Exporting the Anti-Gay Movement

In October 2010, a banner headline ran on the front page of the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone: “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak.” Subheadings warned of these people’s dark designs: “We Shall Recruit 1,000,000 Kids by 2012,” and “Parents Now Face Heartbreaks as Homos Raid Schools.” One of the two men pictured on the front page was David Kato, an outspoken leader of Uganda’s small human-rights movement. Inside the newspaper, his name and home address, along with those of other LGBT Ugandans, were printed. The article called for the “homos” to be hanged. 

Three months later, after numerous threats, Kato was bludgeoned to death in his Kampala home. Police said the motive was robbery, but human-rights advocates did not believe the official story. At Kato’s funeral, an Anglican priest condemned homosexuality. Kato’s death was international news, making him the highest-profile victim of the anti-gay hysteria that has enveloped much of sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade. Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has joined other Western diplomats in being openly critical of African political leaders who fail to defend the rights of their LGBT populations, the crisis afflicting sexual minorities on the continent has its origins in the United States. Pejorative attitudes toward LGBT people in Africa have long been widespread. But the recent upsurge in politicized homophobia has been inspired by right-wing American evangelicals who have exported U.S.–style culture-war politics. 

The best-known example of these efforts is Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Introduced in the fall of 2009, the bill imposed the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and criminalized human-rights advocacy on behalf of sexual minorities. It grew directly out of a well-attended conference, the “Seminar on Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda,” that took place in the capital, Kampala, in March. To put on the conference, the Uganda-based Family Life Network, which is supported by U.S. Christian-right groups, teamed with two leading anti-gay activists from the States, Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively and Dan Schmierer of the ex-gay group Exodus International. The seminar attracted high-profile religious leaders, parliamentarians, police officers, teachers, and concerned parents. I videotaped the proceedings. 

The marquee speaker was Lively, head of the anti-gay Abiding Truth Ministries in Massachusetts and author of The Pink Swastika, which claims that homosexuals invented Nazism and were instrumental in the Holocaust. Lively began his anti-gay campaigning in the early 1990s as communications director of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), which sponsored a spate of ballot initiatives to deny civil rights and state benefits to LGBT people. The OCA warned of the alleged homosexual threat to children. Ballot Measure 9, which failed in 1992, would have added this text to the state’s constitution: “All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”

 Lively told his Ugandan audience that a powerful global gay movement had now set its sights on Africa. The “gay agenda” unleashes epidemics of divorce, child abuse, and HIV/AIDS wherever it gains a foothold, he said. If you allow homosexuality, he said, “you can’t stop someone from molesting children or stop them from having sex with animals.” He also suggested that the Rwandan genocide was the handiwork of homosexuals. 

Lively accompanied his fearmongering with an argument that has particular resonance in sub-Saharan Africa: that the spread of LGBT rights is a Western idea—a postcolonial plot to destroy traditional African culture. He spoke of “the people coming to Africa now” to promote human rights for LGBT people, saying, “Many of them are outright liars, and they are manipulating history.They are manipulating facts in order to push their political agenda.” 

The idea that gay rights are not human rights was hardly a new one for Lively’s listeners. A year earlier, it had been put more clearly and succinctly by the most influential U.S. evangelical leader in Africa, Rick Warren, head of the Saddleback “megachurch” in California and author of the best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life. During a visit with political leaders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, Warren had declared, “Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.” 

Lively’s presentation induced outrage that Ugandan leaders were not doing more to forestall the coming plague of homosexuality. Capitalizing on the outcry, he met soon after with a group of lawmakers and government officials. Among them was David Bahati, the member of parliament who would draft the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and introduce it five months later. The text of the bill’s original preamble was drawn in part from Lively’s conference presentation. Aside from arguing that young people are the “most vulnerable to recruitment into the homosexual lifestyle,” the preamble followed Lively’s teachings in arguing that “research indicates that the homosexuality has a variety of negative consequences including higher incidences of violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and use of drugs. Homosexual relationships create a highly unstable environment for children raised by homosexuals through adoption or otherwise, and can have profound psychological consequences on those children.” Lively subsequently boasted that his work in the country had amounted to a “nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda.” 



The bill sparked international outrage, including threats to cut off financial aid to Uganda. American evangelical leaders like Lively and Warren received a storm of scrutiny and criticism. While Warren was forced to denounce the bill, Lively supported it as long as the death penalty was removed. There was talk among parliament members about decreasing the strongest penalties and prison time for those advocating for LGBT rights, but the original was never amended and the harshest punishments remained intact. Parliament adjourned in May 2011 without voting on the proposed law. 

Bahati reintroduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in February. Just a few days later, the country’s ethics minister led a raid on a workshop for LGBT activists at a hotel in Entebbe. “I have closed this conference because it’s illegal,” declared Minister Simon Lokodo, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest. “We do not accept homosexuality in Uganda. So go back home.” The workshop had been organized by the group Freedom and Roam Uganda, whose leader, Kasha Nabagesera, was named among the “Top 100 Homos” along with Kato. Police raids are nothing new for LGBT activists in Africa. But the ethics minister’s presence seemed to signal an intensification of repression. While 35 human-rights activists were commanded to disperse, Lokodo ordered Nabagesera arrested. Nabagesera, who has appeared on national television and issued press statements on behalf of LGBT Ugandans, managed to flee—a skill she has developed as threats and harassment have forced her to move from home to home to evade police for years.

While the Ugandan controversies have garnered the most attention outside of Africa, the influence of U.S. evangelical culture warriors has been felt across sub-Saharan Africa. The Christian right has been involved in legislative or constitutional efforts to crack down on the LGBT populations of Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as well. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill has become a kind of template for other countries, including Nigeria and Liberia, where similar laws have been proposed. 

While anti-gay legislation is promoted as a response to the spread of Western ideas, discriminatory laws were originally the product of Western colonization in Africa. Now colonial-era laws banning “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” are being expanded to prohibit lesbian relationships, to outlaw same-sex marriages, to prevent the adoption of children by same-sex couples, and to outlaw LGBT organizations. It is homophobia, not homosexuality, that is being imported to the continent by neocolonialists with an agenda: to spread U.S. culture wars worldwide.


How did African sexual minorities become collateral damage in the U.S. culture wars? The story of American religious conservatives’ involvement on the continent is long and complicated. While American mainline churches, with their more liberal views on social issues, supported the fight against South African apartheid and other colonial regimes, many conservative U.S. evangelicals insisted that anti-colonial leaders were godless communists and terrorists. Despite this ignoble history, American conservatives have reinvented themselves as Africa’s best allies and the true representatives of Western Christianity. This dramatic makeover has involved heavy investment in communications networks with continental reach; both Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and the evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network are seen across sub-Saharan Africa, and Christian-right radio networks abound. Evangelical churches and groups provide scholarships for African clerics to receive conservative theological training at U.S. institutions. They sponsor orphanages, Bible schools, universities, and social-welfare projects. 

African evangelical churches have traditionally been doctrinally orthodox but socially progressive on such issues as national liberation and poverty, making them natural partners of liberal Western churches. The African churches long depended on financial aid from mainline U.S. churches for most of their operations. However, right-wing groups have enticed numerous African religious leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations and to accept replacement funds from the American Christian right. 

A turning point came in the late 1990s, when the Christian right was beginning to lose the fight over gay ordination in mainline churches, including the global Anglican Communion. American religious conservatives responded by mobilizing their African clerical allies to oppose equal rights for LGBT people in the church. At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a worldwide gathering of Anglican and Episcopal bishops that takes place every ten years, the Anglican Communion discussed human sexuality and gay and lesbian ordination at length for the first time. Following the conference, right-wing American evangelicals encouraged African bishops to support a suspension of the Episcopal Church USA from the worldwide Anglican Communion because it was too gay-friendly and socially liberal—threatening a global schism. The campaign took on new urgency in 2003 when American Episcopalians consecrated openly gay Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire. Conservative “renewal” movements in the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian churches capitalized on Robinson’s ordination to mobilize against the “gay agenda” creeping into Christianity. Anglican churches in Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria rejected funding from the Episcopal Church USA, replacing it with money from Christian-right groups. 



The financial ties between U.S. conservatives and African political and religious leaders are often clandestine, with both parties typically denying any funding relationship. Tax documents show that two African leaders—Stephen Langa, whose Family Life Network hosted the Kampala anti-gay conference in 2009, and Martin Ssempa, pastor of the Makerere Community Church in Kampala and a leading promoter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill—have both received funding from conservative U.S. groups. David Bahati, who introduced Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, has deep ties to the secretive U.S. Christian political group known as the Family, or the Fellowship. According to investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet, Bahati “appears to be a core member of the Family. … He organizes their Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast and oversees an African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars.”

Taking up U.S. evangelicals’ campaign against LGBT ordination—and the broader campaign against human rights for sexual minorities—also afforded conservative African religious leaders an unusually large global platform. Both sides insist that the U.S. conservatives are following African leadership to create a new order of Christianity that reflects the church’s demographic shift to the global South. (“If you want to know the future of Christianity,” Rick Warren says, “it is in the developing world.”) Some conservatives within the Episcopal Church USA have even broken away and put themselves under the ostensible leadership of African Anglican clerics. But the anti-gay agenda has been orchestrated by U.S. conservatives. 

One notable example occurred before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, at which a hot debate on the ordination issue was expected. (Kenyan, Ugandan, Nigerian, and Rwandan delegates ultimately boycotted the event.) Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola sent a highly critical letter to the archbishop of Canterbury titled “A Most Agonizing Journey towards Lambeth 2008.” The Church Times revealed that two-thirds of the document had been written by the Reverend Martyn Minns, a dissident American Episcopalian. In another case where African clerics were used as proxies in the U.S. anti-gay movement, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a right-wing counterpart to the National and World Council of Churches, organized African delegates at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, to block any move to lift the ban on ordination of gay clergy. The IRD hosted these delegates, gave them free cell phones, and instructed them in how to vote in leadership elections. The Methodists’ ordination ban remained in place. 

While promoting their religious values in Africa, U.S. evangelicals present themselves as defenders of African traditions—and depict liberal religious groups as imposing alien ideas on the continent. But some alien ideas, like Western notions of “family values,” come from the right. For Africans, “family values” traditionally means upholding community responsibilities and each person’s relationship to other members of the clan. They can be summed up by the Bantu word Ubuntu, which means, “I am because we are.” The nuclear family that Western conservatives promote is foreign to Africans. Traditional African communities did not beat or abuse their LGBT members. Some even believed they had extraordinary powers.



But most Africans do view the goal of human sexuality as procreation and tend to see same-sex relationships as unproductive. They condemn childlessness, regardless of the cause. That has given the Christian right an opening. 

African clerics have picked up on the “Western invasion” arguments of Lively and other anti-gay Westerners to stoke fears. Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda, an outspoken opponent of gay ordination, has argued that Western homosexuals are “taking advantage of the abject poverty in Africa to lure people into their club.” In neighboring Nigeria, Archbishop Akinola has warned about the gay plot: “We are especially concerned about those who are using large sums of money to lure our youth to see homosexuality and lesbianism as normative. We must consistently and faithfully teach about God’s commands on this ungodly practice.” 


The rhetoric used by both the American and African religious leaders is hard to combat, partly because Africa’s sexual minorities are thinly organized. David Kato’s death served as a warning for those who stand up for LGBT rights. Gay Africans have few allies who will stand up for them publicly, and those who do are tarred as racist and neocolonialist. 

Condemnation from Western governments and the international human-rights community has in some instances—like Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill—induced political leaders to tamp down the flames of homophobia. But this approach can also backfire. Last October, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut funding to African countries that persecute LGBT people. African religious and political leaders denounced the move as immoral and as further evidence that the West intends to impose homosexuality on Africa. Newspaper headlines told the story: “Ghana tells off UK over threat on gays” (Daily Nation, Ghana); “Is the West Still Colonizing Continent?” (Tanzania Daily News); “UK’s Cameron Touched Wrong Button on Gays” (The Observer, Uganda). Mobhare Matinyi of The Citizen in Tanzania called Cameron’s move “amoral and horrendous [and] culturally imperialistic.” When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed Zambia’s parliament in February 2012, encouraging the country to embrace “the highest standards of human rights and protection for all people—regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability,” his remarks were widely criticized as paternalistic. 

In a major speech in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton linked foreign aid to human rights, defining “human rights as gay rights and gay rights as human rights.” Clinton’s implied threat to withhold aid from nations with anti-gay laws and practices was certain to provoke a backlash in Africa, but it also looked likely to produce some results in at least one country; Malawi said it would begin reviewing its laws banning homosexuality. However, the Obama administration soon clarified that its new directive to support LGBT rights would not result in any withdrawal of aid; instead, the U.S. would grant additional monies to empower LGBT organizations in foreign countries. In backing away from the threat to cut aid, the Obama administration received the predictable flak without any progress on policy. When it announced $3 million in grants to advance LGBT rights on the continent, the administration reinforced the conservative narrative that the West is flooding Africa with money to impose foreign sexual mores. 

In March, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), for which Kato was the advocacy officer, found a new way to fight back. The group filed suit in a U.S. court against Scott Lively, the anti-gay activist, for conspiring to deny LGBT Ugandans their human rights. The case was brought on SMUG’s behalf by the New York–based Center for Constitutional Rights under the alien tort statute, which permits foreigners to sue American citizens who violate international law. Whether Lively—who has taken his anti-gay crusade to Russia, Latvia, and Macedonia as well—or any other American is found legally culpable by a U.S. court, SMUG’s action was intended to send a message that the moral responsibility for persecution of Africa’s LGBT communities lies with the Christian right’s campaign to impose right-wing theology and politics on Africa and beyond. 

“U.S. evangelical leaders like Scott Lively have actively and intensively worked to eradicate any trace of LGBT advocacy and identity,” says Frank Mugisha, SMUG’s executive director. “Particularly damaging has been his claim that children are at risk because of our existence. His influence has been incredibly harmful and destructive for LGBT Ugandans fighting for their rights. We have to stop people like Scott Lively from helping to codify and give legal cover to hatred.”

The fortunes of Africa’s LGBT communities may turn in part on how effective human-rights groups can be in demonstrating to Africans what sexual minorities on the continent already know: The demonization of LGBT Africans, and not the International Conventions on Human Rights, is the actual manifestation of neocolonialism on the continent. 

You may also like