Who’s Colonialist?

African Anti-Gay Politics In The Global Discourse

About Kapya Kaoma

Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper printed photos and personal information about what it called “Top Homos.” Subheadings read, “We Shall Recruit 1,000,000 Innocent Kids by 2012,” and, “Parents Now Face Heart-Breaks as Homos Raid Schools.” Photo Credit: AP/© AP

In August 2010, more than 400 African Anglican Bishops gathered in Entebbe, Uganda, for their second All-Africa Bishops Conference, which attracted global media attention because of the debates on LGBT rights. Bishops from Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya used the conference as an opportunity to speak out in favor of criminalizing homosexuality. Their anti-gay statements gave new life to Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would mandate the imprisoning and in some cases the execution of homosexuals. The bill was introduced into the Ugandan Parliament in 2009 after a seminar in March of that year in Kampala called Exposing the Homosexual Agenda, led by U.S. religious conservatives such as Scott Lively, a Holocaust revisionist who argues that LGBT-rights movements are inherently fascistic, and Don Schmierer, the director of the Exodus Institute, which claims to convert lesbians and gay men to heterosexuality. Henry Orombi, a friend of Rick Warren, the well-known pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California, is reported to have told the conference, “Homosexuality is evil, abnormal, and unnatural as per the Bible. It is a culturally unacceptable practice. Although there is a lot of pressure [from the West], we cannot turn our hands to support it.”1 Nevertheless, two African provinces, or districts, at the conference distanced themselves from such attacks: the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and the Church of the Province of Central Africa. They issued a counterstatement saying, “The majority of the provinces at this conference are being ambushed by an agenda that is contrary to the beliefs and practices of our various provinces.”2 Downplaying the counterstatement, the Ugandan media, which often presents Africans as united in their denunciation of LGBT people, predicted that the bishops’ voices would help pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.3

The Anglican religious leaders are not alone in their condemnation of LGBT people. On October 10, the Rolling Stone newspaper of Uganda (which has no relationship to the U.S. magazine, which has demanded that the Ugandan paper stop using its name) published the names of people it called “top” homosexuals, revealing their addresses and places of work. The article called for their hanging, claiming that “gays were recruiting 1 million children by raiding schools.”4 One person whose picture appeared in the paper was attacked, while others “have received threats,” according to Frank Mugisha, the chair of Sexual Minorities Uganda.5


During the past decade, U.S. religious conservatives have stepped up their work with African religious and political leaders to incite hatred against LGBT people. Right-wing pastors such as Warren have cultivated Ugandan religious and political leaders. Working across denominational boundaries, they have succeeded in impeding the social-justice activism of mainline churches and provided both ideological and financial backing to their African allies, in order to increase their own political power. While promoting their religious values in Africa, they present themselves as defenders of African traditions and liberal religious groups as imposing alien ideas on the continent.

Yet many western Christian teachings are un-African—for example, the western definition of “family” as father, mother, and children, which family-values “defenders” have used to organize their opposition to homosexuality. For Africans, “family values” means upholding community responsibilities and each person’s relationship to other members of clan. African family values recognize that human beings cannot survive in isolation; they can be summed up in the Bantu word ubuntu, which means “I am because we are.” The individualistic, nuclear family that western conservatives promote is foreign to Africans.

In addition, most Africans view the goal of human sexuality as procreation and tend to see same-sex relationships as unproductive. They condemn childlessness, regardless of the cause. Yet traditional African communities did not beat or abuse their LGBT members. Some even believed LGBT people had extraordinary powers. Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, who blame homosexuality on the West, are using the remnants of European colonialist attitudes and laws to exacerbate violent homophobia in Africa.

U.S. conservative religious leaders such as Lively and Warren have traveled to Africa to spread homophobia, using rhetoric and tactics from this country’s culture wars. In May 2010, Lou Engle, an American evangelical from Kansas City and the founder of The Call Ministries, who terms homosexuality a “spirit of lawlessness,” joined the parade of U.S. conservatives warning Ugandans about the so-called homosexual agenda. According to Josh Kron of the New York Times, Engle praised Uganda’s “courage” and “righteousness” for introducing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into parliament. Engle told Ugandans, “Today, America is losing its religious freedom. We are trying to restrain an agenda that is sweeping through the education system. Uganda has become ground zero.”6

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill affirms some long-held stereotypes of Africa, both in the West and among Africans themselves. For many, Africa is a continent where democracy, women’s rights, sexual rights, and even children’s rights are luxuries. Rather than seeing these rights as fundamental, to be defended and respected, some argue that they are un-African and even un-Christian. They dismiss human rights advocates as puppets of the West who would destroy traditional African values. U.S. religious conservatives who wish to transform African states into “western Christian colonies”—Christian at least according to their lights—promote these stereotypes.

Engle and others like him claim that western governments, mainline churches, and the United Nations are forcing homosexuality on the continent, thereby acting as neocolonialists. This amounts to turning history on its head. In fact, it was U.S. mainline churches that worked tirelessly with African religious and political leaders to condemn racism and support African liberation struggles—while U.S. conservatives, including Mark Tooley, the president of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, opposed these struggles. And until the introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, most western governments and mainline churches had avoided defending the rights of sexual minorities in Africa. Just as U.S. conservatives sided with oppressive White governments, they are now partnering with African conservatives to promote anti-gay sentiment and legislation.

Spreading Anti-gay Bigotry Around the Continent

Although a Parliament committee recommended against passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill last spring, and the bill’s supporters are scrounging for votes, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is not dead.7 Mugisha noted that Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba Buturo said, “They are going to pass the bill soon.”8 Although Buturo just lost his parliamentary seat, he warned that this does not mark “the end of our war on homosexuality and pornography….I am still here… It is our stand as a government, and we are not going to shift even an inch from it.”9

The bill still has a good chance of passing in one form or another.10 And if it does, many African countries will probably follow suit with similar laws. Despite the international condemnation the bill has received, anti-gay laws have been introduced in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. In each, the laws’ supporters spread the myths that homosexuality originates in the West, and that there are LGBT people in Africa now because of western influence.

On May 18, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malawian gay couple, were convicted of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency.”11 The BBC reported that before handing down the fourteen-year prison sentence, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa told the pair, “I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public will be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”12 International pressure forced Malawian President and current African Union Chair Bingu wa Mutharika—who has called same sex-relations un-African and disgusting—to pardon the couple.13 However, the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC), a group of about 22 Protestant churches, urged the government not to give in to alleged donor pressure to accept gay rights in exchange for aid. In a statement released on May 19, the MCC called on the international community to “respect Malawi’s cultural and religious values and refrain from using aid as a means of forcing the country to legalise sinful acts like homosexuality in the name of human rights.”14

Meanwhile, in Zambia, political and religious leaders are calling for criminalizing homosexuality in the new constitution. Former President Kenneth Kaunda, Pentecostal Bishops Joe Imakando and Joshua Banda, and Anglican Bishop Robert Mumbi of Luapula Diocese made statements against homosexuality. Mumbi claimed that homosexuality “violated Christian beliefs and African values,” and stated that the “church would not take western cash to support its development projects if required to endorse the campaign to mainstream homosexuality.”15 Reinforcing the notion of western intervention, the government newspaper the Times of Zambia claims that western donors are offering their support to the opposition leader Michael Sata in his presidential bid in return for a promise that he will come out in favor of reversing a constitutional clause that declares Zambia a “Christian nation” and will support LGBT rights.16

A Blessing in Disguise

Despite the virulence of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill campaign, it is in some ways a blessing in disguise for sexual-rights activists. For one thing, it has forced into the open the hidden relationships among U.S. conservatives and African political and religious leaders. U.S. religious conservatives had always denied funding African churches, and according to the Uganda Monitor, when the bill’s sponsor David Bahati was asked whether he received western funding, he replied, “not a penny.”17 However, Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008), revealed that the conservative U.S. politicians collectively known as the Family or the Fellowship trained and supported Bahati.18

Bahati is not the only African leader to deny receiving funding from U.S. conservatives while secretly benefitting. Others who claim they’ve never received such funding include Stephen Langa, the head of the Family Life Network, which organized the March 2009 anti-gay conference, and Martin Ssempa, the pastor of the Makerere Community Church and a leading promoter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (he regularly screens pornographic gay videos in his church to stir up disgust and hatred). An examination of their tax documents shows that they received funding from Right-leaning U.S. churches.19 On May 29, 2009, the New Vision, the Ugandan government newspaper, concluded that money from religious conservatives in the U.S. and Europe was fueling the gay war in Uganda.20

Although many Africans still believe that Europeans and Americans recruit Africans into homosexuality, the bill has made some more aware of the humanity of gays. As LGBT people have come out in Uganda and other African countries, Africans have realized that LGBT people are found not only in the West but also in Africa, where they are citizens and church members.

Finally, the Ugandan bill has opened up discussion of human sexuality across the continent. Africans are generally reluctant to discuss sexual issues; however, the introduction of the bill forced African theologians and politicians to change their stance. The first dialogue on Christianity and Human Sexuality was held in Cape Town in November 2009. The meeting was attended by 77 people from all over Africa, 35 of whom were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.

Religious Conservatives Respond to Criticism

Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, Jacqui Goddard and Jonathan Clayton of the Times of London, Tara Carman of the Vancouver Sun, and reporters from ABC News and National Public Radio have each independently confirmed the contention in a November 2009 report issued by Political Research Associates, Globalizing the Culture Wars, that conservative U.S. Christians are using homophobia to advance their agenda of taking over African churches. Right-leaning U.S. missionaries and pastors have consistently promoted hate in Africa.

And, as Rachel Tabachnick observes on the Talk2Action blog, the influence goes both ways:

The relationship between American Religious Right leaders and Uganda goes far beyond a few visits and presentations. Apostle John Mulinde, for instance, has a U.S. branch of his ministry and is advertising his ministry’s work with both the Orlando and Baltimore police forces. … Apostle Julius Oyet works extensively with the College of Prayer, which is headquartered in the Atlanta suburbs and has branches in West Palm Beach and in Ontario, Canada. … Julius Oyet was recognized by the Ugandan Parliament when the antigay bill was initially introduced.21

According to Michael Wilkerson of the Religion Dispatches blog, Oyet argued that “homosexuality is an import of the West” that “recruits” new members primarily by bribing children. “Father, our children today are being deceived by the West. To buy them, to give them school fees so that they can be homosexuals. We say no to that.”22 Ironically, Oyet himself has received money from U.S. Christian Right groups.23

While many African scholars and Christians read Globalizing the Culture Wars with interest, western conservatives attacked it, claiming it is neocolonialist, imperialistic, racist, and insulting.24 David Virtue, the founder of virtueonline.org, which calls itself “the voice for global, orthodox Anglicanism,” accused Globalizing the Culture Wars of being “designed deliberately to add credence to the ‘fact’ that Africans still hover in the Dark Ages.” Africans are highly educated, says Virtue, and to maintain that “western Anglicans have imposed their views of sexual morality on Africans is not only a colonialist mentality it is also racist.”25 Meanwhile, the IRD’s Tooley said the report portrayed African Christianity “as primitive and easily manipulated by conservative U.S. religionists.” In addition to maintaining that it “is patronizing to African religious leaders,” Tooley said it failed to “understand African Christianity’s own worldview, rooted in Scripture, orthodox church teaching, and responsibilities beyond the self.”26

Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream, a conservative wing of the Church of England with links to breakaway U.S. Episcopalian churches and some African archbishops, claim that “sexual rights campaigns” are foreign to Africa, since “there has been no movement generated by gay people in Africa for their place in society.”27 They go on to argue that “the western approach of individual rights” should not be “forced” on Africans since “African culture has long resisted the notion that western norms are in any way universal norms” and that “the Church has been a bastion of this resistance.” They conclude that “far from going beyond colonialism, this report falls back into it by universalizing the local culture of the United States.”28

Samuel and Sugden fear that Globalizing the Culture Wars may affect European and U.S. funding for African churches. Noting that the report “appeared on the desks of officials in the aid and development sector,” they said, “[i]ts purpose appears to be not to get media coverage but to influence governments and aid institutions. And it appear[s] to be making some progress here.” They continue, “The thrust of the paper is to discredit the African churches, especially in the eyes of those who make governmental grants to assist them.”29 Possible disruption of funding may be conservatives’ true objection to the report.

Who’s Colonialist?

In fact, Africans do not oppose western ideas and values: African economies, governments, churches, and even constitutions are informed by the West. Africans’ acceptance of western religious teaching suggests that they may be equally accepting of new definitions of human rights, including those of sexual minorities.

It is U.S. conservatives who have continually patronized Africa. Globalizing the Culture Wars shows that they have rewritten African religious leaders’ documents, spoken on behalf of African churches, and as with the Ugandan bill, imposed their ideologies on Africans. They seem to believe that it is fine for African conservatives to fight for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda but wrong for African sexual minorities to fight for their human rights. What they oppose is not the involvement of westerners in Africa, but the involvement of religious progressives committed to the social gospel.

Right-wing Christians from the U.S. have exploited Africans’ internalized colonialism. In Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi, among others, a successful person is said to have become a muzungu, or White man. In this environment, Americans visiting Africa have enjoyed great power and influence. The Kenyan-American journalist Edwin Okong’o attributes the excellent reception Rightists have among many Africans to the colonial inferiority complex wrought upon Africa. Africans, he says, “staunchly believe in the supremacy of the white man. Ill-informed Christians …place the white man immediately below the Holy Spirit, a belief with its roots in the colonial era.”30

The Hand-Washing Strategy

Just after Scott Lively’s African tour in March 2009, he explained the purpose of his trip to his followers:

The campaign was to teach about the “gay” agenda in churches, schools, colleges, community groups, and in Parliament…. The international “gay” movement has devoted a lot of resources to transforming the moral culture from a marriage-based one to one that embraces sexual anarchy. Just as in the U.S. many years ago, they are leading with pornography to weaken the moral fiber of the people and propagandizing the children behind the parents’ backs.

He went on to say that on Ugandan television, “We exposed a book distributed to schools by UNICEF that normalizes homosexuality to teenagers.”31 Lively reported that he expected “a massive protest by parents, who are mostly not aware that such materials even exist in their country, let alone in their children’s [classrooms].”32 He boasted that his campaign would increase “pro-family activism in every social sphere…Our campaign was like a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda in Uganda.”33 Yet Lively told Christianity Today that linking the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to him or other U.S. conservatives is insulting:

That’s really a racist perspective that these guys are pushing, somehow that a couple of little-known American commentators on cultural issues, that our opinions can outweigh the combined resources of a sovereign nation on an issue …. It’s as if the Africans are unable to shape their own public policy, and somehow they’re swayed by foreign influences.”34

When the bill became embarrassing, Lively disclaimed responsibility. Likewise, Exodus International’s Don Schmierer told the New York Times, “I feel duped.”35 Despite having previously told Ugandans that “gay rights are not human rights,” Rick Warren denounced the bill on December 10, 2009, calling it “unjust, extreme and un-Christian towards homosexuals.”36 Bill promoter Martin Ssempa, feeling betrayed, demanded a formal apology from Warren for his “inappropriate bully use of your church and purpose-driven pulpits to coerce [Ugandans] into [homosexuality].”37

The bill is based on the teachings of U.S. conservatives. For them to turn around and condemn it is hypocritical. They are engaging in what the writer M.S., on the Economist blog, calls a “hand-washing strategy,”38 disclaiming culpability. “It’s one thing to recognise that Africans are responsible for what happens in African societies,” M.S. writes:

But it would be silly to claim that therefore, no one besides Africans bears any responsibility for anything that happens in African societies. That’s using a faulty anti-imperialism argument to wash your hands of all responsibility.

Some academics also minimize the influence of U.S. right-wing Christians in Africa. For instance, Philip Jenkins, a professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University,39 suggested at an event sponsored by the conservative-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill can be traced not to U.S. Christian influence but rather to Ugandan Christians’ rejection of what he called an “Arabic pederasty culture.”40 This, he said, led, in the 1880s, to the killing of converts to Christianity who refused to engage in same-sex relations with their king, Kabaka Mwanga. For Ugandan Christians, he says, the issues of Islam, tyranny, and homosexuality are historically intertwined; hence antigay activism is “not something that was dropped on the Ugandan Christians from America.” However, King Mwanga’s reign is just one event in a long history, and if Ugandan culture were as broadly antigay as Jenkins claims, Mwanga would probably have been dethroned.
U.S. religious conservatives accuse their critics of neocolonialism. As an African, however, I believe that questioning the Right’s dealings with African politicians and Christians is an important scholarly undertaking. As long as the Right continues to use its religious ideologies as the basis for policies in Christian Africa, the continent is likely to see more and more bills that are detrimental to human rights.

  1. Ephraim Kasozi, “African bishops unite to denounce homosexuality”.
  2. Pat Ashworth, “African bishops split over ‘ambushed’ agenda, but together on development”. “Dr Williams warns African bishops to listen and take risks”.
  3. Ephraim Kasozi of the Uganda Monitor observed that “The anti-homosexuality voices from the bishops are a likely boost to proponents of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009), before the Ugandan Parliament which proposes life imprisonment for acts of homosexuality and introduces ‘aggravated homosexuality’ as a serious crime.” “African bishops unite to denounce homosexuality”.
  4. Godfrey Olukya and Jason Straziuso, “‘Hang them’: Uganda paper publishes photos of gays”.
  5. Email Correspondence, October 2010.
  6. nytimes.com
  7. globalpost.com
  8. Email Correspondence, October 20, 2010.
  9. Uganda Defeated Minister Threaten Gays”.
  10. Jim Burroway, “Uganda May Pass Portions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill On The Downlow”.
  11. Malawi Gay Couple Found Guilty of Love”.
  12. Malawi gay couple get maximum sentence of 14 years”.
  13. After the pardon, Steven Monjeza left his partner for a woman. Monjeza told people that he “was no longer interested to be associated in what he called ‘gay trash,’ and accused ‘hidden hands’ of engineering their marriage.” He added that “he was offered to be taken outside the country as a token for the engagement.” Elsewhere, he said, he did it for money. Reports said that Monjeza did “not mention the names behind their engagement.” Rex Chikoko, “Malawi Gay Dumps Man for a Woman“.
  14. Malawi Gay Couple Found Guilty of Love”.
  15. Other religious leaders in Zambia have joined into condemning homosexuality, including Bishop Mususu, the current chair of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia; Northmead Assemblies of God Bishop Joshua Banda; and Bishop Joe Imakando of the Bread of Life Church International. Banda argues that homosexuality is alien to Zambia, while Imakando maintains that gays “had no room in society because Zambia had been declared a Christian nation”.
  16. Times Reporter, “Sata pushing for gay rights”.
  17. What Next For Bahati”.
  18. Jeff Sharlet, “Straight Man’s Burden: The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions”. Accessed September 21/2010.
  19. Warren Throckmorton, “A U.S. church and its ‘kill the gays’ partner in Uganda. Accessed September 20, 2010.
  20. New Vision, “Is money fuelling the gay war?” Friday, 29th May, 2009.
  21. Lou Engle’s “The Call Uganda Reported but NAR Remains Under Radar”.
  22. Michael Wilkerson, “American Supports Ugandan Anti-Gay Bill: An on-the-ground report from Lou Engle’s ‘The Call Uganda”.
  23. According to Warren Throckmorton, “the College of Prayer paid $11,350 in 2007”.
  24. I have presented the findings of this in Africa on two different occasions and sent a copy to Martin Ssempa at his request.
  25. David W. Virtue, “Homophobia in Africa: The Real Truth Please”.
  26. Mark Tooley, “Resenting African Christianity,” Accessed September 23/2010.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. “Globalizing the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia – a response,” January 20th, 2010.
  30. RHRealityCheck, Jan 12, 2010.
  31. Defendthefamily.com, Report from Kampala, March 10, 2009.
  32. Defendthefamily.com, Report from Kampala, March 10, 2009.
  33. Defendthefamily.com, Report from Kampala, March 10, 2009.
  34. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Anti-Homosexuality Bill Divides Ugandan and American Christians,” posted 12/17/2009 01:36PM.
  35. nytimes.com
  36. time.com
  37. Martin Ssempa, “Ugandan Pastors demand Rick Warren to apologize to them”.
  38. M.S., “Anti-imperialism as a hand-washing strategy,” Mar 11, 2010.
  39. Michael Cromartie, “Have the Culture Wars Gone Global? Religion and Sexuality in the Global South
  40. Jenkins follows Paul Ssembiro’s argument that homosexuality came to Uganda with Arabs. There is no evidence for the idea that fear of Islam is a major factor in Africa’s response to homosexuality save in western scholarly works. Even conservatives in Africa have disproved this argument.

Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma served as PRA's Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher from 2008-2018. 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.