On Trial

01.27.13

Ugandan Gay-Rights Group Sues U.S. Pastor

A gay-rights group from the African country alleges an American church leader set the stage for their persecution at home. Nina Strochlic talks to the pastor and Ugandan activists about the landmark case.

Last week, at the premiere of the documentary God Loves Uganda, attendees at the Sundance Film Festival glimpsed the impact American evangelicals have had in whipping up an anti-homosexual fervor in the African country. As one of the top destinations for American missionaries, Ugandan gay-rights activists have been observing the flood of motivated visitors into their country and are undertaking their own crusade to get them out. But once the damage is done, can preachers of hate be held legally accountable for hate crimes?

On Jan. 7, history was made when this question was brought before a Massachusetts courtroom by a Ugandan gay-rights organization suing an American pastor for violating international law. Filed by advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to sue U.S. citizens for violations of international law, the civil-action suit alleges that evangelical pastor Scott Lively incited persecution against Uganda’s LGBT community and helped create a dangerous environment that stifles their constitutional rights. It’s a landmark suit—the first of its kind using the statute to fight against persecution on the grounds of sexual identity and gender discrimination.

The hearing's first day of arguments was without drama, but with much of the case resting on freedom of speech and circumstantial evidence, it could be a long, hard battle. Lively’s defense filed a motion to dismiss the case, calling it an attack on his First Amendment rights. Now the two sides are waiting to hear from U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor, who will decide whether Lively’s actions amount to persecution and violate international law, which defines it as a deprivation of fundamental human rights or harm imposed as penalty for exercising those rights.

The outcome of this trial won’t make much difference on the ground. If found guilty, Lively could be responsible for civil damages and an injunction stopping him from further involvement in the issue. The stakes may not be high, but the symbolism is dominant—a victory would be a ruling against the man many Ugandan gays see as the catalyst for their persecution.

In March 2009, Lively arrived in Uganda to headline the “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda.” By his own account, Lively gave three lectures at that conference, held private meetings with religious leaders, lawyers, and members of Parliament, spoke in front of thousands of students, and did radio, television, and newspaper interviews. His speeches argued that homosexuality is a choice, and warned that having homosexuals in mainstream society threatened Uganda’s children. After returning to the U.S., he wrote that he was told “our campaign was like a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda in Uganda. I pray that this, and the predictions, are true.”

The court filing by SMUG claims these meetings, speeches, and ongoing relationships with other prominent anti-homosexual activists in the country were influential enough to become the catalyst for the anti-gay fervor that has gripped the country—and for the so-called Kill the Gays Bill, which was introduced a month later. The legislation, among other things, would forbid “organizations which promote homosexuality,” and dole out hefty jail sentences and even the death penalty for LGBT individuals.

Speaking on the phone the day after the hearing, Lively says that he wanted “public policy to discourage [homosexuality] as a form of conduct,” but adds that his efforts in the country didn’t call for violence and focused on rehabilitation and the option for therapy instead of jail time. “The accusation is that I went there with the purpose of creating some kind of campaign of terror against homosexuals, which is just ridiculous,” he says, and calls allegations that his influence inspired violence “a paranoid delusion.”

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Pastor Scott Lively and supporters before he went into a federal courthouse in Springfield, Mass., Jan. 7, 2013. (John Suchocki/The Republican, via Landov )

But SMUG claims his speeches influenced Ugandan leaders to take action, and since the conference life for LGBT in Uganda has become increasingly dangerous. Newspapers published personal information about Ugandan homosexuals, people were attacked, and advocacy group meetings were raided. “Demonizing this community and spreading sensationalistic myths about the violent dangers posed by the LGBT community was necessary to the campaign of persecution and to instill sufficient fear to justify wholesale denial of rights to this community,” SMUG writes in its filed complaint.

Lively’s speeches were grounded firmly in his religious interpretation that homosexuality is a choice, and he emphasizes that whether you like it or not, it’s his constitutional right to express that viewpoint. “I’m there to serve the Lord and if that means being persecuted for my faith, which I perceive this as being, then so be it,” he says. The lawsuit is baseless, he claims, and regardless of what’s in the bill, he can’t be held accountable. “There’s no evidence. They didn’t allege anything except speech on my part because that’s all I did.”

Pam Spees, a small woman with spiky blond hair who is representing SMUG from the Center for Constitutional Rights, finds Lively’s free-speech claims ironic. “He’s basically seeking to deny to a whole group of people the same fundamental rights that he is using: his rights to speech, assembly, and association,” she says.

A few days after the hearing, Pepe Julian Onziema, SMUG’s advocacy and programs director, along with SMUG’s research manager “Michael” (who didn’t want his real name revealed for safety reasons) and Spees are sitting in a conference room in lower Manhattan, energized about the case. Soft-spoken but confident, Onziema came out as transgender at age 12 and three years later became involved with the LGBT community. Now 32 years old, he’s one of Uganda’s most prominent gay-rights activists. He explains why they’re pressing charges against Lively: “The escalation started during that meeting where Scott Lively was basically calling upon our legislators, our religious leaders, and people in key government places to come up with a policy that prohibits advocacy—that shuts us up and basically shuts away our existence.”

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A conference for homosexuals living in Kampala, Uganda on Feb. 15, 2005. The meeting was the first attempt by the LGBT community in Uganda to unite people against a proposed anti-homosexuality bill in the country’s Parliament. (Trevor Snapp/Corbis )

Life as a homosexual in Uganda is precarious and could become more so, especially for prominent activists like Onziema, who likens his security routine to being in the witness protection program. He runs his hand over his closely cropped hair, which is slowly growing back after he shaved it in an attempt to disguise himself to avoid the constant harassment. He’s tried not wearing his signature tortoiseshell glasses, but that didn’t work either. He uses multiple means of transportation each day and changes phones habitually. The only time he really feels safe is on a motorbike, with a helmet covering his face. “Life is basically about being a little over-careful,” he says. “It gets you paranoid, living your life in paranoia.”

“I’m there to serve the Lord and if that means being persecuted for my faith, which I perceive this as being, then so be it.”

The lawsuit is the fourth major case SMUG has pursued in the last few years. One of the most notable was a ruling in their favor against the Ugandan magazine Rolling Stone, which published pictures and personal information about three of SMUG’s leaders, including Onziema, under the words “Hang Them.” Unfortunately, even with judiciary backing, little has changed. But for Onziema, whose first name, Pepe, is fittingly a shortened version of “patience,” this isn’t a cause he can give up on. He doesn’t have any doubt the anti-homosexuality bill will be passed soon after the government reconvenes in February. “We’ll definitely be silenced,” he says. “But for me personally, I don't think I’m going to shut up. Wherever I’ll be, whether underground or in a hole somewhere, I’ll make sure that my voice is heard in one way or another.”

Pepe Onziema
Sexual Minorities Uganda program coordinator advocate Pepe Julian Onziema in an interview with Associated Press in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, on March 19, 2012. (Stephen Wandera/AP)

Despite the dangers, neither Onziema nor Michael say they would ever consider leaving their homeland. Onziema pauses. Just once, he says, he thought about it. Two weeks ago, he appeared on TV opposite Uganda’s top anti-gay crusader, Pastor Martin Ssempa. The debate was vicious, and after more than an hour of verbal assault and humiliation (at one point Ssempa performed a mock demonstration of gay sex using fruit) Onziema walked outside the studio into a mob that had gathered. Jumping onto a nearby motorcycle, he barely escaped. “I believe if I had stayed there two to five more minutes I wouldn’t be at this table speaking,” he remembers, growing quiet. “That is the moment I wished that something would pick me up and take me away, or the ground would open and then shut me in. That was the only moment I thought, ‘This place is not for me.’”

Michael describes the activism work as exciting and challenging, but the dangers are real and can make a person lonely. “Sometimes you live in isolation,” he says.

“Oh, that’s the word I was looking for,” Onziema says, more to himself than anyone else. “Isolation.”

Michael continues. “You don’t know what others think about you, so you just end up having a few friends that you hang out with in most cases.”

If the trial moves forward, it could still be a number of years before judgment is passed. SMUG is willing to fight it out and has a willing sparring partner in Lively, who has been sued five times by gay activists. “They’ve reminded me that they really represent a threat to our way of life,” he says. “They are not willing to allow people to disagree with them without trying to destroy them. I’m one of the few people who has the courage, frankly, to stand up to them, and I’m not going to shrink from that anymore.”

Onziema, ironically, echoes this sentiment. “When your life is at stake you do anything to make sure that you protect it. So if you take a step today and you don’t achieve what you want, you take two more steps,” he says. “There are points when it’s dangerous and you need to take one step back, but you still keep moving on. For us, it’s because it’s our lives. We want to live them and we have to shape how we live them. That is what drives us.”

Video screenshot

Watch the trailer for "God Loves Uganda."