The homophobic agenda of ultra-conservative US Christians is taking hold in Uganda

The African country’s harsh anti-gay law was passed after a long campaign promoted by certain religious groups on the continent to stigmatize same-sex relationships

MP John Musila, dressed in a robe with anti-LGBTI messages, enters the Ugandan Parliament to vote on the new anti-gay law on March 21, 2023.Ronald Kabuubi (AP)

In a 2009 publication, Zambian Kapya Kaoma documented a rising phenomenon. Evangelical groups in the United States were sowing anti-gay hatred in Uganda. “Their target audience,” the Anglican pastor explained at the time, “was not so much the common people, but above all the political elites.” It had been years since the American Christian ultra-right had landed in the African country with its arsenal of pseudo-biblical fanaticism. In its crusade to promote the traditional family, Kaoma argued, Uganda appeared to be a promised land with a vast population of naïve souls not yet corrupted by the West’s moral decadence.

Also in 2009, the Ugandan Parliament initiated a legislative process to criminalize homosexuality. The first draft of the so-called “Kill the Gays law” included the death penalty for “aggravated” cases. In the final text, a lifetime prison sentence replaced capital punishment as the most severe penalty. The law passed in 2014 but was struck down shortly thereafter by the Constitutional Court.

Thereafter, no action was taken on the law except for some revisions (the reinstatement of the death penalty in some cases, a punishment for promoting homosexuality) until it was passed this May. “I have been warning for a long time about strong external pressures to pass this kind of legislation, in Uganda and all over Africa,” Kaoma says by videoconference.

The widely held view is that MP David Bahati, now the Minister of Trade and Industry, was the mastermind behind the original Kill the Gays law and its subsequent revisions. Kaoma is certain that Scott Lively, the founder of the Massachusetts-based Abiding Truth Ministries, authored the legislation behind the scenes.

Lively has made a career out of pushing homophobic “conspiracy theories” to sinister limits. He espouses dark theories that always claim that gays are at the epicenter of evil. His book The Pink Swastika suggests that Nazi leaders were homosexuals. Lively also associates ethnic genocide with same-sex relations. He contends that some demonic stratagem from the LGBTQI+ community was connected with the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s.

Whether or not he wrote the original draft of one of the world’s most ruthless anti-gay legislations, in 2009 Lively caused a furor during a public speech in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He had been invited by Stephen Langa, the director of Family Life Network, a staunch advocate of prosecuting homosexual acts. In front of an audience of congressmen and religious leaders, he expressed his bitter theses. “For the first time, many of the attendees heard that there is an alleged global gay agenda to destroy the family and that normalizing homosexuality is tantamount to accepting pederasty or bestiality,” Kaoma recalls.

The neocolonial dialectic

The Langa-Lively connection is one of many that illustrate evangelicals’ influence on the homophobic frenzy in Uganda today. There’s a cursed stigma around homosexuality and simmering intolerance has crystallized into the norm, which the law then exacerbates in a vicious cycle.

Minister Bahati has publicly acknowledged his sympathy for The Fellowship, another U.S. organization that usually operates under the radar. And in the first decade of this century, Pentecostal pastor Martin Ssempa, a leading religious opponent of gays in Uganda, maintained excellent relations with Californian Rick Warren, another unabashed homophobe, although he has been critical of the Ugandan law’s strictness. In fact, Ssempa reproached Warren for that stance in an open letter when the Kill the Gays law was being developed.

The Ugandan case also weaves a confusing web of neocolonial dialectics. The law’s proponents have set themselves up as the custodians of theoretical local traditions. According to them, Africans have always been purely heterosexual and, until recently, free of the deviations created in the West and the unnatural, quasi-satanic ideas that were beginning to pervert the innocence of Ugandan youth. In the name of God, this situation had to be nipped in the bud. At the same time, this iron-fisted defense of the male-female couple has been strongly encouraged by organizations from the U.S. In Uganda, it seems that both homosexuality and punitive homophobia are inspired by foreign constructs.

In an article published last March in Foreign Policy, Minority Africa founder Caleb Okereke sharply resolves this paradox. Evangelicals, Okereke explains in his text, have succeeded in Uganda by proclaiming themselves to be trailblazers in the resistance against the so-called LGBTQI+ lobby, as if they knew the enemy well and had gone to warn unwary Ugandans about evil homosexual plans. Their mission began in the 2000s and they have not let up in their endeavor since. “Their role has not been overemphasized. If anything, it has been underestimated, as there is a lot we don’t know,” Okereke says by telephone.

A Nigerian by birth who lived in Uganda for five years, Okereke now resides in Denver, Colorado. He notes that “homophobia already existed” in the African country “before these groups came into play, although the extent of it is debatable.” He adds that an increasing number of Ugandan gays coming out of the closet has played a role in the ultra-conservative reaction. But he adds that the U.S. Christian right “has done a lot to create a panic,” especially with its rhetoric of recruitment. Okereke says that many evangelicals believe that gays are not content just to be gay. They always aspire to convert new groups of boys and girls to their cause.

Minority Africa’s founder provides examples of young Ugandans who have told the media their stories of downfall and salvation. Such stories have a common thread: unscrupulous men who manipulated them into doing gay porn and plunged them into years of perdition. After the abyss of sin, there’s always the happy ending of spiritual rebirth. That’s very much in line with the tenets of Exodus International, an American organization of “reformed gays” that ceased its activity in 2013. The vice president at the time, Dan Schmierer, also spoke at the 2009 conference in Kampala, the anti-LGBTQI+ exaltation where Scott Lively had his moment of glory in Africa.

Okereke explains that this narrative of a gay contagion has created the climate of a witch hunt in Ugandan society. That atmosphere of fear has also permeated the country’s parliament. Only two MPs have opposed the law. “They have been called every name in the book. Of course, they have also been called gay and, as such, perverters of youth,” he says.

Listened to because they’re white

Kaoma doesn’t sugarcoat why he thinks individuals like Lively have enjoyed such influence among the Ugandan elite. “He and others have benefited from being white, from their white privilege. That’s the power of Scott Lively and Family Watch International (FWI),” he notes.

Created by Sharon Slater, who is based in Arizona, FWI appears in several Open Democracy investigations that reveal its links to Uganda’s political elite, including the country’s first lady, Janet Museveni. The FWI director, Lynn Allred, states in response to an e-mail questionnaire that her organization “opposes any kind of violence against homosexuals” and “has never supported the Ugandan law.” On the contrary, she continues, it has tried to mitigate the text and remove its harshest penalties. In Uganda, the U.S. and the other countries where it operates, FWI officially promotes conversion therapy as the preferred method for dealing with homosexual impulses.

Allred suspects that FWI’s bad press in recent months — which she claims is based on “lies” — corresponds to a “media campaign” to tarnish the group’s image, especially its fight against the “sexual education agenda that the United Nations is imposing in Africa,” which she says is a display of “cultural imperialism.” The FWI director says that Uganda’s homophobic current “is an organic African movement, possibly motivated by not liking what is happening in developed countries.”

Questioned about Allred’s statements, Kaoma waits a few seconds before responding, somewhat agitatedly: “Did you think they would recognize it [having advocated criminalizing homosexuality in Uganda]? Of course not! FWI and the rest have been playing the same game for a long time. They do their dirty work off the record. They go around spreading their hatred and nonsense. Then, in front of the public, they wash their hands [of the whole thing] and pretend that Africans are to blame because we are savages.”

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