It’s 11:00 p.m. on a late October night in a small village on the outskirts of Kampala. The power is out and the streets are dark when a mob of five men unexpectedly show up at the home of Peter Yiga, a known gay activist.
Yiga, like many gays and lesbians in Uganda, leads a double life, living a typical heterosexual existence with a woman who is also the mother of his child in order to provide cover from dangers like the one unfolding.
The men knock on the door, Yiga’s “wife” quietly asks, “Who’s there?” They tell her they’re friends of Peter’s and that he’s expecting them for a meeting. Just as she cracks the door to get a look, they force it open and enter the house.
A few weeks earlier the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone (not associated with the American publication) printed the identities and addresses of 100 known or suspected gays and lesbians under the headline “Hang Them; They Are After Our Kids!!”
Startled awake, Yiga discovers that not only has he never seen these men before, but that they’re anything but friends. “By the time she called me, they were already all over the house searching for any gay information… They ordered me to sit down and started lecturing me.”
Calling themselves “concerned citizens,” the gang ransacked Yiga’s desk confiscating all documents related to his LGBT work, and then cleaned out his wallet and stole the family’s money.
When they demanded that Yiga tell them how many “homos” live in Uganda he replied, angrily, “More than you could think, Even your wife, plus the maid and all your kids are gay.” One of the men then spat on Yiga and shouted, “You are a curse and deserve to die!”
These “concerned citizens” tried unsuccessfully to get information out of Yiga, like who sponsors meetings, who sabotaged the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB), and who the prominent gay businessmen were.
Although he was clearly the mob’s target the men also warned his wife to stop wearing trousers, as it “demoralizes the community” and told her they don’t like “mothers like her.” Yiga suspected his family was being watched; a fear quickly confirmed when one intruder told him, “We know all your movements, if you think we don’t, just try to continue your activism.”
The gang then threatened Yiga that homos better stop “recruiting children” or they would “devise another way” to stop them. Thanks to Rolling Stone they have a network and know the whereabouts of many homosexuals who, they told Yiga, they will be “visiting one-by-one [on a] warning mission.” Warned not to go to the police, and that they had better cooperate on the next “visit,” the gang threatened to come back to steal the family’s belongings and smash all the doors and windows.
“[Since that night] I have been scared for my life,” Yiga told RD.
Yiga’s pastor, the one person he could turn to, was out of the country on a five-week pilgrimage across the United States to educate Americans on the AHB and the American evangelicals who helped provoke this witch hunt.
Rev. Mark Kiyimba is a Unitarian Minister and founder of the Unitarian Church in Kampala, one of the few churches in Uganda that welcomes LGBT people. During his four-day stop in Boise, Idaho, Kiyimba told RD, “I think [Yiga] was among the people who were outed in the newspaper.”
Earlier, just hours after his plane touched down in Boise on November 1, Kiyimba learned that Rolling Stone had just published a second round of names under the headline: “More Homos’ Faces Exposed.” Identities were published despite a court injunction, filed days earlier, preventing the paper from outing gays. Kiyimba said the injunctions are meaningless in any case as publishers simply wait for the temporary order to expire.
Reading parts of the latest round of outings Kiyimba shouts, “They do not understand what they are doing! They are ruining the lives of these young people. These are just kids, nineteen or twenty years.”
In Uganda, Kiyimba says, “everybody knows everybody for four square miles.” When someone’s name appears in the paper, “life is over.” While he was in the U.S., three high school boys in Kiyimba’s church were outed. Their parents subsequently kicked them out of their homes and they were expelled from school. Two others lost their jobs and the housing their employers had provided.
“I was terrified,” Kiyimba recounted after learning of Yiga’s attack. “I know he is in trouble… Peter needs to leave the country.” Visibly upset and anxious to return Kiyimba said, “I need to get home… I am responsible for his spiritual well-being.”
As a human rights advocate and pastor to LGBT people Kiyimba could be sentenced, under the provisions of the proposed bill, to prison for seven years for “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” or up to three years for each count of “failure to disclose,” within 24 hours, anyone he knows to be homosexual.
“I am very much worried,” said Kiyimba, “I will have to defend myself and it will stop me from doing my work.” Kiyimba also runs an orphanage for 22 children who are sick with AIDS and a primary school for another 550 who lost their parents to the disease.
Although illegal since the British colonization of Uganda, Kiyimba says that hostility toward homosexuality skyrocketed after Scott Lively and other American evangelicals held an anti-gay conference in Kampala last year. “There is no doubt whatsoever,” said Kiyimba, “American evangelicals have a very big hand in creating this atmosphere that is out of hand.”
Lively testified before parliament and told Ugandans, “The gay movement is an evil institution”; he equated gays with serial killers and sociopaths who, “do mass murder, you know, like the Rwanda stuff.” Still, although much of the focus has been on evangelical extremists, conservative Anglican influence is just as powerful.
In C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, the follow up to The Family, Jeff Sharlet notes that “Lively and his friends were not so much the cause of the bill as a catalyst for a process that had already been set in motion.”*
According to Sharlet, Family leader Bob Hunter credits himself with helping establish US aid to Uganda shortly after President Yoweri Museveni came to power. Sharlet uncovered a budget with support staff for The Family’s work in Africa designating Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), as the point man to represent the US Congress and The Family.
“Ugandans are not concerned about the finer points of the American class system,” according to Sharlet. “They look at fanatics such as Lively, or a politician such as Inhofe, and they see the same thing: a smiling white man come to preach moral ‘purity’ as a path out of poverty.”
Establishing the right connections to American politicians and religious leaders is a lucrative business in Uganda. There have been an influx of faith-based NGOs and individual American Churches over the years that significantly contribute to the billions of dollars that flow into Uganda from the United States.
“Ugandans,” Sharlet suggests, “are only too happy to return the favor, providing for their American allies examples of the policies too extreme to be implemented in the United States.” The bill’s author, Member of Parliament David Bahati and the Ethics Minister, James Buturo are affiliated with The Family.
Then there’s Rick Warren. The Saddleback megachurch pastor has enjoyed close ties in Uganda, a “Purpose Driven Nation,” where The Purpose Driven Life is reported to be almost as popular as the Bible. Warren was close to Pastor Martin Ssempa, though he’s since distanced himself from the pastor and come out in opposition to the AHB.
Ssempa, known for staging anti-homosexual marches where people chant “Kill the Gays” and “Arrest all Homos,” has shown gay porn movies in church to promote the AHB. Rev. Kiyimba believes that Ssempa is behind the outings in Rolling Stone, though he has no evidence to support this claim.
Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Priest and author of a report on American evangelicals and anti-gay African clergy, told this reporter back in January, after Warren finally repudiated the bill in December 2009: “Ugandans,” and Ssempa in particular, “are demanding an apology from Warren; the question is why are they demanding an apology? Warren misrepresented what he said in Uganda and is very different that what he is saying now [in the U.S.]”
American evangelicals have helped cultivate the homophobic atmosphere in Uganda that could easily translate into mass violence. To focus only on killing the bill, when the meaning of the word “homosexual” has been successfully branded as synonymous to “pedophile” and “child rapist” is dangerously shortsighted, like a band-aid for a hemorrhaging artery.
Efforts are currently underway to get Yiga out of the country. Leaving his family, especially his child, behind is heart-wrenching, but staying could have deadly consequences for them all. The sad truth is, Yiga’s family is safer with him gone. When and where Yiga will go is still uncertain but one thing is for sure: it must be far away. Otherwise, Yiga said, “my tormentors can follow me there.” Peter hopes that with church influence he can get a visa to come to the United States so he can “swiftly leave this deadly place.”
*In an earlier version this quote was incorrectly attributed to Sharlet’s earlier book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. RD regrets the error.