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05.11.11

The Uganda Anti-Gay Bill's U.S. Roots

Even if the death penalty is removed from Uganda's Anti-Homosexual Bill, its passage would codify the country's extraordinary persecution of gays—and American evangelicals will bear responsibility, says Michelle Goldberg.

In 2009, a month after ethnic riots rocked the Ugandan capital of Kampala, an evangelical lawmaker named David Bahati introduced his Anti-Homosexuality Bill into parliament. The measure was draconian, prescribing the death penalty for some gay people, mandating prison sentences of at least five years for the “promotion of homosexuality,” and requiring Ugandans to report “offenders” to the authorities. After an international outcry, President Yoweri Museveni distanced himself from the bill, and it seemed likely to disappear.

Then, this month, it came roaring back, and it could pass by the end of the week. Although some media outlets are reporting that Bahati has dropped the death-penalty clause, no revised bill has surfaced yet. “As far as we know, as of today, parliament was still discussing the same version,” Maria Burnett, a Uganda-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said on Wednesday. “While the author of the bill has said he was willing to make amendments, I’ve never seen an actual document with those amendments made.”

Even if capital punishment is removed from the bill, its passage would herald extraordinary state persecution of a demonized and beleaguered minority. Already, some Ugandan newspapers have taken to publishing lists of alleged gays and lesbians with blaring headlines like “Hang Them!” and “Homo Terror!” The bill is the culmination of an anti-gay campaign that’s been waged in Uganda for more than a decade. Because some American evangelicals have played a major role in that campaign, they’re at least partly responsible for what is happening now.

The timing of the bill’s resuscitation is noteworthy. Uganda is convulsed by nationwide protests that have been met by a brutal police crackdown. Since conspiracy theories about subversive homosexuals have metastasized in the country in recent years, targeting gay people could be a way to divert public anger. “This bill was [put on the agenda] a month after very bloody riots that happened in September 2009, where at least 40 people were killed by government forces,” says Burnett. “There was a lot of criticism of the government at that time. It’s a bit ironic—not much happened with the bill for last year and a half, and now the bill is reintroduced three days before the end of parliament and more killings by government forces in April.”

But why would people furious about corruption, rising prices, and political authoritarianism care about homosexuality, which is already illegal in Uganda? The answer lies in another country where politics are often hijacked by anti-gay demagoguery—our own. As in other Sub-Saharan African countries, Uganda has long had a taboo against homosexuality. But the political scapegoating of gays and lesbians is a relatively recent phenomenon, one deliberately exported by the American right.

“Here these guys are going into a place where it’s already dangerous to be out as gay, and illegal, and they’re going to try to make it worse?” says Throckmorton.

Uganda is a country where American-style evangelical Christianity is exploding, and there are close links between many American anti-gay preachers, politicians, and activists, and their Ugandan counterparts. As Jeff Sharlet has reported, Bahati, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s sponsor, is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of The Family, the secretive American evangelical organization whose members include Sens. James Inhofe, Jim DeMint, and Tom Coburn. Martin Ssempa, a Pentecostal preacher who has championed the bill, was a protégé of Rick Warren and, during the Bush administration, a recipient of at least $90,000 of American aid earmarked for abstinence promotion. Another major anti-gay activist, Stephen Langa, the head of Uganda’s Family Life Network, is an affiliate of the Phoenix-based group Disciple Nations Alliance.

The point is not that American Christians urged their Ugandan counterparts to try to institute the death penalty for homosexuality—they didn’t. After much public pressure, Warren has spoken out against the bill, and the Disciple Nations Alliance issued a somewhat lukewarm objection, noting “concerns” but insisting on the right of sovereign nations “to establish their own laws.”

Yet the ideology underlying the bill comes from American conservatives. It is Americans who have elaborated a vision of homosexuality as a satanic global conspiracy bent on destroying society’s foundations, akin to the Jewish octopus in classic anti-Semitic narratives. According to Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical psychology professor once associated with the ex-gay movement, when Uganda’s anti-gay activists speak about homosexuality, they cite materials by Scott Lively and Paul Cameron, two of the fiercest American opponents of the so-called homosexual agenda.

Few Americans have watched the situation in Uganda as keenly as Throckmorton. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely champion of gay rights. Throckmorton, who teaches at the evangelical Grove City College in Pennsylvania, produced the 2004 ex-gay documentary I Do Exist, featuring people who had ostensibly changed their sexual orientation. Yet soon after, he learned that some of the people he thought had become straight really hadn’t. Through both his psychology practice and his study of the scientific evidence, he gradually came to believe that ex-gay therapy doesn’t work. And so, while he still holds traditional religious views about homosexuality, he says, “I don’t feel the need to impose that on other people via legislation or condemnation.”

Thus he’s become an important critic of the American ex-gay movement, and in 2009, when he saw that Lively, Caleb Brundidge, and Don Schmierer were joining Langa to put on an ex-gay conference in Uganda, he took notice. “Here these guys are going into a place where it’s already dangerous to be out as gay, and illegal, and they’re going to try to make it worse?” he says.

He soon learned that Lively had been going to Uganda since 2002. The author of The Pink Swastika, Lively is more than a simple opponent of gay rights. Taken together, his bizarre but influential books The Pink Swastika and The Poisoned Stream constitute a kind of Protocols of the Elders of Zion of homophobia. The former claims that Nazism was primarily a homosexual phenomenon and that the modern gay-rights movement is its direct descendent, a “homo-fascist phoenix” risen from the ashes of World War II. The latter purports to trace the machinations of “a dark and powerful homosexual presence” through “the Spanish Inquisition, the French ‘Reign of Terror,’ the era of South African apartheid, and the two centuries of American Slavery.”

Nor was Lively the only American evangelical telling Ugandans that the survival of their society depended on rooting out homosexuality. Kansas City preacher Lou Engle, famous for rallies that draw up to 100,000 people, staged an event in Kampala last year that included Bahati and other architects of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. “[W]e’ve come here to join you, to pray that your government would have wisdom to uphold righteousness in this land,” he exhorted a rapt crowd, some of whom were moved to tears. The homosexual agenda, he said, “is going to hurt the nation and hurt families,” and Uganda “has suddenly become ground zero… God brought you to make a statement to stand for righteousness.”

Engle has tried to claim that he wasn’t specifically endorsing Bahati’s bill. It’s hard not to blame Ugandans for interpreting his words otherwise. “His presence gave the Ugandans a sense of being supported by some American conservatives,” says Kapya Koama, an Anglican priest who researches the religious right’s influence in Africa for the think tank Political Research Associates. “Lou Engle became the sign that what they’re trying to do in Uganda is just fine.”

Ugandan leaders take messages like Engle’s seriously, seeing themselves as bulwarks against the homosexual decadence undermining Europe and the United States. “The African Church is the only one that is still standing against homosexuality,” Museveni said last June. “The Europeans are finished. If we follow them, we shall end up in Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Right now, it’s unclear where exactly the Anti-Homosexuality Bill stands. It was initially scheduled for debate on Wednesday, the last day parliament was supposed to be in session. When the legislators didn’t get to it, some news reports suggested it had momentarily been defeated. But Helen Kawesa, spokeswoman for the Ugandan parliament, tells The Daily Beast the session has been extended until Friday, and the bill will likely be debated then. If it fails, Bahati has promised to reintroduce it in the next session without the death penalty. Such a bill would get less international attention, but it would still be enormously oppressive, potentially condemning gay people, their friends, family, and advocates to long prison sentences. “The bill does have widespread support in parliament,” says Burnett. “It’s a battle that’s likely still long and hard, unfortunately.”

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian. and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.