Uganda's anti-gay bill refocuses attention on US evangelical influence

Uganda’s President Museveni signed into law Monday a bill that criminalizes homosexuality with life sentences and punishes efforts to raise or discuss gay issues. 

A Ugandan newspaper seller reads a copy of the "Daily Monitor" in Kampala Tuesday. The "Red Pepper" tabloid published a list of what it called the country's "200 top" homosexuals, outing some Ugandans who previously had not identified themselves as gay, one day after the president enacted a harsh anti-gay law. Rebecca Vassie/AP

A day after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a punitive bill that criminalizes homosexuality with life sentences and punishes efforts to raise or discuss gay issues, the influence of American evangelicals on the law is being raised.

Human rights groups in East Africa for many years have pointed fingers at US evangelicals, some of whom have visited African states and advocated against homosexual behavior and rights, something that is often not a difficult sell given traditional values and views across Africa.

But the new law has raised the ire of gay rights groups who say religious lobbying from US groups proved effective – even as US President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry opposed the bill, saying it would “complicate” relations with the US, and as the evangelicals themselves now distance themselves from the new law.

Conservative evangelicals like Scott Lively and Lou Engle traveled to Uganda in 2009 and 2010, and Mr. Lively in particular is known to have advocated consistently and strongly against gay rights, and supported harsh laws against homosexuals. But Mr. Engle, based in Kansas City and known through his ministry The Call for backing conservative political causes, distanced himself from the Uganda bill and its punishments several years ago, saying the Ugandan church should examine its own soul. 

In Uganda, however, Lively actively lobbied influential figures like Pastor Martin Ssempa, founder of Makerere University Church -- as well as the anti-gay bill’s sponsor, David Bahati, a legislator from the ruling party who introduced the law as a private popular measure. Human rights groups say that gave the bill some early diplomatic cover since it was not formally sponsored by the Ugandan government.

Lively has taken virulently anti-gay positions. After sponsoring an Oregon ballot initiative in the early 1990s to publicly denounce homosexuality, he wrote a book titled the “Pink Swastika,” attributing official Nazi behavior to homosexuality. One Kampala-based Western analyst described Lively to the Monitor as “more anti-gay than evangelical.”

Lively, who now lives in Springfield, Ma., told the Associated Press Monday that he preferred the Russian anti-gay approach to the Ugandan one: “I would rather the Ugandans had followed the Russian anti-propaganda model which reflects my philosophy of preventing the mainstreaming of homosexuality with the minimum limitation on personal liberties.…”

Links between evangelicals and African anti-gay movements were first detailed in 2009 by Kipya Kaoma, a Zambian clergyman and senior member of Political Research Associates, a think tank advocating social justice.

Dr. Kaoma, in research papers titled, “Colonizing African Values” and “Globalizing the Culture Wars,” says a number of US groups have funded activities designed to counter gay rights in Africa.

This week Kaoma stated that, “Museveni [the Ugandan president] has kept his promise to declare war on LBGBTQ persons…. By signing the law, [he] has given into the whispers and urges he has been getting from US evangelicals for decades. It’s no accident that nearly identical laws and talking points have surfaced in Uganda, Nigeria, and others countries.”

Museveni inked the bill Monday at the Ugandan State House amid cheers from assembled legislators and supporters. In comments afterward, the ruler of Uganda for the past 28 years framed the issue as a clash between African and Western values, and described gay rights advocates as imperialists bent on imposing their secular culture.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our view points on others. If only they could let us alone,” Museveni said.

The bill comes on the heels of a new anti-gay Nigerian law signed in January by President Goodluck Jonathan that is relatively less draconian, carrying a 14-year sentence, and that, unlike the Ugandan law, does not prosecute for vocal or written advocacy or defense of gay rights. The original Ugandan bill called for the death penalty in some cases of gay behavior.

Uganda’s parliament passed the modified bill in December, on the grounds that it protects the traditional family. Museveni was going to sign it, then refused to sign it into law until a section of the law arguing that there was no genetic basis for homosexuality got further comment expert comment. But on Monday, he went ahead and signed it anyway, to the surprise of many observers.  

In February, Ugandan scientists reported that homosexuality was a behavioral choice and not inborn – bringing international reaction that prompted Museveni to ask for more scientific comment from abroad. But in the end he decided not to wait. Pastor Ssempa, the leading Ugandan clergyman, was quoted in the Daily Monitor newspaper as treating the bill as an opportunity for both arrests and religious salvation, saying that Uganda top police authority “will play his part” by arresting gays, and “we shall be playing our part of rehabilitating our brothers and sisters.”

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