LGBT Struggles for Human Dignity and Equal Rights in Uganda

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Val Kalende, Episcopal Divinity School

Guest Contributor This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

The influence of the Christian Right on LGBT rights continues to spread beyond the United States. It is productive to examine the nature and impact of this influence on the African continent. As a Ugandan lesbian who grew up in an evangelical Christian household, I think it is productive to examine the role and activities of external actors like the Christian Right in the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda. United States evangelicals are one of the challenges faced by African LGBT movements as they struggle for human dignity and social justice.

Both anti-gay activists and LGBT activists across Africa are fighting on two fronts, both a domestic and a foreign battle. For American evangelicals such as Scott Lively, Africa is a battle ground to export his brand of anti-gay theology, even as it is being challenged in his own country. For African politicians and clergy heightened attacks on gay people have become an opportunity to gain votes. For African LGBT activists it has required us to adopt a Eurocentric advocacy toolkit which, ironically, is spawning a backlash against us in our own countries. And, on the other hand, for LGBT people in Uganda the anti-gay advocacy of the Christian Right is fuelling overt violence and even death.

In March 2009, Scott Lively as well as Don Schmierer of Exodus Internationals, and Caleb Lee Brundidge of International Healing Foundation, traveled to Uganda to speak at a seminar called Exposing the Homosexual Agenda. Remember, Uganda is a country where homosexuality is already illegal. Videos of Lively at the seminar capture him telling his Ugandan audience – a mix of police officers, members of Parliament, students, parents, pastors and their congregations – that, homosexuals were responsible for the Nazi holocaust and they recruit children into homosexuality. “Nobody has been able to stop [homosexuals] so far,” he agitates. “I’m hoping Uganda can!”

The Christian Right’s influence in Ugandan politics does not appear out of a vacuum. Christian evangelical missions to Africa date back hundreds of years to European slavery and colonization. Here I look at the evolution of contemporary Christian evangelism and the continuing legacy of interventionism in Africa, which brought Lively to Uganda.

On January 1, 1980, American Presbyterian minister Francis Schaeffer became the first evangelical preacher to stir political activism among Christian evangelicals when he delivered a speech, A Christian Manifesto, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. A strong advocate against the separation of church and state, Schaeffer’s teachings on “true Christian living” and opposing humanism spawned a sexual revolution. He’s widely cited as the person who birthed anti-abortion movements among evangelicals. Perhaps less known is the role Schaeffer’s philosophy has played in a global anti-gay movement that has added a new dimension to discourse on sex and sexuality among African Christian-majority societies.

When Christian fundamentalists were debating federally funded abortion clinics and the abolition of mandatory prayer in public schools, Schaffer’s concern was also the propulsion of a humanistic strain in public education. His interventions followed the common trajectory of the Christian Right’s protection-of-our-children rhetoric. Schaeffer advocated what he called ‘true Christian living.’ In a nutshell, he preached that humanist secularism was the dominant threat to human existence and had only been made possible by the silence of Christians. Further – and this is where Uganda enters the picture – Schaeffer advocated “reaching the lost both at home and abroad.” The mission of saving ‘the lost’ must not stop at American borders, he told his followers; the mission is a universal one.

While Uganda has seen the growth of an evangelical movement since the mid-1970s, Shaffer’s Manifesto added a new dimension to postcolonial African struggles, including navigating Eurocentric thoughts and evangelical beliefs on sex, sexuality, and marriage. Marriage, according to many evangelical preachers, is to be understood as an institution of human service to God. Linked to this conception is a model of ‘the family’ based on a hierarchical and individualistic paradigm, one runs counter to the values of traditional African conceptions of family grounded on communal life.

The export of evangelical beliefs from the United States to Africa included the condemnation of same-sex relationships because “they are not in line with God’s purpose for procreation.” The latter belief is shared by evangelical tradition and many Africans, but for different reasons. Ugandans espouse a ‘sex for procreation’ view as a way of continuing family lineage: one cannot become an ancestor without offspring. On a community level, a person who dies without a child is believed to become an ‘alien spirit.’ In contrast, evangelicals advocate procreation because they believe a non-child bearing sexual relationship is contrary to God’s intent for marriage.

The fear associated with barren ‘alien spirits’ stigmatized all childless people, whether the childlessness was caused by barrenness or heterosexuals or homosexuals who choose not to have children. Same-sex relationships in Africa predate colonial times, but it is only now that LGBTs are claiming their independence from cultural ties which requires them to have children or to remain silent. This cultural disruption partly informs why homosexuality or its so-called ‘promotion’ is perceived as un-African.

Homosexuality is not alien to Africa. Rather, what is alien to Africa is the discourse and human rights terminology being used by more visible African LGBT movements. The LGBT movement in Uganda has adopted an agenda that defines LGBT rights as human rights precisely to counter an American-inspired movement against us. The visibility of LGBT activism partly informs the success of the anti-gay movement – but also vice versa.

In 2010, a year after the anti-gay seminar in which Lively and Caleb Lee Brundidge lectured Ugandans on the ‘gay agenda,’ American evangelist and founder of The Call Ministries, Lou Engel, held a prayer crusade in Uganda where he called on the nation to repent for “the sin of homosexuality.” Engel echoed Schaeffer’s of anxieties about humanism’s “takeover of public schools” and “loss of religious freedom.”

In his Manifesto, Schaeffer had also advocated “compassion for those caught in the problem [homosexuality].” Schaeffer’s “compassion” for homosexuals was echoed in Lively’s introduction at the conference in Kampala. And that same rhetoric of compassion for homosexuals has spawned “gay-change therapy” clinics in Ugandan churches, such as the one run by anti-gay campaigner Martin Ssempa, who claims he is helping homosexuals become straight.

In predominantly Christian countries like Uganda, the church, in collaboration with the state, is less concerned with the abolition of prayer in public schools than with the “promotion of homosexuality in schools.” The seed of the idea that Lively had planted earlier – that the threat to children comes from particular secular sections of the population – had caught politicians in Africa like a cold. Uganda Member of Parliament David Bahati and President Yoweri Museveni have both expressed fears about a ‘secret plot’ of Ugandan homosexuals and their American allies to promote homosexuality in schools. At youth conferences presided over by Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, she addressed the dangers of the secular world and urged youth to disavow the “curse of homosexuality” and to embrace “spiritual growth.”

Christian evangelicals also advocate that the state is God’s ministry. Successful leadership thus depends on the involvement of the church in policy making so that governments do not abrogate the authority of God. As a predominantly religious country, Ugandan political leaders use churches and mosques as their campaigning grounds. As well, part of their political platforms has included the promise of restoring the nation’s waning moral sanity. The fight against homosexuality has given them new material to ensure their election or re-election, as well as to justify Uganda’s turn to militarization, as in the case of ongoing raids on LGBT organizations and activists.

Kapya Kaoma, the author of Globalizing of the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives. African Churches, and Homophobia, has written that conservative American Christians are building “Christian colonies” in Africa. He examines recent developments in Africa where the introduction of anti-gay bills can be linked directly to the presence and advocacy of United States evangelicals in those African countries. What is happening to LGBT people in Uganda corroborates Kaoma’s analysis of the relationship of the Christian Right to the persecution of LGBT Ugandans.

Some critics of the Christian Right argue that these neocolonialist tendencies are not entirely destructive, as some United States evangelicals also fund health and education projects on the Africa continent. But this globalization of the gospel, I would argue, does not always effect positive social change. In fact, in Uganda, it has spawned sexual violence. Two years after Lively introduced the idea that homosexuals are a threat to peace and stability in Uganda, an anti-gay bill was tabled in Parliament by MP David Bahati. On January 26, 2011 David Kato, one of the founders of Uganda’s LGBT movement, was murdered after a local newspaper had featured his face with the headline “Hang Them! They Are Coming after Our Children.” Since Kato’s death, persecution of LGBT persons in Uganda continues to escalate. And this persecution does not stop at Ugandan borders. Campaigns to introduce similar anti-gay bills are springing up in several other African countries.

The anti-gay religiosity in Africa has also provided an opportunity for African LGBT movements to make significant social justice strides in a short time. I believe such movements need to be bottom-up approaches that emphasize proactive strategies to address the immediate threats against us. This bottom-up approach must learn from other liberation struggles in Africa. African feminists, for example, have built a gender justice movement based on their histories, struggles and lived experiences as African women. They understand that their liberation depends on them shaping their own destinies, which includes recognizing education as one of the most powerful weapons against oppression. Africa has been able to produce many feminist scholars, theologians, writers, and women leaders because liberation movements were mindful that, as Stephen Bantu Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

In order to counter the forces against our liberation, African LGBT movements need to ground our narratives of liberation in African-centered experiences. We need to speak out against oppression wherever and however it manifests itself. If African LGBT activists remain silent when donors threaten to cut aid to anti-gay African countries, our silence will only confirm the mantra that homosexuality is imposed on Africa by the West.

Our future as African LGBT movements also depends on our Western allies showing solidarity by following our lead. In the struggle for human dignity and rights, Africans voices must lead the way. We need our own local movements of LGBT thinkers – academically trained and politically savvy activists – whose voices can be carried into the institutions that currently oppress us. We also need the positive stories of resistance by our social movements to be recognized and celebrated.

The emergence of African pro-LGBT movements for social justice in countries like Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and of African human rights activists creating safe spaces and positive change in extremely hostile environments, is a success story. We need our allies in Western LGBT movements standing with us, and helping us to resist the oppressive impact of African and western religious movements that advocate denying us our human dignity, rights and full citizenship.

Val Kalende is a Master of Theological Studies (leadership development) at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Massachusetts, a board member with Freedom and Roam Uganda and an activist with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).


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