In August 2018, a six-year-long court process against notorious anti-gay, evangelical pastor Scott Lively came to an end. In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit in the state of Massachusetts against Lively on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a non-profit umbrella organization for LGBT advocacy in Uganda. The suit alleged that Lively, who had traveled to Uganda in the early 2000s, sought to deprive LGBT individuals in Uganda of their fundamental human rights. In the lengthy court process that followed, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor opined that there was no question that Lively’s actions “in aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI people in Uganda [constituted] violations of international law.”
However, given that the most significant parts of Lively’s conduct occurred on foreign soil, Ponsor decided that the court did not have extraterritorial jurisdiction over the case and dismissed it. In August 2018, Lively sought to have the pieces of Ponsor’s opinion affirming his crimes stricken from the record but was unsuccessful.
Cases like Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Scott Lively provide insight into the bitter history involving American evangelicals and the extreme homophobia they have helped cultivate in African countries like Uganda. Though nearly a decade has passed since the most prominent interventions by American evangelicals, LGBT individuals in Uganda continue to face intense persecution stemming from the rhetoric once used by these evangelicals. With ongoing efforts to repress LGBT individuals and U.S.-based evangelical groups continuing to intervene, activists warn that only a human rights approach — as opposed to an ideological one — can aid LGBT Ugandans’ struggle.
Christianity has a troubling history with anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. As prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the HPR, British colonizers created the first anti-sodomy laws in Uganda as early as the nineteenth century: “Colonizing nations, most notably Britain, exported and imposed anti-gay laws on the people they conquered.” They also “sent out fire and brimstone Christian missionaries who preached against same-sex relations,” according to Tatchell. The colonial effort was thus bolstered by proselytizing Christians who sought to ‘civilize’ the once tolerant nations they encountered — in Tatchell’s words, “the existence of homosexuality in Africa was often used by missionaries and colonizers to justify what they described as a ‘civilizing mission.’”
When Uganda’s colonial period ended in 1962, these British anti-sodomy laws remained, but went largely unenforced. It was not until the early 21st century that, following interventions by evangelical individuals and groups, anti-gay sentiment in the country became what Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian pastor, human rights activist, and scholar, refers to as “militant homophobia.”
As early as 2002, Lively traveled to Uganda to meet and coordinate with Martin Ssempa, an anti-gay activist and minister. Ssempa later became a prominent advocate for the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 that sought to punish homosexual acts with life imprisonment or, in some cases, the death penalty. Later, in 2009, Lively returned to Uganda and spoke at a three-day conference on homosexuality hosted by the Family Life Network, a New York-based Christian radio network. Throughout his talks, Lively framed himself as a human rights defender, a lawyer, and a theologian, warning that LGBT individuals wanted to “prey upon” and recruit Ugandan children in order to “defeat the marriage-based society.”
“What Scott Lively was doing,” Kaoma explained to the HPR, “was to misrepresent, or demonize, a community of people who are already at the margins of society.” But, because the three elements he used to present himself in Uganda were all “very, very respected across the continent,” he gave himself a powerful platform and then “exploited it.”
During his visit, Lively was also invited to private briefings with political and religious leaders and addressed the Ugandan parliament. Following this visit, Lively continued to fight against LGBT equality in Uganda, even discussing and providing suggestions for the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Act through email exchanges with Ssempa and Ugandan MP David Bahati, the individual who introduced the bill before the Ugandan Parliament in 2009.
As chronicled in the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda, the early 2000s also saw an influx of Christian missionaries from evangelical Christian organizations like the International House of Prayer. In 2010, Lou Engle, a former senior leader at IHOP and the founder of TheCall Ministries, traveled to Uganda to host a rally discussing the alleged evils of homosexuality. Engle also used his platform to praise Ugandan politicians’ “courage” and “righteousness” in promoting the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009.
Unfortunately, individuals like Lively and Engle do not act in isolation. As Kaoma writes in Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia, American evangelicals in Africa “provide social services, run orphanages, schools, and universities, and offer loans” to Africans through charities like World Vision and Five Talents, which “present a highly conservative, and misleading, position on homosexuality” to the Africans they serve.
Of course, not all evangelical missionaries who travel to Uganda and other African countries present similar narratives or maintain similar beliefs. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, the percentage of American evangelicals who believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society is steadily increasing, rising from 26 to 36 percent between 2007 and 2014. The issue, writes Kaoma, is that “Africans tend not to distinguish between moderate evangelicals in World Vision and far right figures like Scott Lively. For them, the term ‘evangelical’ conveys the notion of Protestant Christianity as a whole, without the substantive distinctions made by American religious groups.” The sensationalized anti-gay rhetoric delivered by extreme evangelicals like Lively, though widely dismissed in the United States, thus dominates the politics of homosexuality in countries like Uganda.
“Having lost the battle against LGBT rights in the U.S.,” Tatchell summarized, “some evangelicals turned their attention to fighting against LGBT equality in African nations. They went to countries like Uganda and promoted a sensationalist and often fabricated account of gay life in order to provoke African people to turn against their LGBT sisters and brothers.”
From Bully Pulpits to Parliaments
The messages of hardline American evangelicals resonated in the Ugandan Parliament. In October 2009, just months after Lively’s second visit to Uganda, Bahati introduced the aforementioned Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. The bill did not pass through Parliament in its original form but was later revised, replacing capital punishment for some acts of homosexuality with life imprisonment. The revised bill passed through the Ugandan Parliament in late 2013 and was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in February 2014.
The law built upon existing anti-sodomy laws in Uganda, adding punishments for any individual or group who offers counseling to LGBT individuals and thus threatening numerous LGBT rights groups in Uganda. Lawmakers in support of the bill argued that homosexual lifestyles threatened to destroy family units by recruiting Ugandan children into these “lifestyles,” echoing statements Lively made during his visit to Uganda in 2009. “All of the talking points that Lively delivered in Uganda [in March],” Kaoma confirmed, “were in the original bill, which was introduced in April.”
This Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was nonetheless short-lived. In August 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the law, stating that the bill passed Parliament without the requisite number of MPs present. Because the law was struck down on a mere technicality, the potential for the passage of a similar law remains. As recently as April 2018, for example, Ugandan MP Nsaba Buturo called for Parliament to bring back the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
In a similar vein, in March 2018, Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga threatened to withdraw from the Inter- Parliamentary Union — an organization made up of members of parliament from 178 different countries that seeks to “promote, protect and strengthen democracy around the world” — after some nations attempted to include LGBT people in a declaration on migrants and refugees. The strong homophobic sentiment exacerbated by U.S. evangelicals in Uganda thus continues to influence Ugandan lawmakers today.
Lawmakers, however, do not pose the only threat to LGBT Ugandans. The rhetoric of American evangelicals has also contributed to the dangerously homophobic sentiment that pervades day-to-day life in Uganda. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s September 2015 assessment of life for LGBT people in Uganda, LGBT Ugandans — not the Ugandan government — were blamed for the cutbacks in foreign aid that resulted from the passage of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act. As such, in a country where 96 percent of individuals believe society should not accept homosexuality, openly LGBT Ugandans “confront stigma, discrimination, legal restrictions, harassment, intimidation, violence and death threats” in their day-to-day lives.
A 2016 report by Sexual Minorities Uganda, for example, documented 264 “verified cases of human rights abuses against LGBT Ugandans” between May 2014 and December 2015. One hundred sixty-two of these reported cases occurred between December 2013 and May 2014, the four-month span that saw the Anti-Homosexuality Act passed through Parliament and signed by the president of Uganda. In comparison, only eight human rights abuses were reported in all of 2013. The passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, fueled by the religious anti-gay rhetoric of years prior, immediately encouraged increased persecution of and violence against LGBT citizens of Uganda by both state and non-state actors.
A 2016 report by a consortium of NGOs at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum confirms this increased violence by non-state actors in particular. According to the report, non-state actors were responsible for 54.4 percent of verified cases of human rights abuses against LGBT individuals in Uganda. This percentage represents a striking change from the findings of previous reports, which show that state actors have historically committed the majority of verified violations. In the words of the 2016 report’s authors, the increasing treatment of LGBT individuals as “outcasts” is the “accepted norm,” and “this could be emboldening property owners and other non-state actors to violate rights of LGBTI persons.”
Desperate to escape hostile conditions at home, hundreds of LGBT Ugandans have fled to Kenya, registering as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Conditions in refugee camps are not much better, however: after one gay pride event was held in Kakuma in June 2018, some LGBT refugees residing in that camp reported that other anti-gay refugees had deliberately set their shelters on fire. Persecuted refugees are then compelled to move to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where they continue to face homophobia, xenophobia, and racism, as Adam Fitzgerald from the Refugee Coalition of East Africa told Reuters. That hundreds of Ugandans elect to flee to a country where they continue to face extreme homophobia, Colin Stewart, president of the St. Paul’s Foundation and founder of the Erasing 76 Crimes blog, told the HPR, is “an indication of how bad Uganda is [for LGBT individuals].”
The Politics of Being
Ten years have passed since the first major interventions by prominent American evangelicals, but their influence over Ugandan lawmakers continues. Ugandan politicians continue to deny rights to LGBT individuals both in Uganda and elsewhere. The Ugandan government continues to forbid gay pride celebrations, and the Ugandan police continue to raid the pride events that do occur. Most recently, in October 2018, the Ugandan government prevented LGBT activists from opening a center to support LGBT individuals in Uganda.
Evangelical groups also continue to have a political presence in the region. According to Kaoma, despite extensive media coverage and criticism of the actions of individuals like Lively and Engle, some American evangelicals feel that now is “the time to stand up for their beliefs — so rather than retreating, they [continue to] go in there and support what Scott Lively had been doing.”
Fighting the actions and ideologies of the evangelicals themselves, however, is no longer the most viable option. What activists, journalists, LGBT-supporting evangelicals, and other Africans living in countries with anti-LGBT laws must continue to do in order to overcome the polarized political environment that these evangelicals have constructed, according to Kaoma, is reinforce LGBT Ugandans’ humanity and human rights. “The only way to fight this is by putting human faces to it, as opposed to arguing in the U.N., or in the churches, or in the conference rooms … Unless we do that, it will just be an ideological battle. But this is a life and death battle.”
Kaoma continued, “I don’t think that many Africans will agree that we should kill gays. Many Christians will say that is beyond what we stand for. So rather than making it an ideological battle, we need to make it a human battle — by showing the face of the LGBT person, and what that demonization does to people.”
A decade ago, extreme ideologies rooted in religious principles exacerbated LGBT Ugandans’ struggle. Today, only appeals to LGBT individuals’ human rights can help improve it. Lawsuits like Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Scott Lively do just that, affirming that efforts to demonize sexual minorities constitute crimes against humanity.
Image Credit: Flickr/Guillaume Paumier