Essay

Uganda’s President Will Sign Anti-Gay Bill. How Did the Nation Get to this Point?

By | February 18, 2014

(AP)

(Gail Orenstein/NurPhoto/Corbis/AP)

On February 14, news reports began to surface that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni planned to sign into law the nation’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill, often referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill. The provision for which the bill was nicknamed—the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”—was taken out of the bill’s latest version in exchange for life imprisonment, along with punishments for those who support the gay community. President Barack Obama called the move “a step backward for all Ugandans” and one that would “complicate” the U.S.-Ugandan relationship. But in vowing to sign the bill, Museveni told his cheering supporters: “We shall have a war with the homosexual lobby in the world.”

Museveni’s assent to the legislation is quite a change from when the bill was passed by Uganda’s Parliament in December (and seemingly without a quorum). The president stalled in signing it, saying the issue needed to be studied, and he berated his opponents in the legislature: “How can you ‘pass’ law without the quorum of Parliament after it has been pointed out? What sort of Parliament is this?” His shift to supporting the bill came after he heard from a team of Ugandan scientists advising him on homosexuality. It also, more tellingly, came after his party’s caucus endorsed Museveni, yet again, for presidential re-election in 2016.

The bill’s passage and Museveni’s assent are but the latest in what has been a long, convoluted, and controversial international history. The most prevalent narrative in the United States of the “Kill the Gays” bill’s genealogy goes something like this: American evangelicals and Pentecostals, losing the culture wars in the United States, decided to export the battle front to places like Uganda, where they enlisted new recruits in their homophobic campaign. Trans-oceanic, religio-political networks were fashioned by U.S.-based organizations like the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and The Family, along with Ugandans like the Rev. Martin Ssempa or MP David Bahati—the bill’s most notorious supporters. These collaborations provide the evidence needed to claim that the egregious “Kill the Gays” bill was but the inevitable, perhaps the intended, product of Western anti-LGBT activism. In this narrative, as seen in news reports like Jeff Sharlet’s “Straight Man’s Burden” and the recent documentary “God Loves Uganda,” the story of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the extension of an American story: American agendas, agency, money, and power are at its heart. Uganda is treated, in many ways, as incidental, becoming a convenient battleground.

But for many in Uganda, the bill has come to represent their country’s principled stand against a purportedly neocolonial, international campaign to import homosexuality and gay rights into the country. Many Ugandans think that these clandestine forces, embodied in non-governmental organizations, the European Union, and the United Nations, have been seeking to destroy the “traditional family” of Ugandans through nefarious methods. As a Parliament spokesperson said on December 20, 2013: “The [Anti-Homosexuality] Bill aims at strengthening the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family.”

I do not intend to discount the insightful scholarship and journalism that have established clear connections between certain conservative American Christians and Ugandan pastors and legislators. The lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda against American Christian activist Scott Lively illuminates the most blatant of these connections. But I want to ask different questions: What does the complex history of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill tell us about Uganda? Why has Uganda proved to have such fertile soil for certain convictions about homosexuality to take root? Have some conniving American evangelicals duped naïve Africans? Are Ugandans merely pawns in a larger game? As the anthropologist Lydia Boyd has argued: “[To] analyze [the Anti-Homosexuality Bill] as simply the result of the transposition of an American homophobia misrepresents Ugandan concerns as mere reflections of an American agenda and obscures the motivations of local activists.” The discourse about homosexuality in Uganda has been embedded within existing concerns, values, and anxieties—factors that conditioned how Ugandans received the more recent waves of American involvement.

 

UGANDA’S PUBLIC DISCOURSE about homosexuality did not begin in the mid-2000s with efforts from conservative U.S. evangelicals and Pentecostals. Rather, it was propelled into public awareness during the 1990s through the incipient row within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of gay priests and bishops.

Ugandan Anglicans’ relationship with Anglicans from the West—namely, the U.S. Episcopal Church—became increasingly defined by their sharp, conservative convictions on matters of human sexuality. Ugandan bishops (along with others from the “global South”) took an uncompromising stand in relation to a resolution on human sexuality passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a decennial gathering of Anglican bishops. Their resistance to the condoning stance taken by the Episcopal Church was frequently couched in terms that echoed the British imperial era (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962). They would not accept this new form of “imperial” imposition of “Western” values within the Anglican Communion.

One result of these developments was that Ugandan Anglicans became conscripted into a narrative, often repeated by conservative Anglicans in the West, that portrayed them (and other Anglican provinces like Nigeria and Rwanda) as the vibrant preservers of Christian orthodoxy amidst a decadent Western church that was in moral decay and numerical decline.

While the Anglican Church of Uganda charted its conservative course amidst the battles within the Anglican Communion, it also had to contend with inter-denominational competition at home, where Pentecostal Christianity has profoundly transformed the religious landscape of Uganda. Kampala is now brimming with miracle centers, healing tabernacles, and winner’s chapels. And these newer charismatic and Pentecostal churches are rising to challenge the older mission churches of the colonial era. In this contest, historic Ugandan Anglicanism is usually regarded as losing out to the Pentecostals.

These newer churches have proved very attractive to youth, a fact that concerns Anglicans, who have often viewed Pentecostals with suspicion, derision, and resentment. When I discussed these issues with Ugandan Anglicans in 2012, they—particularly revivalist Anglicans—liked to point out that some of the initial impetus for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill arose from cases of sexual abuse involving minors at Ugandan Pentecostal churches—churches with whom they have theological disagreements. It seemed that some of the support for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill from certain Ugandan Anglicans, therefore, came from a hope that the legislation would curtail the influence of these new Pentecostal churches, which they believed were endangering their children’s bodies and souls.

These allegations of abuse continued even after the bill was written in 2009. For example, Anti-Homosexuality Bill supporter Martin Ssempa, along with other pastors, accused Robert Kayanja, a Pentecostal megachurch pastor, of sexually abusing male minors in his congregation, seemingly in an attempt to discredit him and his very well-financed ministry. Their allegations turned out to be false, and counter-suits have been filed.

Ugandan Anglican Christians, therefore, have, at times, used the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to articulate their concerns over the changing nature of Christianity in Uganda. Even those Pentecostal pastors who have ties to Western evangelicals (like Ssempa and Kayanja) have utilized the bill and hostility toward LGBT individuals to exercise their own agency and attempt to eliminate competition in Kampala’s crowded religious marketplace. These dynamics evince a concern for the vulnerability of the youth and a deep conviction that foreign powers are undermining Uganda, whose religious, economic, and familial landscape are changing, threatening Uganda’s traditional values with the “moral decadence” found in the West.

 

WHEN PARLIAMENT VOTED on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in December, it was hardly a coincidence that it was passed alongside the Anti-Pornography Bill. The sense of peril posed by various forms and forces of modern life have provided the moral impetus for the content of both bills. Both seek to curb a perceived threat against the “traditional family” and the youth of Uganda posed by disruptive influences like the Internet and the economic crisis.

The Ugandan media, which can tend toward sensationalism, has reinforced these messages and, in some cases, disseminated misinformation. A team of researchers from the University of Leeds has argued that the state-affiliated New Vision newspaper has consistently presented Uganda as being a nation under moral siege, where “[h]omosexuality is frequently taken to represent one aspect of Uganda’s ‘moral decline.’” In New Vision, debates around homosexuality are tied up within a larger set of concerns that includes rising HIV/AIDS infection rates, cannibalism, child sacrifice, pornography, and divorce.

Added to these articles is the dubious, but repeated, testimony of one man, George Oundo, a former schoolteacher who claims that he was taken by an NGO to Nairobi and trained to lure children in his classes into becoming gay. Similarly, news reports depict literature produced by UNICEF and other NGOs as “popularising homosexuality” in Uganda’s schools. Outlets seemingly confirm the alleged effects of these NGO campaigns through periodic stories, such as one reporting the “discovery” of incidents of homosexuality at prominent Ugandan secondary schools. And such concerns result in stricter penalties for teachers who conceal acts of homosexuality among their students.

Supporters of the bill have, therefore, crafted a narrative that has proved devastatingly effective and convincing to many Ugandans: wealthy, nefarious foreign forces are coming into Uganda to destroy Ugandan families by recruiting your children into homosexuality—a storyline that has historically also played a role in American discourses about homosexuality.

While this narrative obviously reproduces the trope that homosexuality is itself a Western export (and conflates homosexuality with pedophilia), it also demonstrates that talk about homosexuality in Uganda has been inextricably linked to existing discourses on the perceived crises posed to the traditional family and to vulnerable youth by disreputable, international forces. Those who supported the bill could couch their anti-LGBT convictions in broader terms. As a politician argued in New Vision: Ugandans opposed to the bill are themselves simply “slaves living under neo-colonialism.”

 

IT IS CLEAR THAT popular support for the bill has often been articulated using Christian moral language, and the bill’s proponents have been dependent upon the religious fervor of their heavily Christian constituents. This has meant that President Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years, has walked a political tight rope between populist Uganda politicians and Western heads of state. One observes his ungainly balancing act in his remarks in the wake of the bill’s passing: “The question at the core of the debate of homosexuality is; what do we do with an abnormal person?” He then went on to promise to find a “scientifically correct position” on the matter, according to Uganda’s Monitor. (One can read the scientists’ findings here.)  

Given Museveni’s reticent reaction to the bill’s passage, his current support illuminates Uganda’s deeply contested politics. While Museveni might say that it was the “scientific” opinions that swayed his mind, it seems clear that his support was intended to shore up his increasingly fragmented regime and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. As a result, his impending assent of the bill seems designed to unify the increasingly divided NRM party behind him in order to preclude possible presidential bids from two prominent NRM politicians: Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (who strongly supported the bill) and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (who opposed the bill). And so Uganda’s LGBT community was sacrificed in order to give Museveni the opportunity of a fourth decade of rule.

While others have focused upon the American origins of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it is essential that Uganda’s unique social, religious, and political contexts not be neglected in understanding how the bill developed and how Museveni has reacted to its passage. Support for the bill within Uganda is not absolute, nor is it only motivated by the rationale given by American evangelicals and Pentecostals with ties to Ugandan leaders and pastors. There are various sources of support for this legislation stemming from anxieties over corrupting foreign influences, religious competition, and national political posturing.

Moving forward certainly entails recognizing the diversity of Ugandan societies. While Western human rights activists have been inclined to see the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and anti-LGBT sentiment in Uganda as the parroting of American homophobia, they would do well to consider how and why Ugandans began to regard these narratives as credible descriptions of what is happening in their country.  

Jason Bruner is the Assistant Professor of Global Christianity at Arizona State University.

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