“Anal licking!,” shouted the Rev. Martin Ssempa, a minister and chairman of Uganda’s National Pastors Task Force against Homosexuality. “That is what they are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms.”
Standing before his congregation at the Makerere Community Church, Ssempa, a long-time associate of the American evangelical leader Rev. Rick Warren, draws their attention to images of hardcore gay pornography displayed for all to see. He denounces homoerotic sex, “… they are misguided, they are not real heterosexuals. We don’t practice [this], that’s an abomination. It’s like sex with a dog, sex with a cow; it’s evil.”
In April 2009, the Uganda parliament began debating the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that is expected to soon come up for a final vote. Facing mounting criticism from political leaders around the world, including President Obama, the most onerous aspect of the initial bill will likely be weakened. Nevertheless, a modified, but nevertheless reactionary, bill may well be adopted.
Uganda, like many countries in Africa and around the world, adheres to long-standing heterosexual and patriarchal traditions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior. In the West, such traditions are shared by a dwindling minority. The bourgeois capitalist marketplace has reconfigured that which is morally acceptable. Sexual practices among adults are areas of personal erotic experience, protected private activities.
The Uganda debate over homosexuality is the second front of the Christian right’s failed culture wars. Most troubling, Uganda’s current wave of anti-gay policies follows from the Bush administration’s anti-AIDS campaign, PEPFAR, and the active intervention of some leading American evangelical leaders. While the Americans associated with fomenting the anti-gay hysteria in Uganda are back-peddling their way out of the mess they helped foster, they should be held accountable for the malice the might occur if the proposed legislation in passed. Equally important, the popular movement in Uganda opposing the adoption of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill should be supported.
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Uganda has a long history of homophobia. According to contemporary legend, the late-19th century king, Kabaka Mwanga, was a homosexual pedophile. He allegedly tortured and murdered Christian youths who refused his sexual advances. However, others insist that while Mwanga had sex with young men who were his aids, he had sixteen wives and fathered ten children; his killings were supposedly the result of religious differences due to increasing tensions over European colonization. Nevertheless, in Uganda, the youths who were killed are recalled on June 3rd, Martyr’s Day.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill extends provisions of Uganda’s current Penal Code, especially Sections 145-148. For example, Sections 145 states that anyone who allows or participates in any sexual act considered “against the order of nature” (e.g., bestiality and homosexuality) is punishable with life imprisonment and Section 147 states that anyone who indecently assaults a boy younger than 18 years is liable to 14 years imprisonment and corporal punishment.
The original version of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill includes the following provisions: (i) it sentences anyone who knows of homosexual activity taking place but does not report it to up to three years in prison; (ii) gays and lesbians convicted of having gay sex would be sentenced, at minimum, to life in prison; (iii) people who test positive for HIV may be executed; (iv) homosexuals who have sex with a minor or engage in homosexual sex more than once may receive the death penalty; and (v) it forbids the “promotion of homosexuality,” which in effect bans organizations working in HIV and AIDS prevention.
Facing growing international condemnation and courageous indigenous political resistance, the Uganda legislation is pulling back from some of the more extreme provisions in the original bill. Earlier this year, President Yoweri Museveni indicted that he would likely reject or amend the bill, deleting calls for the death penalty.
Nevertheless, the country’s major religious groups supported the original bill. They include the National Fellowship of Born Again Churches, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Uganda Joint Christian Council (which represents the Orthodox Church in Uganda), the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, the Islamic Office of Social Welfare in Uganda, the Born Again Faith Federation and Ssempa’s Family Policy Center. It’s an uphill battle against the bill.
In addition to Ssempa, other Uganda clerics who supported the original anti-gay bill include Stephen Langa. In public comments, he insisted that the international gay-rights movement was planning to “destroy the family” and “sodomise your children.” Langa also argued that the movement was created by the Nazis and then moved to the U.S. after World War II.
However, the most significant religious supporter of the bill is Julius Oyet, one of Uganda’s leading neo-Pentecostal ministers. He champions what is known as the “7 mountains strategy” which posits that to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, true Christians must take possession of “the Seven Mountains of Culture”: business, government, religion, family, media, education and entertainment.
Last year Oyet declared: “God will judge evil in 2009 as mob justice will kill and destroy witches, thieves and evil people. … The righteous will march against evil and triumph over them all.” An American advocate of the “7 mountains strategy” is Johnny Enlow, the pastor of the DayStar church in Atlanta where Oyet has preached. Still another “7 mountains” champion is Thomas Muthee, the Kenyan evangelist who anointed Sarah Palin in 2005.
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Uganda’s battle over homosexuality is rooted in traditional patriarchal heterosexual prejudices and its long struggle with HIV-AIDS. The country’s first AIDS cases were diagnosed in the early-‘80s and, by late-‘80s, after the country had adopted what is known as the “ABC program” (i.e., abstain, be faithful, use condoms), the infection rate dropped dramatically. It became the model of how a developing country could contain the spread of AIDS.
Under Bush’s PEPFAR program, a program backed by the Christian right, the ABC program shifted to an abstinence-only, anti-condom campaign that proved a disaster, with AIDS infections on the upswing in Uganda. [See “Bush’s Foreign Sex Policy: Imperialism’s Second Front,” CounterPunch, December 22, 2006.]
During the Bush years, Uganda became a magnet for American evangelicals, a proving ground for their ill-conceived abstinence-only program. One of the evangelicals who grabbed onto Uganda as a vindication of Christian public sex-policy was Warren, head of the Saddleback Church where Obama and McCain held their now-famous campaign debate. He visited the country in 2008 and, in a highly publicized speech, compared homosexuality to pedophilia. Following the theme of his best-selling book, Warren praised Uganda as a “purpose-driven country.” (It should be noted that when the full consequences of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill were publicized in the U.S., Warren made a hasty retreat, insisting that his role had been misunderstood.)
A month before the anti-gay bill was introduced, in March 2009, three American Christian evangelicals participated in a leadership-training conference, “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda,” held in Kampala and sponsored by Langa’s Family Life Network. The seminar was called in response to a 2008 Uganda High Court decision that found that it was unconstitutional to discriminate against homosexuals.
The Americas who participated were Scott Lively, founder of Abiding Truth Ministries and editor of “The Pink Swastika,” a work that blames homosexuals for the Holocaust and attempts to link the gay-rights movement to the Nazis; Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International and representing the International Healing Ministries who advocates “curing” homosexuals; and Caleb Lee Brundidge, an African-American who describes himself as a former gay man and leads “healing seminars” that “rehabilitate” homosexuals and lesbians.
Brundidge and Lively advocated keeping homosexuality illegal but proposed giving those convicted the choice of prison or undergoing approved “therapy” to cure them of their gayness. Schmierer took a similar line, telling those in attendance that homosexuals could be converted into heterosexuals. (Like Warren, when the full story of the anti-gay bill became public, these artfully dodgers retreated, claiming they were innocent due to ignorance as what was really going on in Uganda.)
However, the anti-gay crusade in Uganda and other parts of English-speaking Africa is led by the ill-named Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington, DC., neo-con think tank. Its efforts are directed at challenging mainline Protestant denominations like the National Council of Churches over their more liberal positions regarding U.S. domestic and foreign policies. The battle over gay rights has become especially acute, particularly the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, same sex marriage and openly gays attending worship ceremonies.
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The Rev. Kapya Kaoma also attended the three-day seminar in Kampala, but had a different interpretation of what occurred. He found that the three Americans “underestimated the homophobia in Uganda” and “what it means to Africans when you speak about a certain group trying to destroy their children and their families.” Kaoma is the author of invaluable study on anti-gay policies in Africa, “Globalizing the Culture Wars,” published by the Boston-based Political Research Associates in November 2009. Most pointedly, he insists “What these people have done is set the fire they can’t quench.”
Kaoma is among a growing number of Ugandans resisting not only the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but gender prejudices as well. Another influential religious leader is the 78-year-old former Anglican Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, often referred to as the Desmond Tutu of Uganda. In 1998, he ran a counseling service that served both straight and gay people. However, in 2001, religious authorities in Uganda, including the Archbishop, found out that Ssenyonjo was assisting homosexuals and, while he was traveling overseas, removed him from his position, kicked him out of his parish and even denied his pension.
These gay-rights advocates are not alone. As reported by Gregory Branch in the GlobalPost, in February a group of about 100 Ugandan gays and lesbians held a clandestine meeting in Kampala to strategize against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Organized by the Rev. Mark Kiyimba of the Ugandan Unitarian Universalist Church, the participants resolved to petition the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament to scrap the bill and to instead move to decriminalize homosexuality. “Our conference showed that religion does not need to be an enemy to the cause of LGBT concerns,” said Kiyimba, who declares himself a married bi-sexual. “What is at stake here is religious freedom, human rights and minority protections.” These are the same stakes at risk in the United States.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.