While the exposure of the direct involvement of U.S. conservative culture warriors like Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and Rick Warren in draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria has put many in the Religious Right on the defensive, there are many other leaders in the movement to export the U.S. culture wars who have largely remained incognito. As more African nations move to pass anti-gay laws, there is a need to reflect on the role U.S. conservative legal groups have played on the continent.
In September 2009, for example, leaders from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), and Advocate International—the conservative legal group that claims to “protect religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family”—presented seminars at “Be Transformed: Steering the African Continent to Righteousness, Justice and Peace by Renewing our Minds,” a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Sam Casey, ADF’s founder and General Counsel for U.S. Right Wing Advocates International, and Jeffery Ventrella, Senior Vice-President of Strategic of Training at ADF were plenary speakers. Ventrella spoke about “Religious Freedom, the Homosexual Agenda and Advocacy,” capitalizing on the popular attack on LGBTQ people that the secret overarching agenda of the push for equality for sexual minorities is to “recruit” young children.
What makes the involvement of these well-funded American organizations worrisome is their focus on the legal aspect of the persecution and imprisonment of LGBTQ people, and their well-orchestrated collaboration with other foes of LGBTQ justice. The Alliance Defending Freedom’s involvement in Africa immediately follows that of American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ – founded by Pat Robertson), which helped draft the successfully-passed 1996Defense of the Marriage Act (DOMA)—which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “unconstitutional” in June, 2013.
The ACLJ has setup offices around the world, and in Africa operates under the name “East African Center for Law and Justice” in Kenya, and the “Africa Center for Law and Justice” in Zimbabwe. Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ’s Executive Director, asserted that his organization assists Africans to “uphold pro-life and pro-family values.” ACLJ, he continued, “has partnered with Africans in Zimbabwe and Kenya, and has been doing great work in Africa now for years.” Behind these U.S. conservative groups’ agenda—ACLJ, ADF, and Advocates International—is an attempt to export U.S. culture wars to Africa, falsely claiming that they are authentic and original African values.
Wherever these groups work, their impact is the same: increased persecution of LGBTQ persons and the denial of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Just as European missionaries transformed African culture and values on the premise of religion, these organizations are doing the same. For example, during the 2009 Advocates International conference, Sam Casey, addressed the issue of reproductive health in a speech entitled “Protecting Life: An International Status Report.” Three years later, just after the Rwandan government ratified Article 14 of the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, in which African governments committed themselves to ensure women’s health and reproductive rights (including safe abortions), Casey traveled to Rwanda to urge Rwandans to “join together to form a nationwide pro-life movement built around the San Jose Articles. … In consultation with Heartbeat International, Human Life International or Life International,” Casey wrote, Rwandans must introduce a “pregnancy resource center” to provide conservative counseling, and pregnancy diagnosis, which would inform “women about the health risks of all their options, including the induced abortions.”
Like the American Center for Law and Justice, the U.S.-based Human Life International operates in Africa. Where no African had yet signed onto the San Jose Articles, these groups aimed to turn Africa into a U.S. conservative-modeled continent by recasting the Maputo Protocol as un-African.
But while they find it easy to win over Africans on homosexuality, generally, African nations tend to be more open to women’s health and reproductive rights. In his Mission Report to Namibia in 2010, Human Life International’s Brian Clowes complained that:
“[M]any Namibians have fallen victim to anti-life thinking, simply because they haven’t heard the other side of the story. They did not comprehend why explicit sex education and contraception are intrinsically evil, and they found it very difficult to understand the scientific evidence and Church teachings on these issues.” [emphasis his]
Both Clowes’ and Casey’s claims are not just insulting to Africa, but imperialistic. Why should U.S. groups export their ideologies to Africa—why should they believe they know better than Africans? Unlike many leaders of the U.S. conservative ideology, most Africans understand that sex education, abortion and contraception save lives. But thanks to the intense pressure of these right-wing actors, the once-rational thinking among African nations is being corrupted in order to deny women of their rights—frequently through legislation such as constitutional amendments (which the American groups help to draft) which define life as beginning at conception. Even in a country like Rwanda, for example, disinformation campaigns from these U.S. organizations has pushed the general public to actually believe that abortion is a crime.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, Advocates International, and the American Center for Law and Justice are three of the leading U.S. conservative legal organizations involved in exporting the U.S. culture wars to Africa. But unlike Americans like Lively, Engle, and Warren who came into the spotlight after giving public speeches to sway the local populaces, these secretive conservative legal organizations have been able to avoid negative press by working directly with lawmakers to draft and impose draconian laws, creating the false impression that they’re coming solely from these countries’ representatives.
Last week, the Ethiopian government cancelled the anti-gay rally and dropped the proposed anti-gay bill, but the LGBTQ community continues to be under surveillance and under attack. At this moment, LGBTQ persons “are very scared even to socialize,” a prominent human rights activist recently told me.
U.S. conservatives claim innocence when it comes to the exportation of homophobia—especially when called to account. But the truth is that intense persecution and violence against LGBTQ people is what follows these “innocent” visits from the American Right.