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On Scene: With Uganda’s Anti-Gay Movement

5 minute read
Zoe Alsop / Kampala

Update Appended: Dec. 10, 2009

The various strands of Uganda’s anti-gay movement — social conservatism, religious fervor and elements of America’s culture wars — came together at a meeting at the country’s largest university last month. On the agenda was the country’s controversial antihomosexuality bill, which, as currently proposed, would impose the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” — that is, an HIV-positive man caught having sex with another man.

First to speak was David Bahati, the young parliamentarian who sponsored the bill. He received a warm reception from the audience of a few hundred people, many of them students. “They say that if you are a homosexual, you are more likely to contract AIDS,” Bahati said, to applause and laughter. “If you are a homo, you can reduce your life span by close to 20 years!” Bahati is a member of the Family, a fundamentalist Washington group that has been criticized for allegedly sending influential U.S. Senators and Representatives overseas to promote anti-gay and antiabortion policies, according to Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who wrote a book on the Family.

(See the struggle in the U.S. for gay rights.)

Bahati was followed at the podium by Pastor Stephen Langa, who made a PowerPoint presentation on “The Gay Agenda,” a homosexual plot to take over the world. The presentation included pictures of gay-pride parades and graphics that purported to show how past civilizations declined because of the deterioration of traditional marriage. In March, Langa’s Family Life Network held a three-day conference on homosexuality, taught by anti-gay activists Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge, all three of whom are prominent in the anti-gay movement in the U.S. Lively is the author of The Pink Swastika, a book that alleges links between Nazism and what he calls a gay agenda to take over the world. Schmierer is a counselor with Exodus International, a U.S.-based ministry that seeks to use Christianity to overcome homosexual behavior. Brundidge is a therapist with the International Healing Foundation, which also claims to be able to turn gay people straight.

(Read “Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill: Inspired by the U.S.”)

In the audience, cheering Bahati and Langa on, sat Pastor Martin Ssempa, a popular and politically well-connected preacher who has been at the forefront of the anti-gay movement in the country. Until October, he was associated with the enormously influential Saddleback Church run by Pastor Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life. Controversy over the anti-gay bill, however, led Warren, who has a large East African network of connections, to sever ties with Ssempa. Ssempa, who has told reporters of a secret group of witches who live beneath Lake Victoria, has a rapt student following and has organized antihomosexuality parades and burned condoms. Warren, who hews to evangelical Christianity’s denunciation of homosexual behavior, was involved in controversy when gay activists and other critics condemned Barack Obama’s decision to have him deliver the invocation at the presidential Inauguration in January.

Apart from this nexus of Ugandan conservatism and exported ideology from America’s culture war, the other underlying presence was Western money. The U.S. President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, gave $285 million to HIV and AIDS programs in Uganda. Among the recipients was Ssempa’s Campus Alliance to Wipe Out AIDS, which runs abstinence programs. The Campus Alliance is a subpartner of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which got $15 million from PEPFAR. Meanwhile, Langa’s Family Life Network has received money from the U.N.-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an organization principally financed by contributions from the U.S. and Western European nations. Despite the controversy over the bill, churches that publicly support the legislation have received funding from PEPFAR and the Global Fund.

The U.S. embassy has denounced the bill. And the Global Fund’s official line on it is that excluding marginalized groups would compromise efforts to stop the spread of AIDS. Fund spokesman Andre Hurst said his organization was working out a new strategy that would allow groups facing discrimination to bypass normal channels and seek funding directly from the body. He had no immediate comment on why fund money went to Langa’s Family Life Network.

At Makere University, one voice seemed to try to stem the anti-gay tide. Said Sylvia Tamale, dean of law: “Today it is homosexuals under attack. Tomorrow it will be another minority.” In the meantime, the country’s gay community cowers. “In Uganda people take us to be sinners,” says Grace, the leader of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender youth group, who preferred not to give her surname. “They consider us as a destroyed person. Most of [our members] say, ‘I don’t know what I am doing in this world. Everybody hates me.’ We have to keep on consoling them.”

The original version of this story has been updated to reflect the fact that Rick Warren has now publicly condemned the Uganda anti-gay bill.

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