Reports of the new anti-gay bill—“Prohibition of the Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill of 2014” being considered in Uganda have caught the world unaware. Supporters of Uganda’s LGBTQ community had hoped that the Uganda court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA, formerly known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”), as well as president Yoweri Museveni’s subsequent meetings with President Obama at the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, had buried the tide of anti-LGBTQ persecution in Uganda. But, then the news came—the new bill is in the pipeline. Unlike the “Kill the Gays” proposal, this new potential law is a virtual copy of the recently-passed anti-gay laws in Russia and Nigeria banning recruiting into, or “promotion” of homosexuality—all guided by U.S. exporters of homophobia and sexism.
The new proposed law is a response to international outrage to both the death penalty and life imprisonment for homosexuality previously proposed by the country’s parliament. By tailoring down the punishment for being an LGBTQ person to 5-7 years imprisonment, the authors hope to appear more moderate and assuage some of the international outrage of their treatment of sexual minorities.
But while this new proposal is sure to draw continued (and deserved) international headlines, the Western world’s near-exclusive focus on Uganda, while ignoring identical legislation in countries like Nigeria, have left the African social justice community vulnerable to anti-gay activists. How are we, as fair-minded people, going to oppose Uganda’s latest anti-gay legislation, when the international opposition to Nigeria has been tame at best? And after the bill (likely) becomes law, there is little question that we should expect similar bills to quickly follow in many other African countries.
Following the international community’s threats of trade sanctions over the original Anti-Homosexuality Act, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni appeared to be stepping down his opposition to LGBTQ people, asking his followers to take it easy due to its impact on the national economy. But this apparent easing of his positions has quickly become transparent as little more than lip-service, when last month he oversaw the consecration of the Bishop Alfred Acur Okodi as the first Anglican Church of Uganda Bishop of West Lango in Uganda—he even donated a brand new SUV to Okodi. During his consecration, Bishop Okodi “pledged a relentless fight against homosexuality,” and argued that the court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act “only serves to clarify that the problem is beyond political solution and it’s a spiritual problem that calls for a spiritual solution.”
The global social justice community must understand that Museveni himself is now devoid of virtually all political power on this issue. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down on technical basis—the parliament did not meet its required quorum of members present during the vote—only, and not because of the merits of the law. To the anti-gay community, this problem can be resolved easily by taking the bill back to parliament or simply introducing a new bill since they have more than enough votes to pass it.
Museveni knows he must downplay any anti-gay laws if he is to keep up economic relations with the rest of the world, but at the same time, his backing away from the laws doesn’t play well with the local electorate who have been whipped into an anti-LGBTQ frenzy by the Religious Right. Museveni has been in power in Uganda for the last 28 years, but things are rapidly changing. Museveni needs the support of religious leaders in order to win the next election, but he also needs the international community, especially the United States, to legitimize his dictatorial hold on power. To please both groups—the electorate controlled by anti-gay pastors like Martin Ssempa and the international community—is a fine line to walk.
In this regard, the new bill could work to his advantage by being virtually identical to the new law in Nigeria—which raised almost no international consternation.
In his letter to the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (the real power in Uganda at this point) in December last year, Museveni explained that while he opposes the AHA, he nevertheless agreed with anti-gay activists when it comes to barring so-called “promotion,” defined as any mention whatsoever of homosexuality in a positive light in public. This bill, Museveni is likely to argue, fits into the U.S. Right’s narrative that gays are out to recruit children into homosexuality.
Museveni may want to play good politics here. But how is he going to please religious leaders (who are crucial to his hold on power), with their close ties to, and funding from, the U.S. conservative Evangelicals who were behind the creation of the “Kill the Gays” law?
Museveni may wish to veto the new anti-gay law when the Parliament inevitably passes it again—as they have pledged to do—in order to save face with the international community, and preserve the approximately $118 Million the African nation reserves in foreign aid from various Western countries. But even if he were to do so, the Parliament could easily override the veto by simply passing the bill two more times. Museveni has been backed into a no-win political corner, as he would be blamed for the loss of foreign aid if he signs the bill intolaw, but if he vetoes the (sadly) popular anti-gay legislation and is overridden by the Parliament, it would be the final nail in the coffin of his political career.
Regardless of how much he wants to present himself as a moderate to the international community, Museveni does not have the power to stop the anti-gay bill from becoming.
So what is to be done?
The anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has boiled up to the tipping point in Uganda, Nigeria, the Gambia, and so many other African countries is not native to Africa. Rather, as I discuss in American Culture Warriors in Africa, it was born in the United States. U.S conservative culture warriors such as Rick Warren, Lou Engle, Scott Lively, Sharon Slater, and others have successfully capitalized on the widespread anger and mistrust of all things Western in African nations after decades of colonization by Western governments—infiltrating local communities to export their anti-LGBTQ and anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) views in the name of religion. They have also defined Western LGBTQ people as straw men villains, who these U.S. conservatives are there to “warn” Africans about—feeding off of existing prejudices against anything Western while simultaneously neo-colonializing Africa’s values with their own Western anti-human right prejudices.
Spreading imagined and fictitious stories of Western gays infiltrating African schools and recruiting and abusing African children into “gay lifestyles” has fruitfully turned many Africans to U.S. conservative causes. And providing local religious and political leaders with funding and connections has won these U.S. conservatives a powerful crop of talking heads and decision makers who are all too willing to further the homophobic and sexist policies to please their new benefactors.
Local LGBTQ organizations that are on the ground and working day and night to educate and change hearts throughout Africa are fully capable of turning this trend around, if only the spigot of U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ and anti-women money, resources, and talking points were turned off.
While Western people of conscience should indeed take heart at the temporary push-back of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, it is imperative to triple our efforts to shed light and bring to justice the culture warriors who live in our own backyard. The only path to safety and equality for the African LGBTQ community is for Americans to stop the source of this evil where it lives, and allowing the African LGBTQ activist communities to work for change in their countries without the exportation of the culture wars from the U.S.