Uganda: Signs of Eroding Support for Anti-Gay Bill?

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

UPDATE: January 13th, 9:28 am: Uganda's newspaper New Vision reports that Museveni has made concerns about the foreign policy and foreign assistance impact known to members of his party. See the story here.

It's being reported that, at the urging of U.S. government officials, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will block the anti-gay bill introduced in October in the Ugandan Parliament. It is also reported that the majority of Ugandans support the bill. The controversy over the bill, however, continues to bubble unrelentingly. Will strong financial ties to the U.S. influence Museveni's actions? Or is the "historic religious revival" (as Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power calls it) underway in Uganda enough to power this homosexual hatred to its ultimate extreme?

Homosexual sex is already criminalized in Uganda. But the proposed legislation would impose

either the death penalty or life imprisonment for those "outed" as

homosexual (with prison sentences for those who knowingly protect gay Ugandans).

Ugandan legislator David Bahati, who is significant in this story in more ways

than one, drafted the bill. Not only is he behind the hateful bill, he

maintains strong ties to high-ranking U.S. political and evangelical religious leaders

and corporate executives through his membership in the clandestine organization

"The Family" an

international organization based in Washington DC and considered one of the

most politically well-connected fundamentalist groups in the U.S.

In fact, some report that the idea for the bill was initially introduced by Bahati at a prayer breakfast in

Washington DC, a regular event hosted by "The Family." Jeff Sharlet notes that the idea was

met by "disapproval" from members of The Family and, Sharlet writes, none of

the American members of The Family "seem to support" the bill, including Bob

Hunter, the member of The Family responsible for building the relationship

between the group and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and who has since come

out
in vocal opposition to the bill. But other Family members, Sharlet

writes, such as Senator

James Inhofe, Senator Chuck Grassley, Rep. Joe Pitts, and Senator Tom Coburn

condemned the bill only after a concerted campaign of public and private

pressure."

Connections between U.S. religious leaders and African

church leaders have been a focus of renewed

investigation
over the last few months because of the especially vicious

nature of the Ugandan bill and the support its engendered amongst Christian

religious leaders in that country. Pastor Rick Warren, leader of the Saddleback

Church and a vocal voice in U.S. global HIV/AIDS policy (PEPFAR) considers the

homophobic Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa a friend and the two are currently

engaged in a heated public discussion over the nature of the bill. Last month,

after weeks of speculation regarding his involvement and some finger-pointing

that he was actually behind the Ugandan anti-gay legislation, Pastor Warren released

a video statement directed towards Ugandan pastors in which he voiced his

opposition to the "Un-Christian"-like nature of the bill and urged his fellow

religious leaders to do the same. Though Warren makes clear in the video that

he strongly opposes the passage of this bill, he simultaneously includes his

homophobic convictions as if offering such a "spoonful of sugar" to Ugandan

pastors will help them imbibe a message they do not seem likely or willing to

accept.

In response, Pastor Ssempa, who has a long history of

anti-gay activism and fundamentalist evangelism, angrily argues in favor of the

law in

this letter
. Pastors in Uganda, says Ssempa in the video below, formed an

interfaith task force - The Uganda National Pastors Task Force - to "fight the

evil of homosexuality." Ssempa goes on to advocate for the law based on a

clause within the legislation that criminalizes the rape of a minor.

Inexplicably, there are no reasons given for why the criminalization of rape

needs to be inserted into a bill that seeks to legalize government sanctioned

murder of homosexuals.

But perhaps the most in-depth report to uncover the

relationships between U.S. evangelical political and religious leaders and

African churches is the recent Political Research Associates' report Globalizing the

Culture Wars
. Written by Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian priest who went

undercover in Uganda for six months, the report reveals just how multi-layered

U.S. fundamentalist influence is upon the African religious leaders who lead

the homophobic charge.

One example of this tightly woven web, as I reported

last month from the excellent blog Truth Wins Out (and

which The

New York Times just recently picked up) was the participation of Scott

Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundridge, three vehemently anti- and

ex-gay activists from the U.S., in a stoking-of-the-homophobic-fires conference

in Uganda in March 2009. Lively is

a missionary known for his screed, "The Pink Swastika" which claims that the

Nazis were really homosexuals getting back at Jews for Judaism's prohibition on

homosexuality. He is also the

writer of "7 Steps to

Recruit-Proof Your Child." But it's Schmierer who now claims that he was

"duped" into attending the anti-gay conference under the auspices of talking

about "parenting skills for families with gay children." The blog Box Car Bulletin (BCB) easily dispels

his claims, however, by producing evidence of his

knowledge in the form of emails sent, prior to the conference, by BCB's Timothy

Kincaid to Exodus, International's president Alan Chambers (on the board of

which Schmierer is a current member). The emails were sent to ensure that

Exodus, Chambers and Schmierer were keenly aware of the "character and history of those participating at the Uganda anti-gay conference." As BCB writes of the

exchange:

Alan's response was off the record. But because he

responded we know he received our email and was therefore aware of the

list of presenters and of our concerns.

So on Monday we asked him to let us know if he and the

Exodus leadership would develop a position on Don Schmierer's activities in

Uganda.

Since that time, conference speaker Scott Lively has endorsed the criminalization of gay persons and declared that the Ugandan government should "subject the criminals of homosexuality to a therapy.

To date, we've not heard back from Alan as to whether he,

Schmierer, and the rest of the Exodus leadership denounce the theme of

Schmierer's conference or if they too endorse criminalization of homosexuality

and forced ex-gay therapy. Until we hear otherwise, we must assume that their

silence is an indication that their board

member is representing them in Uganda and that they endorse the positions taken

by the conference
. [Emphasis mine]

It's hard to take Don Schmierer's claims of being tricked

seriously then. And of Scott Lively's protests that he had nothing to do with the particularly vicious nature of the bill? As Professor Warren Thockmorton writes

on his blog:

 

When you tell an audience that gays caused World War II and assorted

other atrocities (e.g., Columbine, Rwanda, etc.), you should not be surprised

when the audience becomes hostile. It is like yelling fire in a theatre and

wondering why people get trampled in the rush. It is called "inciting

a riot."

 

Despite the obvious violent, homophobic rhetoric put forth

by these three anti-gay activists as well as the scores of religious extremists

funded

by the U.S. in Africa, there are other forces at play as well. In 2003,

President Bush created PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief)

and pledged billions

to 15 African countries to help prevent the spread of HIV and treat AIDS-related

illnesses. The original

PEPFAR law required that one-third of all funding for prevention of HIV

transmission be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs. In Uganda, two-thirds of all funds for

prevention were spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, large amounts

of funding went to fundamentalist faith-based groups that rejected

evidence-based prevention programming, and safer sex practices, including

condom use, were stigmatized.

This imposition of Christian right principles upon public

health policy was only too welcome by President Museveni and his born-again

Christian wife Janet Museveni who equated condom

use with murder. Oddly and tellingly, Museveni went from praising

condoms as a means to "saving his people" from HIV infection in the nineties to

attacking "those who want to condomise the world" after Uganda was promised

huge amounts of funding under PEPFAR. And Pastor Ssempa was right there with

them loudly proclaiming that condoms are a "ticket to death."

What, then, should the United States do to address the bill

as the Ugandan Parliament is on the cusp of reconvening?

President Obama released

a statement condemning the Ugandan bill saying he "opposes" the bill as it

moves "against the tide of history" while the State Department declared "We

condemn human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity

wherever they occur...If adopted a bill further

criminalizing homosexuality would constitute a significant step backwards for

the protection of human rights in Uganda." The Human

Rights Campaign is urging

the United States to exert leadership through Congressional action in the form

of letters to President Obama and President Museveni.

Some are suggesting that the United States should cut

PEPFAR funding to Uganda as a way of punishing the government for this proposed

law. It is true that the U.S. government is the largest donor of HIV and AIDS

funding in the world. Withholding funds from Uganda may make a statement but we

are also responsible for addressing the underlying, destructive homophobia that

has been cultivated for many years on Ugandan soil, with the help and guidance of U.S. evangelicals as well as the

United States government. PEPFAR funds, initially under the direction of

President George W. Bush, have been distributed directly to the Ugandan

government to use as the government sees fit with very little accountability

for where the money goes. The U.S. has continued to fund Uganda as the country

has perpetuated homophobia in its legislation for years. Therefore US funding

is in part responsible, one could say, for the growing anti-gay sentiment

throughout Uganda. It is difficult to imagine, in fact, given what a large role

U.S. funding has played thus far in Uganda's public health response to HIV and

AIDS, how we did not see this coming and why we are surprised by the bill's extremist

response to homosexuality.

Withholding funds might allow us leverage in which to not only encourage

the Ugandan Parliament to vote against this bill in specific but to examine its

human rights principles overall.

It seems that those fighting against this bill,

internationally, should really be pushing for an overhaul of PEPFAR over the

long term, not just a temporary cut to Uganda's PEPFAR funding. Public health

plans not only involve health solutions but attitudinal and social change

solutions as well. If the United States was to alter PEPFAR so that some funds

to Uganda actually were spent to promote social change strategies that helped

address homophobia and discrimination we might see progress. As it stands, HIV

and AIDS funds from our country are not only not addressing the underlying public health issues that contribute

to homophobia: discrimination and fear, but the funds are being directed

towards ideologically-based organizations in Uganda that are feeding the issues that seed bills like

this one.

Given the international outcry

the proposition of this bill has incited, for months now, it seems likely that this

bill will not be signed into law in its current incarnation. There is, however,

still a law on the books in Uganda that criminalizes sex between same-sex

partners. There is still a firm relationship between Ugandan Anglican church

leaders, Uganda's political leaders and U.S. evangelicals with a lot of money

and a strong fundamentalist Christian zeal to "wipe out" homosexuality. There

still is HIV prevention funding, traveling through our federal government for

Uganda and other African nations, tied to Christian right theology rather than

public health evidence. "The Family" is still hard at work weaving together

like-minded evangelicals internationally. And there are still gay Ugandans

struggling to attain even the most basic of human rights - to be recognized as human beings.

Advocates of all shapes and sizes, around the world,

continue to stand up as long as there are those so blatantly in harms way. As

the Gay Ugandan writes

in his most recent post - a call-out to those who are fighting for him - and

all gay and lesbian Ugandans, in other countries:

"I am Ugandan. I

love the country. The people are my people. But, they have crossed the line

when in stupidity they try to kill me. Sorry, I am also a human being. Just

like they are."