If you aren’t a gay traveller yourself, it’s easy to forget about such legislation as the “Kill the Gays bill”; in a decade or so of intermittent work and travel in Africa, homosexuality has only been mentioned (by Africans) a handful of times in my presence. You don’t see homophobia, because you don’t see people who are openly gay.
An Ethiopian evangelist once told me told that it was a Western genetic disease. A Ugandan journalist who explained it was un-African. But really, there wasn’t much reference to the issue. I’m from a small town and used to that. I have worked with one or two African with ‘camp’ mannerisms and dress, people who would, in a metropolitan setting, be described as flamboyantly ‘out’ gay men. I worried for their safety. Homosexuality is against the law in most of Africa.
But nobody else suspected a thing, or referred to it if they did. You might meet very traditional religious elders who will shake your hand and it turns into a handhold that last minutes; men publicly hanging off each other is a common African sight, from the North of Africa to its southern tip, cuddling basically, in those very countries where homosexuality is illegal. But I hadn’t thought much at all about homosexuality in Africa, until the issue became big in Uganda, around the time of the “Kill the Gays bill” was first proposed, in 2009.
I’d found Uganda an incredibly friendly and laid-back place, turbulent history notwithstanding. Ugandans seemed so nice, my colleagues so welcoming. Did they really want to kill gays?
In Uganda same-sex relationships were already punishable by jail sentences of up to 14 years, in a law drafted by British colonialists. The bill which was signed on 24 February no longer includes the death penalty, but increases the maximum sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ to a life sentence. It is a watered-down version of the “Kill the gays” bill which was passed on 20 December 2013 by the Ugandan parliament in what was described as a ‘Christmas gift’ to its supporters.
It forces anyone who is aware of an offence or an offender, including individuals, companies, media organisations, or NGOs who support LGBT rights, to report the ‘crime.’ On Valentine’s Day 2014 Ugandan President Museveni said he would sign the bill; the date of the announcement, and the fact that he held off from signing it despite being urged to do so by Ugandan social media campaigns and editorials, until there was ‘scientific evidence’ are notable.
The weekly [Ugandan] Observer, describes “intense campaigns in schools, luring people with money and all sorts of falsehoods … Gays target other people’s children because they don’t have their own to enlist.” There are no openly gay columnists to counter these gay-bashing op ed pieces, which tended to link homosexuality with molestation of children, because being gay is illegal.
The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power” – President Museveni
[in power 27 years and counting. Abolished maximum presidential terms in 2006]
This is a populist, orchestrated move by the government, timed to maximise coverage and, it could be argued, distract people from the real problems of the country which are within the government’s remit such as sorting out the infrastructure or running basic services more effectively.
On social media there is a lot of hate and ideological muddle over the issue; one Facebook user tells me that there are no gays in Uganda, and a sentence later that they should send the gays to the UK. Also on Facebook ‘Kant Kanyarusoke’ describes his “…pan Africanist unease that the so called developed world wants to disorganise our evolving societies (by keeping us quarrelling amongst ourselves about their value systems – and also in this case, developing a crude population limiting and family destabilising habit).”
He is one of the most eloquent. The most frequently used appeal is that homosexuality is un-African and not Ugandan. It’s an interesting thought, that people speaking English, using Facebook, in a country whose laws and system of government are basically British should be talking about how they would like to put people in prison for life for something which they see as being ‘too Western’.
Particularly given that the last independent Buganda ruler ( King Mwanga II, who died in 1901) was himself widely reported as homosexual. That the original law punishing homosexuality was drafted by British colonialists comes as no surprise given the potentially confusing nature of the language: it describes “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”, for instance, with no explanation of what that act might be. It’s a prim, antiquated and very English idea.
To a Westerner it might seem remarkable that a homophobic law could be so populist, and jumbled up with a pro African, anti Western message. The church’s popularity is an important factor, but when you dig a little deeper, there’s more recent cultural colonialism at work. David Bahati, is the Ugandan MP who proposed the legislation and in doing so became briefly (kind of) famous. He is Chief of the Scout Board of Uganda, is a member of the ruling party and has a remote constituency at the far south of the country.
Although often described as a ‘rising star’, he seems to be otherwise unremarkable. In the past he has attended the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast along with Martin Ssempa, an influential pastor and darling of the Bush era White House.
The U.S. National Prayer Breakfast is actually a series of meetings (and dinners) hosted by The Fellowship Foundation, a conservative Christian organisation usually referred to in America as “The Family”. The Family is an odd mix of ‘sworn to secrecy’ and ‘wealthy lobbying group with international PR aims’. It has strong links with Uganda’s evangelical churches, including Martin Ssempa’s. In doing so the Family angered some NGOs for diverting US cash away from promoting safe sex education towards abstinence programmes: Ssemba himself has publicly burnt condoms, although he is possibly more famous for a weird YouTube rant in which he holds up a laptop and describes gay porn to a bemused congregation.
He would be a comical figure if he weren’t so influential, and that the legislation on the books didn’t put people in prison, whilst silencing its critics. Bahati has accused foreigners of “promoting homosexuality by distributing cell phones and iPods and things like this” and described how wanted “to kill every last gay person.” He said that $15 million had been invested in Uganda to “recruit” children “into being gay”.
He also said that “homosexuals from Europe and America are luring our children” on [US] National Public Radio, a widely reported figure for which there is not one shred of evidence. The link between homosexuality and child abuse is frequently made.
On the Facebook messageboard pages of Ugandan newspapers, a place where I’m not very popular it must be said, these claims are repeated. It’s remarkable, because you can really see how rumours spread, nobody can remember quite how they started but it seems a generally accepted fact amongst some people that gays are after your children; in the same way nobody could remember exactly which Jew ate which particular baby, or which Tutsi men raped exactly which Hutu woman, the ‘facts’ become established.
That there is no evidence doesn’t matter by the time the time the angry mob has formed. And the mob is angry; it’s vicious. ‘God Hates Fags’ explains one Facebook user, simply. Ariho Christopherous explains that it’s ‘their’ fault – “If they hadn’t sodomised children maybe would’ve been considerate, I’m just tired of these Americans and Europeans please leave us in peace, we know your only aim is to destroy Africa in all ways possible, stop poking your noses in African issues….I just wish God could give Africa another planet.” She’s even the member of a charming Facebook group called KICK HOMOSEXUALS & LESBIANS OUT OF AFRICA (their caps), which admittedly only has two members.
Which isn’t to say the bill is unpopular; every time the story is mentioned, it is greeted with hundreds of ‘likes’: as the President looks to re election in 2016, his stock is rising. ‘Well done Mr President’ says one user, whilst another ‘Sanity finally prevails’ says another, this time on the Red Pepper messageboard.
Another user bizarrely claims that ‘some white guy’ married a dog, as if underlining the perverse nature of Westerners and their ways. One or two users are brave enough to criticise the bill; others are concerned about Western aid money, but ‘Derrick Junior’ explains that: “We don’t need their finances or anything, we can always survive,” perhaps not realising that a lot of the anti gay sentiment is both imported and funded by American churches.
One American name that keeps cropping up is Scott Lively, whose ‘Defeating “Gay” Arguments With Simple Logic and Seven Steps To Recruit-Proof Your Child’ book has been widely distributed in Uganda since 2009. He brought several copies over and allowed its free distribution. He also co authored a book called the Pink Swastika (first published in 1995 and still available on Amazon), which bizarrely argues that homosexuals were behind the rise of the Nazi Party.
Richard Cohen is another name; he is described as a psychotherapist, author, and ‘sexual orientation therapist’ on Wikipedia and describes himself as an ‘ex-gay’. In 2002 Cohen was permanently expelled from the American Counselling Association but his International Healing Foundation sent a representative to Uganda and gave out free copies of his book Coming Out Straight. He calls homosexuality ‘same-sex attachment disorder’, and his ideas are influential within Uganda although he has distanced himself from the ‘Kill The Gays’ bill. In a brilliantly uncomfortable MSNBC interview, US journalist Rachel Maddow forces him to admits the statistics in his book were made up by a rogue and multiply discredited ‘expert’ and will be removed from future editions of his book.
Given that one of these states that ‘40% of child molestation is carried out by homosexuals’, it’s pretty important stuff.
It’s important to remember that some of the homophobic and spiteful comments on Ugandan messageboards come from genuinely concerned parents, who are relying on their priests for guidance; those priests, many of whom have a very limited education themselves, are relying on bad data made up by discredited rogue academics.
Having said that, it would seem equally remarkable that ideas stemming from the fringe of American evangelism should be described as ‘African’ and used in such a way as to stir up anti Western feeling. President Musaveni’s has stated that the delay in signing the bill, and the reason why it made the news recently, is because he wanted to find a ‘scientific’ reason for what has gone on record as describing as ‘disgusting behaviour.’
His ‘team of scientists’, produced a short statement which denied that homosexuality was genetic or a disease, “…but merely an abnormal behaviour which may be learned through experiences in life…The practice needs regulation like any other human behaviour especially to protect the vulnerable.” I put ‘team of scientists’ in quote marks because none of them would appear to have published any research as part of this process, nor ever; rather they have given their name to a statement backing the government’s position.
The team are government officials, doctors, or lecturers employed by the government-owned university. I have failed to find a single piece of peer-reviewed scientific research published by any of them. In the West the influence of the ‘Pray Away The Gay’ movement is dwindling; Alan Chambers, was the former president of Exodus International, one of the oldest ‘Pray Away The Gay’ organisations which lasted from 1976 to 2013.
As it closed down he apologised for “years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organisation and the Church as a whole…For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honouring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical. In his statement he admitted that he “conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions.” His organisation’s director and several top executives visited Uganda in 2009, at the time that the ‘Kill The Gays’ bill was being drafted, and whilst it subsequently it distanced itself from the actual legislation, it clearly had an impact.
Google it a bit: you find them making speeches and praying together. Having disseminated factually incorrect and homophobic material in the region it would seem that these organisations should be doing more to prevent further human rights abuses stemming from their actions.
Perhaps they should reflect on David Kato, the Ugandan LGBT activist, who was murdered in 2011 after a magazine called for him to be executed and published his personal details, and ask whether this really what Jesus would have wanted.
PS I would love at this stage to point people to the best organisations involved in campaigning around this issue; I’m not sure which they are and would welcome comments.