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U.S. Culture Wars Gone Global: The American Evangelical Behind the "Kill the Gays" Bill in Uganda

On March 14, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) filed a U.S. federal lawsuit against American Minister Scott Lively using the Alien Torts Statute. SMUG accuses Lively of collaborating with four named Ugandan co-conspirators (conservative evangelicals Martin Ssempa and Stephen Langa, MP David Bahati, and the former Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Buturo) to create an enabling environment for persecution and violence against gays and lesbians in Uganda. Lively is also accused of directly contributing to the infamous 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill which never came to a vote, but was reintroduced in February 2012 by Bahati.

The Case Against Lively. In the legal brief, SMUG testifies to having experienced discrimination in every “meaningful aspect of their lives.” SMUG and its U.S. partner, the Center for Constitutional Rights, track Lively’s involvement in fomenting an environment of persecution since his first visit to Uganda in 2002, with the campaign against homosexuality drastically increasing following the December 2008 landmark ruling by the High Court that gays and lesbians had the right to basic protection of law. Lively’s accused co-conspirator Stephen Langa rapidly organized the March 2009 “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda,” which prominently featured Lively alongside fellow American evangelicals Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge. In the conference, Lively described gays and LGBT advocates as the “most dangerous social and political movement of our time.” His remarks also correlated gay sexual identity with pedophilia (already an incredibly salient issue in Uganda) and compared gays to the Nazis and Rwandan genocidaires.

The Aftermath. Immediately after the conference, Lively’s co-conspirators began making sensationalised statements. Outing campaigns took on new dimensions, and several gays and lesbians left the country. In cases where mobs formed exposing gay couples in their home, police often intervened to disperse the mob and then arrest the accused couple. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced by Bahati the following month. The first version proposed to make “aggravated” homosexuality (when one partner is HIV positive, under 18, or is a “repeat offender”) a capital offense and homosexual activity subject to life imprisonment. Like its predecessor tabled in 2010, the current 2012 draft of the Bill has dropped capital sentencing but reportedly still seeks to expand criminal penalties from 14 years to life in prison.

The most prominent outing campaign occurred in the October 2-9, 2010 issue of the short-lived Rolling Stone newspaper, whose founders were allegedly connected to Ssempa. The newspaper’s cover featured a banner reading “Hang Them: They Are After Our Kids” with a picture of SMUG Advocacy Officer David Kato below. In a suit brought by the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (representing Kato and two other prominent LGBT activists) a High Court Judge ruled in December 2010 that the story had violated constitutional rights to privacy and dignity. In mid-January 2011, Kato was bludgeoned to death in his home.

In the aftermath of criticism of the Bill, Kato’s death, and SMUG’s court filing, Lively and his supporters have attempted to absolve him of all complicity. Lively wrote to the Ugandan Parliament through Ssempa opposing the inclusion of capital punishment and emphasizing rehabilitation and mandatory reporting provisions, comparing it to the now overturned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. He tellingly never condemned the spirit of the Bill and some of his comments seem to contradict his 2009 remarks, possibly due to domestic pressure. Lively responded to the SMUG case by questioning how “truth became a crime against humanity.” Mass Resistance, a Massachusetts-based socially conservative organization, dismissed SMUG’s lawsuit by saying that “the bill was brought up twice, but never passed” (it’s actually now three times), as if the mere failure of the Bill indicated that the “climate of hatred and persecution” cited by SMUG and refuted by Ugandan public officials occurred in a vacuum, without linking the Bill to resistance to Western aid, domestic Ugandan politics, exportation of American culture wars, and the politicization of homophobia.

Racist Accusations or the Globalisation of U.S. Culture Wars? One of the areas Mass Resistance cited was the “disturbing racist elements to accusations,” with the “strong rhetoric condemning Lively implying that a black Ugandan would not have acted in that way unless a white man from America led them to do it.” This tenuous connection may have some elements of truth to it, but not in the way Mass Resistance thinks: The portrayal of homosexuality as imposed by the West is also about resistance to Western aid and its influence on the state and the construction of homosexuality as “un-African” and a Western import. In a must-read report by Reverend Kapya Kaoma (who was also present at the 2009 conference) called “Globalising the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia,” Kaoma details the increased involvement of far right-wing American evangelicals in Africa as they enlisted African church leaders to help cooperate in the U.S. culture wars. As the demographic center of Christianity shifts from the global North to the global South, Africa’s influence within Christian churches has increased. Socially conservative American evangelicals who may hold more conservative views than the “mainline” views held by their churches depend on African religious leaders to help legitimize their positions.

Tragically, Kato’s death was largely dismissed by Lively and his supporters, who claim that Kato was killed by a male prostitute that he refused to pay. The police later delinked Kato’s death from his activism and his killer was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Speaking about the case and Kato’s death, Lively states that “it is paranoid to interpret reasonable views as hate,” as if the LGBT Ugandans that have left Uganda since the conference and following Kato’s death are coincidental.  

As much as the case resonates for LGBT advocates, it also raises important questions about power and free speech. Homophobia is a huge problem in Uganda, but can’t be portrayed accurately without viewing the restrictive environment for civil and political rights within the country. As one Ugandan Muslim taxi driver said, “I can defend them. But I fear what? The police, the government. They can arrest you and put you in the safe house, and for me, I don’t have any lawyer who can help me.” In February 2012, a meeting of Freedom and Roam Uganda was shut down in the city of Entebbe in central Uganda, with one Ugandan Minister stating that “we don’t like them to organize and associate.” Liberty Counsel, who is defending Lively, states: “the suit should cause everyone to be concerned, because it is a direct threat against freedom of speech.” At the heart of the SMUG v. Lively case is the open exercise of civil and political rights; for LGBT activists and members of the gay community in Uganda to have equal rights before the law and the freedom to live without fear; and what Lively perceives as his right to the freedom of expression, even if his views are perceived as hateful to some. If they looked a little deeper, Lively and his supporters may find that they are not so different from their gay opposition after all.

A longer version of this article originally appeared on The Mantle. 

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