By Zoe Rubin
Listening to Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa rail vehemently against “homosexual acts,” a worshipper at the evangelical Makere Community Church in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, could hardly be blamed for equating homosexuality with pedophilia. Ssempa has a genial smile that reaches his warm, bespectacled eyes and seems to grow naturally into place as soon as he opens his mouth to speak. Yet this same smile instantly contorts into a grimace when Ssempa talks of homosexuality, a subject that he regularly addresses by screening gay pornographic videos, particularly child pornography and depictions of extreme S/M acts, during his church meetings.
Uganda has long been a highly conservative country where “issues of sex are rarely discussed in public,” according to Christine Ochan, the Communications Manager of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) rights organization based in Kampala. The East African state is widely regarded as one of the most devoutly Christian nations on earth; the U.S. State Department reports that eight-four percent of Uganda’s population of nearly thirty-five million people identify as Christian. Ssempa takes a virulent stand against what he deems as the sickness of homosexuality, particularly because he perceives it as a Western “export.” In numerous interviews, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also given voice to the popular belief that homosexuality is not natural to African culture, but rather an artificial exportation of Western beliefs. This notion of homosexuality as inherently foreign, coupled with the international censure of Uganda’s severe anti-homosexuality culture, feeds into widespread concern in Uganda over neo-imperialism. Yet the inflammatory rhetoric of Ssempa, and numerous other religious and political leaders, distorts a far more nuanced reality.
In fact, extreme homophobia in Uganda—not homosexuality—could be considered the Western export, a consequence of the expansion of American evangelical culture wars worldwide. With political support for gay marriage in the U.S. rapidly increasing, American evangelical movements have shifted their attention to what they perceive as more promising regions abroad, particularly the Global South. Frank Mugisha, who leads Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a prominent network of LGBTI advocacy and support groups, emphasized that Uganda’s cultural aversion to homosexuality clearly preceded the arrival of missionaries from groups like Abiding Truth Ministries. However, these evangelical organizations have transformed the cultural perception of homosexuality from that of a “taboo” into “something evil.”
“Uganda would not be in such an extreme position – homophobic discourse, homophobic policies being put forward by state and religious leaders,” explained Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher in the LGBT rights division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Kenya, “if there hadn’t been this influence.”
Identifying as “kuchu” after the historic term for homosexual in Lugandan, the country’s most widely spoken language, the LGBTI community argues that the indigenous roots of Ugandan homosexuality date back to the pre-colonial era. “The fact that there were native names given to LGBTI-appearing persons in pre-colonial Uganda is evidence enough that they existed,” Ochan said. Through FARUG’s ‘Unlearning the Myth About Homosexuality’ research project, the organization hopes to reframe debate about the historic character of gender and sexual identity in Uganda. Ochan detailed how among the Lango ethnic group of present-day central Uganda, “mudoka dako,” or transformed men, would take on wives, whereas the feminine men of Iteso in eastern Uganda would dress as women and adopt female gender roles in their community. Like the word “kuchu,” the Lugandan “abasiyazi” and “etigwa,” a word in the Runyankole language spoken in southwestern Uganda by the Nkore and Hema peoples, both translate to homosexual, Mugisha said.
The existence of British imperial codes banning homosexuality ironically further demonstrates homosexuality’s native roots. Mugisha emphasized that these laws must mean that “there was something capable of bringing a law on—something was already happening.”
Yet both Mugisha and Ochan are intimately familiar with the perilous consequences of such imperial codes today. Under Uganda’s penal code, modeled after earlier colonial models in 1950 and retained following the nation’s independence in 1962, LGBTI individuals can be sentenced to life imprisonment for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” Such institutionalized discrimination regularly endangers activists. FARUG has been evicted from several offices and robbed on four separate occasions. Likewise, Mugisha meets daily with Kampala’s police stations to address the physical brutality and prejudicial treatment toward LGBTI individuals who are often arrested.
He knows only too well what can come from the security sector’s utter disregard for threats against his fellow activists. When local tabloid Rolling Stone, not to be confused with the American publication of the same name, published the names of 100 presumed LGBTI Ugandans under the glaring headline “hang them” in 2011, David Kato, Mugisha’s close friend and colleague at SMUG, was bludgeoned to death. Kato’s particular activism against the country’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill was cited as motivation for the murder.
In October of 2009, David Bahati, a Ugandan Minister of Parliament, introduced a bill that would punish homosexuality and LGBTI individuals with sentences ranging from life in prison to the death penalty in instances of “aggravated homosexuality.” The ambiguous latter distinction included consensual homosexual intercourse carried out by HIV-positive individuals, parents or other authority figures, minors or disabled persons, or repeat offenders. Even heterosexuals were implicated, as failing to report the “homosexual acts” of friends or family to the relevant authorities could result in a three-year prison sentence.
In March of that year, Scott Lively, the president of Abiding Truth Ministries, had joined fellow missionaries, Don Schmierer of Exodus International and Caleb Lee Brundidge, in Kampala for an anti-gay conference entitled “Exposing the Truth Behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda.” Lively is a historical revisionist who claims that militant homosexuals under the ideology of the “pink swastika” engineered the Holocaust. Yet while he may be a fringe activist in the United States, in Kampala none other than First Lady Honorable Janet Museveni lauded Lively as an expert on LGBTI issues and chaired a breakfast seminar during the event. Thousands of Ugandan civilians listened to Lively condemn the supposed homosexual recruitment of schoolchildren and liken the spread of homosexuality to “a social cancer,” according to Ghoshal.
“During that conference, suggestions were made to tighten laws against homosexuality including mandatory therapy for homosexuals to make them straight,” Ochan recalled. “It was after that conference that that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was born.”
Parliamentarians and religious leaders largely celebrated the proposed legislation, but the international community rallied to block indefinitely what global media outlets termed the “kill the gays bill.” U.S. President Barack Obama stated publicly in no uncertain terms that Uganda would lose critical American military and economic aid should the country’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni, sign what he deemed the “odious” measure into law.
Currently, Ghoshal noted, the bill is stalled, in part because Museveni recognizes the ruinous effects its passage would have on the international stage. Yet while the global backlash against the bill may have been beneficial on a macro level, the consequences of an international focus solely on LGBTI rights has inevitably created new challenges for SMUG, FARUG, and other activist groups.
“One of the problems in Uganda actually is that the Western governments haven’t put enough pressure in Uganda on other forms of human rights abuses,” Ghoshal said.
According to recent research by HRW, the authoritarian regime under Museveni increasingly harasses civil society organizations focused on oil revenue transparency, legal reform, and other social reforms. Serious cases of police torture and indefinite detention have gone unchallenged by Uganda’s geopolitical allies, like the United States, which rely on the Ugandan military’s efforts against Al-Shahaab in Somalia to further their interests in the global “war on terror.” In denouncing Museveni’s crackdowns against LGBTI people, Ghoshal said, the West makes the claim of having then done its “due diligence” of criticizing the nation’s broader record of fraudulent elections, widespread repression, and rights violations. Through “reverse pinkwashing,” the United States then “creates this image in Uganda, for the ordinary Ugandan,” she continued, “that the West only cares about one kind of human right.”
Western governments must instead put “uniform pressure” on Ugandans nationwide and so elevate “the case of police abuses and military abuse against ordinary citizens,” Ghoshal explained. By investing donor money to strengthen partnerships between LGBTI organizations and other Ugandan conventional human rights organizations, LGBTI issues can be brought into the mainstream. From his own experience building partnerships with such groups, Mugisha trusts that reform is eventual.
“The role of civil society is to help us understand that all human rights are a package—there are no special rights, and there are no different rights,” Mugisha said. “If they accept to work with us then they are strengthening the human rights community of Uganda.”
Zoe Rubin ’16 is in Timothy Dwight College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.