The US Religious Right and the LGBT Crisis In Uganda

Hang them.” Those were the words printed in the new Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone last week, in reference to the 100 gay men whose names, addresses, and photographs the paper published as the country’s “Top Homos” (see image, right).

Although the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) remains stalled one year after it was first introduced in the Ugandan Parliament, the intimidation, harassment, and violence it was designed to incite remain an everyday part of life, and an urgent human rights crisis for LGBT Ugandans.

Ugandan human rights advocate, Julius Kaggwa, who visited Washington this week, told me that while the AHB would authorize the state to prosecute, imprison, and even put to death anyone the state deems homosexual, “to date we have more non-state violence directed at gay people.” That violence is both promoted by the government—one parliamentarian has said if he had a lesbian daughter, he would hang her—and carried out by private citizens with government complicity. If a lesbian victim of the common “corrective rape” were to go to the police station to report it, Kaggwa said, she would risk being raped again—by the police.

Kaggwa, who this week received the 2010 Human Rights First Award, has played a leading role in the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which formed in response to the AHB last year and whose principal goal is to prevent the passage of the bill or any of its provisions in other pieces of legislation. While serving as a leader in the coalition, Kaggwa said, men claiming to be criminal investigators detained him at the police station where they forced him to strip naked and interrogated him. His wife received harassing phone calls. Kaggwa appears to be the target of intimidation.

Kaggwa is also the executive director of the Support Initiative For People With Atypical Sex Development, a group that advocates for the rights of intersex people in Uganda. Kaggwa was born intersex, and raised as a girl. He “became very Christian, turned to God a lot to see if there would be a miracle of some sort, if I could wake up a girl.” Transitioning from that, and “shedding off that false image,” says Kaggwa, was “painful, painful in the sense that it made me lost in a way, but also painful in terms of social perceptions. I had to explain every day what was happening.”

Twenty years later, at age 40, Kaggwa is an advocate for sexual minorities. “When it comes to gay people, I may not be gay,” says Kaggwa, “but I understand very well what it means, the courage and the audacity it takes for you to say this is who I am in an environment that says you mustn’t be that.”

That environment in Uganda has been intensified over the last year and a half, says Kaggwa, since American religious right activist Scott Lively dropped, in his words, a “nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.” Lively, the former head of the California affiliate of the American Family Association, and an ally of the AFA’s virulently anti-gay policy director Bryan Fischer, led a three-day conference that Kaggwa says sparked a “panic” in evangelical and Pentecostal churches that the “gay agenda” was poised to cause the downfall of Ugandan families and culture. During the conference, Lively blamed gay people for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, equated homosexuality with Nazism, and more generally asserted that gay people are both predators and a foreign infiltration that undermines local values.

As the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, author of a report on anti-LGBT evangelism in Africa, told RD’s Kathryn Joyce last year:

When he goes to Uganda, he’s not known as Scott Lively, but as an American evangelical… The Africans don’t always have the resources to follow their statements so they say: this man of God says this is going on in the world. Or Scott Lively goes to the Uganda Anti-gay Conference, and the media says that an American evangelical says there’s a gay agenda… In four hours, he teaches them about the gay agenda [that’s seeking] to take over the world. When he leaves, at the follow-up meeting, parliament makes a statement saying thank you for this information, and now we know that there is a group of gays trying to take over the world, and it’s up to Uganda to fight.

Homophobia was already present; Kaggwa pointed at the incendiary pastor Martin Ssempa, who has the megachurch support of Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, and believes he shares the view that homosexuality is “unnatural, ungodly and criminal” with Rick Warren, who this year severed ties with him. But Lively, Kaggwa added, presented the “gay agenda” in such a sensationalistic way “as an attack on the family, as an attack on the youth and the future of a nation. The sensationalist packaging and the messaging of the thing is what made it [so powerful].”

That sensationalist packaging and messaging is part of the religious right’s rhetoric in the United States, too, and especially for Lively’s conspiracy-minded assertions of a link between Nazism and homosexuality. Uganda merely provided Lively a more friendly stage; as he said in Kampala, “I can’t say this in America, but I can say it in Africa.” But as evidenced by Fischers frequent echoing of Livelys writings, and the refusal of leading religious right and Republican figures to distance themselves from Fischer, in some domestic circles he certainly can say those things. In Uganda it translated into the AHB, which Lively has called a step in the right direction.

While Lively is frequently depicted as a fringe character on the religious right, he has ties to what may be considered mainstream religious right groups in the United States. In 2002, the Christian Coalition of Maine, seeking to overturn a local anti-discrimination ordinance, ran newspaper ads that were written by Lively, which included statements such as:

The only effective strategy is to reject and refute the false assumptions of “sexual orientation” and re-frame the issues on a truthful foundation. “Sexual orientation” must be exposed for what it is: a nonsensical theory about sexuality invented by “gay” political strategists to serve their own selfish interests at the expense of the welfare of society as a whole.

Also in 2002, Lively joined other activists in addressing a rally protesting the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Boyd County High School in Cannonsburg, KY, where he said, “Normally you see these clubs only going in where the homosexuals already have significant political power and where the population has already been indoctrinated with their propaganda.” Lively was a key speaker at Bryan Fischers Shake the Nation conference in Idaho in 2008. More recently, Lively spoke at a protest organized by religious right leaders outside the Justice Department, attempting to get arrested under the new hate crimes law for preaching against homosexuality. (They were not arrested; contrary to their claims, the law protects speech.)

“There was homophobia to feed on, and the circumstances were so right to try to activate and intensify the homophobia,” said Kaggwa. A year after Lively’s conference, Lou Engle and his revival, The Call, extended further support to the bill.

Kaggwa is dismayed by the spread of homophobic preaching particularly in Uganda’s Pentecostal churches. “We have a huge, a massive Pentecostal movement,” he says. “I am a staunch Pentecostal myself. But lately we are replacing what used to be the love of God that propelled us, we are replacing that with hate.”

Propelled by that hate, the majority in Uganda, says Kaggwa, sees a group that “is defenseless, helpless, and is saying, we can just exterminate them. And using all means possible.”