When I was travelling through Uganda filming my latest film, God Loves Uganda, every evangelical Christian I met, whether Ugandan or American, was polite, agreeable, and even charming. Rev. Robert Kayanja, the most powerful pastor in Uganda, told me he liked me very much. "But," he said, "if we pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and you come back to Uganda, I would have to put you in prison."
This sort of attitude is what led me to follow the work of evangelical missionaries in Africa. How had this deep homophobia and a belief that biblical law should reign supreme gained such a foothold in the continent?
I began filming God Loves Uganda by first meeting some of the Ugandan and American missionaries who have helped create Uganda's evangelical movement. They were often large-hearted. They were passionate and committed. Many of them were kids from America's heartland. And they were, I began to discover, part of a larger Christian evangelical movement that believes that biblical law is the ultimate law, not just over people's hearts but over the halls of government. This movement, fueled by American money and idealism, had produced a noxious flower: Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Committed to the idea that God wants all forms of "sexual immorality" eliminated from the Earth, the anti-gay movement was the reason why Uganda had dismantled its successful AIDS program in favor of an abstinence-only policy.
In my generation, LGBTI rights activists have been fixated on the fight for marriage equality here in the U.S. But as Rev. Canon Dr. Kapya Kaoma states in God Loves Uganda, "America's 'culture wars' are now taking place on African soil." This is the fight LGBTI people of the next generation must tackle.
The war against homosexuality in Uganda is fueled by the funds of American Christian missionary churches. As my film explores, the U.S. anti-gay movement is directly financing Ugandan politicians like David Bahati, the member of parliament behind the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, and supporting anti-gay spokesmen, such as the U.S.-trained pastor Martin Ssempa, who condones violence against gays. Beyond Uganda, many African countries are also targeted as fertile soil in this war. At a recent U.S.-sponsored evangelical conference in Nigeria, the featured speaker pledged to make Africa "a graveyard for homosexuality."
My way to address the spreading of this violent, anti-gay fervor has been to let the people involved speak for themselves, to show the bigotry and self-hatred that lies beneath the violent anti-gay rhetoric.
God Loves Uganda premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Since then, I have been crisscrossing the United States screening the film at festivals, faith conferences, seminaries and churches. While the film has won many awards and received rave reviews, we have faced criticism, much of it personally targeted at me, and at Dr. Kaoma. Moderate evangelicals have come up to me to thank me and ask me how they can help financially; others have accused me of being manipulative. I've also been accused of being intolerant of Christians.
In his article against God Loves Uganda in Christianity Today, John Stackhouse implies that the film is anti-Christian. I believe nothing is further from the truth. Dr. Kaoma considers himself an evangelical, trained in the evangelical Christian faith. He agreed to take part in this film because he believes that the true meaning of the Bible's message is love. He is saddened to see the message of the religion that he loves being twisted and used to persecute what he calls "God's children." In my view, faith leaders such as Dr. Kaoma and Ugandan bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who is also featured in the film, are people of deep faith who believe that the true message of God is being distorted by U.S. evangelical missionary work in Africa. As straight men, it would be easy for them to turn their backs on the LGBTI community and save themselves the pain of rejection by their own churches, but they have chosen to fight the good fight. They are both very brave men who I think represent the true meaning of God. It's fine if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, but to look the other way when the Bible is used to incite violence and intolerance cannot be called Christ-like.
I grew up in the church, and I went into the production of God Loves Uganda intending to raise awareness of the abuse of religious power in Uganda, and after 30 public appearances, I have learned a lot about how people receive this sort of message. I have learned that the hardest part of campaigning for tolerance and justice is encouraging people to look at their own selves, to examine their own identity and shortcomings. Rather than argue that my film is persecuting them, evangelicals should speak out against violence and intolerance. I encourage evangelical Christian leaders to embrace the heroes of my film, who are in fact faith leaders who are spreading a Christian message.
This Pride, I will be marching in the names of the persecuted LGBTI people of the world. I'm honored to be serving as a Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade on June 30. The parade's Grand Marshals are ambassadors of pride, demonstrating the rich cultural contribution made by gay members to the wider community.
With the support of the Ford Foundation, Dr. Kaoma and I will take God Loves Uganda to the African continent in August and September to further engage with the populations who are most affected by American-backed religious bigotry and hatred. As the backlash and criticism of God Loves Uganda's message of tolerance has shown, our work to expose the exportation of anti-gay bigotry from America remains deeply necessary.