Thanks to a few American Christians, some gay Ugandans may be getting a special Christmas gift this year — execution.
You can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television these days without hearing about the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill proposing to establish the death penalty for homosexuality. While this bill has been debated in the Ugandan parliament for over three years, this time it looks like it might actually take effect. Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of Parliament, predicts passage of the bill by the end of 2012 and calls the impending law a “Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people. LGBT advocates have decried the law as inhumane and unnecessary, given that Ugandan law already forbids homosexuality and provides for punishments of up to fourteen years imprisonment.
But why is this playing out in Uganda of all places?
In recent years, Uganda has become something of a haven for anti-gay religious factions. Conservative Anglican congregations howled over Eugene Robinson’s 2003 elevation as the first openly gay bishop. Whereas the Church of Kenya merely refused to recognize Robinson, the Anglican Church of Uganda and the Episcopal Churches of Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania went one step further and severed ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church altogether. Years later, when American Episcopalians reaffirmed their support for gay ordination and same-sex unions, dozens of ultra-conservative American congregations defected and aligned themselves with like-minded national African Churches. A handful joined the Churches of Rwanda, Nigeria, and Kenya, and thirty-three chose to affiliate themselves with the Church of Uganda — with its very own American bishop to lead them.
This anti-gay connection between American Christian activists and Uganda has continued ever since, and has expanded beyond disgruntled splinter groups within the Anglican Communion. Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr — former Clinton tormenter and current president of Baylor University), Rick Warren (mega-church pastor and Purpose-Driven author), and many other luminaries of the American Christian right have also been associated with increased involvement in Uganda’s politics and religion.
The Kill the Gays bill, Uganda’s most recent flare-up over homosexuality, was born at a three-day seminar that took place in March 2009 in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The seminar, entitled “Exposing the Truth Behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda,” was led by American evangelicals Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge, whose sole mission to is promote widely discredited theories about the LGBT community, homosexuality in general, and the so-called “gay agenda.” Brundidge and Schmierer are “ex-gay” activists who espouse the psychologically dangerous notion that homosexuality can be cured or prayed away. Lively is an anti-gay propagandist, Holocaust revisionist, and controversial author of such books as 7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child and The Pink Swastika, which claims homosexuality was the driving force behind the formation of, and many atrocities associated with, the Nazi Party.
These three Americans, presented as experts on homosexuality, matter-of-factly informed the thousands of Ugandans in attendance that homosexuality can be cured. They explained how gay men routinely prey on teenage boys and seek to create a culture of sexual promiscuity. Most dangerously, they warned the credulous attendees that some insidious gay agenda was not only a threat to Biblical values but also a sinister and organized Western plot seeking to undermine traditional African families and culture.
The effect was immediate and explosive. Lively (who only writes “gay” in quotes) proudly blogged that the seminar was likened to a “nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda in Uganda.” Prominent African transgender activist Victor Mukasa is quoted as saying, “The seminar definitely escalated hatred toward gays. It incited a lot of violence in various parts of Uganda and people started attacking homosexuals and breaking into their houses …” Fears of lynchings and mob murders have increased following the 2011 bludgeoning murder of David Kato, Uganda’s leading gay activist, after a local tabloid included his name among a list of 100 “known gays and lesbians” under the headline “Kill the Gays!”
To be fair, the Americans expressed dismay at the extreme events that followed their seminar. Nevertheless, as Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian priest who attended the seminar undercover, points out, “what these people have done is set the fire they can’t quench.” Kaoma believes the Americans underestimated the homophobia in Uganda and the inflammatory response to be expected from Africans “when you speak about a certain group trying to destroy their children and their families.”
“When you speak like that,” Kaoma adds, “Africans will fight to the death.”
Following the seminar, Lively reportedly met with the Ugandan Parliament in a four-hour closed-door session attended by nearly 100 officials. Less than a week later Koama was informed that the Ugandan Parliament felt a newfound need for a law to combat the international homosexual agenda. On April 29, 2009, just six weeks after Lively’s closed-door meeting, the first draft of an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” was introduced by David Bahati, a Ugandan member of parliament who is also reported to be a member of The Family, an American-based, ultra-secret fundamentalist Christian network of powerful men said to believe they are chosen by God to influence the affairs of nations.
Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill – later dubbed the Kill The Gays bill – broadened the penalties Ugandan law already provides for homosexual conduct, which has been illegal since British colonial rule. The bill divided homosexuality into two categories: (i) the “offense of homosexuality” covered your everyday gay sex acts — and carried a penalty of life imprisonment, and (ii) “aggravated homosexuality” addressed gay sex committed by a parent or authority figure, a person with HIV, a “serial offender,” or if the sex partner is a minor — and carried the death penalty. Chillingly, the bill also criminalized “promotion of homosexuality,” which threatens pro-LGBT groups with hefty fines and imprisonment of up to seven years. Moreover, persons who know gay sex has taken place (landlords, parents, etc.) must report the activity within twenty-four hours or face up three years in prison.
Western media uproar following Bahati’s introduction of the Kill The Gays bill seemed to catch some in Uganda by surprise. After intensive lobbying by human rights groups as well as many donor nations’ public threats to end aid to the country, Uganda’s president formed a 2010 commission to study the ripple effects if the bill were to pass. Details of the study were not made public but in May 2011, parliament simply adjourned without voting on the bill.
Bahati reintroduced the bill in 2012. Again, Western media, human rights groups, and donor governments erupted. This time, however, Uganda’s parliament seems undeterred, as the reintroduced bill is purportedly on the verge of passage. Nevertheless, the international firestorm may have had one small impact: in late November global media reported Bahati’s announcement that the death penalty provision had been removed from the bill. Several human rights organizations, however, refute this announcement by pointing out the bill remains in committee, and a committee has no power to modify the language of a bill. To date, no replacement language has been discussed or circulated; unless and until a revised bill is published, global LGBT watchdog groups fear Bahati’s claim is nothing but an attempt to divert attention while the reintroduced bill is passed with the original death penalty language intact. So they watch and wait.
With or without the death penalty provision, security for LGBT persons in Uganda has deteriorated and their lives will remain in danger. Being known as gay could lead to mob “justice.” Private sexual activity between consenting adults of the same gender could result in life in prison — or worse if Uganda joins the shameful list of nations whose laws permit the death penalty for the crime of being gay: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Mauritania, Somalia, Southern Sudan, as well as twelve states in Nigeria.
The homophobic wildfire started in Uganda by three self-righteous American anti-gay zealots continues to burn out of control. No one knows whether or how it can be extinguished. It is irrelevant whether these men intended matters to escalate as they have; the unmistakable fact is they should have contemplated the possibility of such outcomes and governed themselves more responsibly. It is not asking much for men claiming to be highly educated professionals who advertise themselves as experts qualified to travel the world telling others how to live, to recall the language mothers across the globe use to scold children who swear they couldn’t possibly have foreseen the consequences of their reckless behavior: “If you play with matches, you’re gonna get burned!”
On second thought, perhaps those maternal words of wisdom aren’t entirely applicable to this situation. While Scott Lively and his cohorts are indeed the ones who played with matches, it seems they are not the ones getting burned. Rather, the fire they started is burning millions of others whose futures — whose lives — are now at risk.
And that really burns me up. And it should burn you up, too.