In Uganda, ’Cure’ for Gays Offered by Witch Doctor

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday February 22, 2011

In the United States, religiously affiliated groups assure gays wishing to "convert" to heterosexuality that being straight is just a prayer away. To that end, such organizations tout so-call "cures" for homosexuality based on prayer and support groups-or, sometimes, exorcisms to drive out gay "demons."

In the notoriously anti-gay African nation of Uganda, another, not entirely dissimilar, option is available courtesy of the local witch doctor. That's what British radio personality Scott Mills discovered while filming a TV documentary on Uganda. The doc is titled The World's Worst Place To Be Gay, and shows various encounters, such as Mills speaking with the editor of a newspaper that calls for the killing of gays, or confronting lawmaker David Bahati. The latter individual is the sponsor of the internationally denounced "Kill the Gays" bill, a piece of legislation that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals and provide severe punishments for heterosexuals who know about gay relationships but do not report them to the authorities.

Indeed, when Mills advised told Bahati that he was gay himself, the Ugandan lawmaker tried to have Mills and his film crew thrown in jail, reported Celebrity Confidential on Feb. 11.

"I'd heard horror stories about people getting arrested and roughed up and who knows what," Mills recounted. "I was scared. [Bahati] ordered us to cut the cameras then brought a security guard. We ran off and he rang one of our guys saying, 'Where are they staying? What are the registration plates? I want them arrested. They won't get far.'

"We lied that we were at the Sheraton, and apparently he turned up there with armed police," Mills continued.

Bahati has connections to American anti-gay evangelicals, but what Mills endured at the hands of a witch doctor seeking to "cure" the openly gay radio personality of his homosexuality bore little outward resemblance to Christian rituals designed to drive away purportedly "sinful" sexual urges. British newspaper The Sun reported on Feb. 14 on the "treatment" that Mills received.

The Sun reported that Mills told his radio audience, "They have these witch doctors who claim they can cure people. I went to see one and I knew they were just fleecing people for money."

Mental health experts agree that for most gays, attempts to "cure" homosexuality are liable to do more harm than good. Scientific research into the roots of homosexuality indicate that sexual urges involving people of one's own gender are not "chosen," and are not the result of a distant father and domineering mother. Gays cannot simply be "trained" to be straight, nor can they "decide" where to direct their spontaneous and natural feelings of attraction--no more than heterosexuals could "choose" to be gay.

Even so, many religious faiths accept as an article of faith that homosexuality is somehow optional, and argue against legal and social equality for sexual minorities on the basis of that conviction. Some faith-based American approaches to "curing" gays involve men's group retreats. Others rely on exorcisms to cast out "demons" that purportedly "possess" gays and cause them to have romantic and sexual interest in members of their own gender. The Ugandan witch doctor's methods involved thwacking the shirtless Mills with chickens, spitting upon him, and dousing him with water.

Not unlike the Christian approach in which homosexuality-causing "demons" are cast out was the witch doctor's proposal to drive an evil spirit from Mills' body and into a cow.

"But I said, 'You'll end up with a gay cow,' " Mills told his radio audience.

When Mills went to a local school to talk with students about the issue, he encountered a sentiment that is all too familiar for America's GLBTs. "I told them I was going to a school and they said, 'Oh yes, you're going recruiting aren't you?' " Mills recounted. "They honestly think people are going into schools and recruiting people to be gay... for money."

The Sun article said that anti-gay American men of the cloth go to Uganda to address crowds. Several evangelical preachers paid a visit in 2009, telling massive audiences that gays were out to destroy the institution of family and "covert" their sons into homosexuals. Shortly after that visit, Bahati introduced his "Kill the Gays" bill.

Mills addressed this phenomenon, telling his listeners, "The people think, 'They're from America, they must know what they're talking about.' "

Mills also described how the documentary was unable to fulfill its original premise due to widespread homophobia. "The brief of the show was to provide a balanced view, but halfway through filming we realized we couldn't find anybody who didn't hate gays," he said on air. "You stop people on the street and they say they hate gays and they also think they don't exist in Uganda. When I told them I knew they did and could show them they were stunned."

False Hope, or True Change?

It's nothing new for religious groups to claim that homosexuality is a pathology, or to similarly claim that gays can be "changed" or "cured." While there is evidence that some people who have identified in the past as gay have authentically come to identify as straight, what is not clear is whether people who have "converted" to heterosexuality have really altered their fundamental sexual orientation. It is not uncommon for young heterosexuals to experiment with same-sex relationships; it's also possible that at least some of those who say they were once gay, but no longer are, are predisposed to bisexuality and have simply chosen to ignore same-sex attraction.

Even those who say they have "left homosexuality behind" often acknowledge that their sexual feelings have not shifted to members of the opposite gender; rather, some "ex-gays" suppress their sexual attraction to the point of feeling that they have become "asexual." Many times, "ex-gays" note that dealing with sexual attraction toward individuals of the same gender is an ongoing "daily struggle" with which they contend.

Many religions and even ex-gay groups recognize that homosexuality is a complex issue. But the phenomenon of exorcism--which relies on a belief that evil spirits inhabit a person and drive him or her to same-sex attraction--persists. Gays who have been brought up in religious traditions may seek exorcism as a last resort; but like other forms of so-called "conversion" or "reparative therapy," gay exorcism may do more harm than good to those who undergo it.

The June, 2010, issue of Details Magazine contains an article about gay exorcism that recounts how a young man named Kevin allowed himself to be subjected to a humiliating session of exorcism in a public ritual at a church in Massachusetts. Kevin became so distressed during the exorcism that he wept and passed out; his sexual feelings remained unchanged, but the attempt to drive out evil spirits "causing" him to be gay left the young man traumatized. Nor was this the first time Kevin had attempted to "overcome" homosexuality through exorcism--though the article said that the experience was so traumatic that Kevin finally determined it would be the last time he underwent an attempt to drive out "gay" demons.

GLBT youth seem to be hardest hit by the current wave of anti-gay spirituality and so-called "exorcisms." The Details article noted that, "youth workers say they regularly deal with the aftermath of these rituals." Moreover, GLBT youth growing up in religious environments are targeted with shaming anti-gay messages: Peterson Toscano, a gay Christian who is active in seeking to reign in the damage being inflicted to gay youths, told Details that, "For a young person, being told that you house evil, that you're basically a mobile home for evil spirits-that is a very, very damaging concept." Added Toscano, "It's one of the most extreme manifestations of the anti-gay rhetoric within the church."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. 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.