of today's culture is that the application of the Scripture, the application of the spirit of the Scripture in today's time would seem to disallow death as a legitimate penalty for any offense."

Niringiye has previously spoken out against the death penalty, addressing a congregation on Christmas, 2007, with an anecdote about how convicted killer and death row inmate John Katuramu--who had been a prime minister of a Ugandan province before being found guilty in the murder of Charles Kijjanangoma, a prince--had been transformed through religious faith while in prison. "Katuramu now has joy, peace, love and faith because he has been redeemed by Jesus Christ," Niringiye told the Christmas mass worshipers. "He told me that he may physically be living in Luzira [prison] but at heart, he is a free man."

Telling the congregation that there were "over 500 convicts on death row," Niringiye said, "Such people should be given a chance to live a new life."

In his interview with Christianity Today, Niringiye addressed the fact that the Bible appears to advocate death for various infractions. "We will not deny that the Scriptures seem to allow the death penalty," Niringiye said. "In the culture in which the Scriptures were written it seems that there was an allowance. I would say that in applying the same Scripture today, it seems that the culture is so different from then that we would say [we need] the application of the principle of grace. My view is that the death penalty is not a legitimate sentence for any offense, including murder and so on. But there is no Christian consensus on the legitimacy of the death penalty."

"This Is Not Just A Christian Response"

When asked about how Christians in Uganda viewed the bill, Niringiye indicated that the issues went beyond religious affiliation. "This is not just a Christian response" he said. "I can certainly say the objectives of the bill have the total support of most of Uganda, not just Christians, but also Muslims and Roman Catholics. It would not be right to talk about how Christians feel," Niringiye added. "They're all agreed on the objectives. There will be a difference of opinion on the details of the bill."

Niringiye went on to say, "The point I'm making is that Christians in the country, including other people in the culture, really support the objectives of the bill. When it comes to the issue of the death penalty, there is as much debate over the death penalty as there are different Christian persuasions. The discussion on the death penalty [in this bill] needs to be separated from [the question] 'Is the death penalty [ever] an acceptable sentence?' I am sure there are American Christians or others in the world who will say the death penalty is an acceptable sentence. There will be Christians in Uganda who will say the death penalty is an acceptable sentence. There will be Christians in Uganda who will say no, the death penalty is not an acceptable sentence for any offense."

The bishop went on to suggest that Americans had little basis for objecting to the law, saying that "Western society and culture has lost some of its moral foundations.

"In Western society, homosexuality is accepted as one of the ways of expressing human sexuality. It is very important that you understand the context," Niringiye went on to note. "I would debate Western societies which are putting judgments on our laws to first and foremost critique your own cultures. In my own view, Western society has lost its moral fiber.... For me, the greater issue for Western societies, Ugandan societies, and African societies is to ask the question about cultures. To what extent do cultures decay and cease to reflect the will of God? You must go beyond laws. Laws simply reflect where societies are at. For me, this is the debate. It is not right that Western societies should impose cultural norms and values upon us. The issue of acceptance of homosexuality has a lot to do with the loss of moral and ethical values."

As to input from Christians of any stripe from outside Uganda, Niringiye said, "[T]o be honest, to all-whether they are American Christians, whether they are liberals, whoever they are-I think you've got to trust the leadership in this country, both the Christians and our legislating processes. The international community is behaving like they can't trust Ugandans to come up with a law that is fair. 'No! No! That is not fair!' When the Western governments or Western churches or Christians speak loudly about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of this bill, you actually begin to fuel the idea that homosexuality is the product of Western culture.

"Western homosexual groups are seeking to make homosexuality an acceptable practice here," continued Niringiye. "In these attempts by churches or Christian leaders to speak in favor or against, they seem to indicate we don't know what we want for our own society. I would plead with governments and the Rick Warrens of this world, 'Don't make any public pronouncements about this bill. Allow Ugandan society to be able to pronounce itself on what Ugandans feel would be good.'

"None of the American evangelicals have ever spoken first about the fact that rape is punishable by death in this country," noted the bishop. "Suddenly, because of homosexuality, the issue has arisen. Why? The homosexual lobby is very, very active in making the homosexual issue a human rights issue. How long shall we keep speaking about human rights? When shall we speak about human wrongs?"

Although Niringiye seemed to appeal to higher ideals--holiness, justice--in defending his government's contemplation of the bill, he added, "I don't want us to confuse the church for the kingdom of God. The church is not always a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Sometimes the church is a sign of the kingdom of God. Other times, the church is a cultural sign, pointing away from the kingdom of God.

"It does not mean every time someone is speaking in the name of Christ, they may even invoke the name of Christ; it's not always the case," Niringiye continued. "For Christians, find ways you can encourage us, engage with us, in being witnesses to the kingdom of God in our culture. Is your culture in decay? Yes. Are there aspects of our culture that are in decay? Yes."

"At Any Moment There Could Be Mob Justice"

Mob justice is not uncommon in Uganda, and the bill--which some fear might intensify anti-gay sentiment--has raised concerns that gays might be subjected to beatings or lynching. "We walk on the streets knowing that at any moment someone could be knowing you and there could be mob justice," Mugisha, who, like Mawanda, identifies as male and is transitioning, told the Times. "You feel embarrassed by someone touching you. People provoke us. But I just play it cool. Keep a low profile. It is terrible."

And it's not just strangers who are liable to reject homosexuals; gay and lesbian Ugandans face rejection from their own families if they come out. "If you're in school and your parents find out, they'll stop paying school fees," Val Kalende told the Times. "Your family will avoid you. They used to ask me, 'Don't you want to have children? Don't you want a man?'"

The Ugandan government officially speaks out against gays, sometimes in violent language. The Times quoted Member of Parliament Kassiano Wadri as saying, "I detest gays in my heart. When I see a gay, I think that person needs psychotherapy. You need to break him."

That animosity has trickled down into the everyday lives of Ugandan gays; Mawanda described being pistol-whipped by a security guard as she tried to buy groceries. The official police were little better: Mawanda cited an incident in which an officer gouged him in the eye. Even if the bill does not pass, or only passes with the death penalty provisions removed, there is a real concern that life for Uganda's GLBTs might quickly grow much more miserable, and much more dangerous.

American GLBT pundits have viewed the unfolding situation in Uganda with some alarm, due both to the potential for catastrophic loss of life and freedom for gay Ugandans, and fears of what precedent such a law might set as anti-gay evangelicals pursue anti-gay legislation in the United States. Jim Burrows took Schmierer, the Exodus International board member who spoke in Uganda last March, to task for his claim that he feels "duped" by The Family Life Network. Wrote Burrows at Box Turtle Bulletin, "What Schmierer has yet to acknowledge is that he had every opportunity not to be 'duped,' as he put it. [Box Turtle Bulletin]'s Timothy Kincaid sent a warning via Exodus International president Alan Chambers before the conference took place, explaining exactly what he was getting into. Chambers either didn't pass the warning on to Schmierer, or Schmierer chose to ignore it. The aggravating thing is that this could have been avoided--or, at the very least Exodus International's implicit participation in the conference."

Continued Burrows, "Schmierer's behavior in all of this is beyond appalling. He has yet to man up to his responsibility for his actions. Instead, his only public response has been to behave as a befuddled grandfather wondering what the fuss is all about. Charming in some quarters I'm sure, but of absolutely no use whatsoever to the people of Uganda who now stand to fear the midnight knock on the door--and possibly even the gallows."

Burrows suggested that the same American evangelicals who contributed to the situation in Uganda might yet take action to alleviate the worst effects, writing, "If Shmierer feels 'duped,' then he needs to put a stop to his helplessness act and behave like a responsible adult. He has no problem traveling extensively around the world when it suits his purposes. This might be a good time for him to return to Uganda, to go on radio and television and talk to newspaper reporters--to try to fix what he helped break. He's a world traveler, and he's been to Uganda before; he knows the way."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments on Facebook