In 1948, the Kinsey Report was published in the United States, bringing homosexuality into the popular American lexicon and allowing the concerns of homosexuals to become a publicly addressed issue. From this point on, the country has been inching in the direction of recognizing homosexuals as equal in all respects to other American citizens. In November 2010, for example, Congress repealed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which has been a thorn in the side of gay rights advocates for years. While there are certainly still communities in which homosexuality is regarded harshly, there is a growing American population that believes homosexuals deserve equality. However, the progress in America is not mirrored in many of the places where America wields influence.
The increased attention to homosexual rights in the U.S. has come at the expense of homosexuals elsewhere as anti-gay rights activists move their operations to countries where their influence on debates over homosexuality has resulted in harsh anti-gay laws and brutality. On January 26, a Ugandan gay rights advocate was beaten to death with a hammer. The murder of David Kato shook people across the globe and served as a reminder that there are still many places where homosexuals are treated with vicious cruelty. There are numerous African countries that have harsh laws against homosexuality, where punishment can range from imprisonment to stoning. However, Uganda has become one of the most contentious battlegrounds for American gay rights activists working abroad and their often evangelical Christian anti-gay rights counterparts. Gay rights, a fundamentally nonpolitical human rights project, has become entangled in the web of American politics, and this has raised the stakes of a local Ugandan issue that was already heated in its own right.
Conservative Christian groups have been very successful in acquiring authority and promoting anti-gay agendas abroad. This has resulted in a fierce response from gay rights activists who have tried to counteract the predominant and spreading anti-gay attitude in Uganda. The evangelical Christian groups’ struggle to establish their values as in Uganda has been a crucial goal of these groups because Uganda has influential political connections throughout Africa and would serve as an example for other countries to follow.
Kato was one of the few openly gay men in Uganda and also one of the most vocal supporters of gay rights in the country. His position on gay rights made him the target of a string of death threats—in October 2010, Rolling Stone, a Ugandan newspaper, printed a picture of Kato on the front page, under the words “Hang Them,” complemented by extremely homophobic rhetoric. Clearly, Kato was a marked man and the violence of the consequent murder, paired with his prominent position in the public eye make a convincing case for linking Kato’s murder to anti-gay hate crimes. Regardless of the specifics of Kato’s murder itself, the conversation and finger-pointing it has since sparked revolve around the larger issue of gay rights. Both sides, the anti-gay and gay rights advocates, have used this event as a soapbox for pushing their respective messages.
While homosexuality is a divisive issue all over the world, opposing sides may see the outcome of this particular debate as an indication of the comparative strength and authority of American interest groups active in Uganda. There is a covertly active homosexuality community in Uganda, and they have been bearing the full heat of the struggle between pro- and anti-gay rights campaigns waged by American actors in their nation. Gay people in Uganda face intense discrimination, best exemplified by a bill recently passed by the Ugandan government making homosexuality a crime subject to capital punishment. The national government is not the only body at fault in this situation, however: American anti-gay groups and gay advocacy groups in Uganda have encouraged continued debate on homosexuality, carrying their proxy battle into the legislature and affecting the life of Uganda’s gay population.
In March 2009, a group of American evangelical Christians traveled to Uganda to give a series of talks on homosexuality. They had been invited to speak by Ugandan leaders espousing anti-homosexual agendas. According to Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, “For three days […] thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality.” Their talks were colored with homophobic language and ultimately served to tip the scales in favor of the anti-homosexuality bill condemning homosexuals to life imprisonment or, in some cases, even the death penalty. The magnitude of their influence on the passage of the bill and rising anti-gay sentiments remains ambiguous, but their nationality should be a cause for concern within the U.S.
According to Stephen Langa, the Ugandan organizer, the theme of the event was “the gay agenda.” Much of the rhetoric used by these proselytizers—reflected in the language of the bill—was based on the idea that homosexuality could be “unlearned,” a practice espoused by many Christian groups in the U.S. Uganda is, for these organizations, an opportunity to gain momentum in the anti-gay movement because Uganda could currently go either way, and there are many eyes watching this close policy battle as it unfolds.
As Cathleen Falsani reports for the Religion News Service, the representatives on the evangelical side for this round of the battle in Uganda were Scott Lively, who promotes the notion that a secret gay cabal orchestrated the Holocaust, Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-proclaimed formerly gay man and sexual reorientation coach, and Don Schmierer, another anti-gay author. While it cannot be stated with certainty that these people have turned to Uganda to promote their message directly as a result of their declining popularity in the U.S., it is certain that their message and their organizations are not moving further into the U.S. national consciousness. Lively’s organization is categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in America. Their activities are increasingly viewed as extremist and have less of a place in American discourse. Thus Uganda, where all three received a warm reception, may appear as a more accepting stage for these American groups to perpetuate their operations and spread their ideals.
There are several Ugandan-based Western groups such as Exodus International, Integrity Uganda and the Fellowship Foundation that actively Christian doctrine and the often spread complementary anti-gay agenda. The Fellowship Foundation, also known as the “Family,” is a particularly far-reaching group that has had a role in shaping Ugandan politics. It claims that “the basic guiding principle is that all the activities among the poor, with youth, in prisons, for widows and orphans, among political and civic leaders and in any segment of communities, states or nations be done in the spirit and example of Jesus.” Clearly, their target demographics are those who may feel disenfranchised within the system and need support, whether financial or emotional, from a third party. This steps into a role overlooked by the government and perhaps less emphasized by non-governmental organizations. Thus, the organization has adopted the responsibility of helping the poor “without precondition” by “befriending and mentoring children in poor areas of the U.S. and other countries to keep them in school and out of trouble. Mentoring at-risk young people and providing shelter, food, life skills, and training for literacy, vocations, and service to their communities. Assisting single mothers, reconciling between races, economic classes and generations, and connecting those with needs to those with resources.” This organization appears to be providing very tangible support for those in need and linking that tangible and well received service closely to its mission of proselytizing. While the foundation’s mission statement may not explicitly address its policy towards homosexuals, the connections it has to various prominent figures, including David Bahati, the author of the anti-homosexuality bill, is indicative of the direction in which it is pulling Uganda. This influence relied on personal connections of the sort that other NGOs often fail to cultivate and the resulting actions, perhaps more than the mission statement, of the foundation have significantly influenced Ugandan lawmakers to adopt a decidedly anti-homosexual agenda.
And then there is the ever-present issue of aid. It might appear as though aid-providing countries that take a gay rights advocacy stance could easily use the carrot-and-stick method to withhold aid if Uganda continues its violent and discriminatory treatment toward homosexuals. After the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill, Andrew Aylward of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Sweden “promised to withdraw its $50 million in annual aid” and that there were “similar threats by the European Parliament and other international donors, who contribute about a third of Uganda’s budget.”
The slap on the hand that this is intended to be is not as powerful as it may appear. There are countries, such as China, that provide unconditional aid to Uganda, and therefore the actions of Sweden and the European Union do not take away enough aid to hurt Uganda. Indeed, they may even be providing an opening for existing or additional anti-gay groups to step up and fill this aid gap while advancing the agenda that caused aid withdrawal in the first place. The threat of stemming the flow of aid is not a particularly effective deterrent for the Ugandan government and initiates a vicious cycle wherein aid is cut due to anti-gay policies, anti-gay groups make up the deficit while publicizing their agenda, and conditional aid-providing countries become even more reluctant to provide aid.
Anti-gay groups are not the only ones culpable in agitating the issue of gay rights in Uganda; gay advocacy groups play a part as well. Human Rights Watch, Astrae, and Uganda Gender Resource Centre are groups that have a primary and respected goal of aid and human rights work, including the promotion of gay rights. However, their work could be backfiring. Working on the frame of intolerance laid by proponents of Christian agendas and the policies of the Ugandan government itself, these NGOs may be using the wrong tactics to address anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. By continually pushing the agenda of equality, they may be agitating an issue in a harmful way. As evidenced by the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill, the Ugandan government clearly does not want to have a visible gay presence in the country, and the work of the NGOs is directly contradictory to its policy. In describing its mission and approach, Human Rights Watch writes, “We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.” This tactic of confrontational and vocal advocacy has produced success stories, but largely due to intervention or acquiescence by non-Ugandan national governments and lawmakers pursuing policy changes. NGOs may not see the same success rate if they pursue the same policy within Uganda because they face a more hostile and uninterested government. Christian anti-homosexual groups, on the other hand, have been largely focused on establishing relations with Ugandan citizens and have influenced law and national policy through indirect influence, not necessarily because of active lobbying.
None of this is to say that gay rights would have been a moot point in Ugandan politics had it not been for Americans, but it is evident that Americans play a large role in shaping the nature of the gay rights debate in Uganda. As Michael Spencer of the Christian Science Monitor explains, “Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are evangelicals.) In the ‘Protestant’ 20th century, evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.” With anti-gay organizations losing much of the attention they used to enjoy in the U.S., the battlefront is being moved elsewhere and both sides are overeager to take up their weapons. The potential for either group to succeed is high, and this has only served to increase the energy with which each side takes on the issue of gay rights in their new proxy wars.
The atrocities in Uganda are in part an extension of American politics, and to thrust our problems into an entirely different and more volatile context is dangerous for everyone involved. The future of gay rights looks hopeful in the U.S., but it is no longer enough to look only within our borders to assess progress. Perhaps it is time for both the human rights and gay advocacy groups to reassess their position in Ugandan society.
A turning point in Ugandan gay rights was the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill in 2009, but this is the very sort of politicization of the issue that is incredibly detrimental to humanitarian progress. American organizations should refrain from directly challenging Ugandan politicians and from positioning themselves as aggressive, demanding outsiders. Instead, it is important for the U.S. and its representative organizations to de-emphasize the political stakes in the issue of gay rights. Of course, this is not an easy thing to ask for, but advocacy and human rights groups should attempt to pose less of an imperialist threat to Ugandan leaders and offer a softer hand by utilizing and strengthening a grassroots, bottom-up model of influence. Instead of admonishing government leaders, they should work with the people and seek to aid and educate them on a civilian level, providing services and gaining trust and influence like their anti-gay counterparts. By forging connection with the Ugandan people instead of lampooning legislators, perhaps they will persuade someone to listen.