Conversion Therapy: A Bigger Threat to Africa Than Scott Lively

About Kapya Kaoma

Conversion therapy, also known as ex-gay or reparative therapy, is the biggest obstacle to LGBTQ liberation in Africa. An idea promoted heavily in African nations by U.S. conservative Evangelicals who hold tremendous power and sway, many African Christians have bought into the thoroughly debunked belief that through counseling, a person’s innate sexual orientation can somehow be altered or modified.

The exportation of these pseudoscientific claims began as early as 1998, during the Lambeth conference for Anglican Bishops. At the conference, African leaders were told that there is a cure to homosexuality. Bishop Wilson Mutebi of Uganda later recounted “We met some people [at Lambeth] who were healed of homosexuality. They testified how they were healed. Some of them are now married.”

Over the years, despite there being no documented cases of conversion therapy actually succeeding (former participants in these programs say they were only taught to change behavior, and their sexual orientation still remains the same), this argument has become a popular talking point for anti-LGBTQ political and faith leaders in Africa. In March of 2009, at the infamous “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda”—also known as the “Kill the Gays” conference—Ugandans heard claims about conversion therapy’s success. The Uganda-based Family Life Network, self-styled anti-gay crusader (and Holocaust revisionist) Scott Lively, Don Schmierer of the since-disbanded “ex-gay” group Exodus International, and Caleb Lee Brundidge of the International Healing Foundation taught Ugandans that homosexuality is learned behavior and can be “cured.”

This group of mostly American conservatives promoted not only the conversion therapy claims of Scott Lively’s book, The Pink Swastika—which also claims Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were actually “monster” homosexuals—but also Richard A. Cohen’s book, Coming Out Straight. Cohen is the founder and executive director emeritus of the International Healing Foundation, which advocates conversion therapy. There was no mention that the conversion therapy claims they were promoting have been thoroughly discredited by the scientific, psychological, and medical community, but instead were presented as scientific fact.

The influence of Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge’s words was apparent only a week later, at a strategic meeting titled “Combating Homosexuality in Uganda,” where political leaders—including representatives of the Uganda Parliament—said that thanks to the American’s words at the conference, they now knew that LGBTQ people could be changed. Harry Mwebesa—also of Family Life Network—told the audience that he knew that “some gays” were present at the meeting. Looking directly at members of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda, which included prominent Ugandan LGBTQ activist David Kato—who was later murdered in what human rights groups believe was a hate crime—Mwebesa said “We don’t hate you, but we want to help you.”

The “ex-gay” movement may be fizzling out in the United States, as more and more people and even state legislatures continue to disavow it as little more than a scam, but across other areas of the globe, particularly in countries where U.S. culture warriors are working hard to stir up anti-LGBTQ sentiments and policies, it remains the basis for the criminalization of sexual minorities. Alan Chambers’ Exodus International may now be defunct, but organizations such as Exodus Global Alliance, the International Healing Foundation, and Desert Streams still pose serious threats to the welfare of LGBTQ persons in Africa.

Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization

Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Cape Town, South Africa, 2010

Sadly, the so-called “ex-gay movement” has found a home in global evangelicalism. In October, 2010, in Cape Town, South Africa, 4,000 global evangelical leaders from 198 countries convened for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization—the biggest gathering of global evangelical leaders in modern history. Among the attendees were members of Exodus Global Alliance (EGA), a network of “ex-gay” groups. The Alliance was tasked with leading a discussion on “Sexuality, Truth, and Grace.” In its presentations, EGA argued that “compassionate” conversion therapy and prayers for LGBTQ people were the best approaches to homosexuality.

The plea to “help gays escape” homosexuality is perhaps the most commonly repeated mantra across the African continent. From vicious anti-LGBTQ figures such as Martin Ssempa of Uganda, to ostensibly more respectable evangelical leaders such as Rev. Pukuta Mwanza (Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia), religious leaders endorse prayers and counseling as an answer to homosexuality. Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion) telling Zambians that homosexuality is a global and human rights issue, Rev. Mwanza (who spoke afterwards) asked LGBTQ persons to seek “spiritual help and prayers” from the Church. In his judgment, the church is the hospital for African gays—if they accept to be “cured.”

This characterization of LGBTQ people as “sick” and in need of healing is also used to jail those who are perceived to be “against the cure.” Anti-LGBTQ leaders argue that allowing sexual minorities to live among the public will not only pollute the social life of communities, but also pose a risk to public health and must be forced into therapy, locked up, and/or forced to live in exile. “The choice is theirs!”

Worse still, based on the conviction of the validity of reparative therapy bolstered by U.S. conservative evangelical talking points, some advocate policies that outlaw homosexuality and even allow forced therapy.

On the surface, the ex-gay movement appears to be kind, gentle, and even compassionate. But its ultimate goal is the same as that of U.S. Christian Right leaders—to oppose the human rights of sexual minorities. While the movement operates under the facade of “Christian compassion,” such compassion perpetuates homophobia and the persecution and criminalization of African sexual minorities.

The American Psychological Association has made clear that homosexuality is not a disorder and warns that trying to “cure” it can lead to “intimacy avoidance, sexual dysfunction, depression, and suicidality.” Exodus International president Alan Chambers denounced the idea of a “cure” for homosexuality. But Exodus International (despite what the name may suggest) was only the U.S. arm of a global network. Exodus Global Alliance, the umbrella group for Exodus affiliates all over the world, continues to push the harmful idea that “change is possible.” John Paulk, one of the leading poster boys for “ex-gays,” who appeared on the cover of Newsweek and in a national ad campaign touting his “change,” disavowed conversion therapy in the April 2013 issue of Proud Queer Monthly saying, “Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”

Nevertheless, the claim that gays can and should be “healed” is repeated by Archbishop Henry Orombi, Martin Ssempa of Uganda, Seyoum Antonios of Ethiopia, Peter Akinola of Nigeria, and countless other politicians and religious leaders across Africa. As the world seeks to stamp out homophobia, there is a need to stop the “ex-gay” movement’s unmatched influence across the globe. Failure to do so will allow the exporters of the U.S. culture wars to continue to undermine the human rights of sexual minorities while hiding behind the veneer of “Christian compassion.”

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Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma is PRA's Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher. He was the original researcher to expose the ties between U.S. right-wing evangelicals and the anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda, and has testified before Congress and the United Nations. He is the author of "Globalizing the Culture Wars" and "Colonizing African Values," and appears as an expert voice in the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda. He received his doctorate in Ethics from Boston University.