U.S. Christian Right Activists Pushing Death Penalty for Homosexuals in Poor African State

Human Rights

CAPE TOWN, Nov 11 (IPS) - The Anti-Homosexuality Bill under consideration in Uganda was sparked by a conference in Kampala earlier this year at which fundamentalist Christians from the U.S. identified homosexuality as a threat to "family values".

The draconian law will institute the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" and criminalize human rights work.

Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop from Uganda, and Reverend Jide Macauley, from Nigeria's House of Rainbow church, told IPS that a conference took place on March 5-7 this year, arranged by Stephen Langa, the director of a Ugandan fundamentalist Christian grouping called Family Life Network (FLN).

The FLN invited speakers attached to U.S.-based religious and "educational" organizations that propagate the idea that homosexuality is an "illness" that can be "cured".

Changing values

The speakers were Don Schmierer, a board member at Exodus International; Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries and author of a book that equates Nazism and homosexuality; and Caleb Lee Brundidge who works at the International Healing Foundation which ostensibly "cures" homosexuals.

"They told us all things are going wrong because the family is being neglected. Not having more children is one of the things that they said are going wrong. Homosexuality is a way of stopping us from having more children," said Senyonjo.

Macauley, who fled Nigeria last year after receiving death threats for hosting a gay-friendly church, added that the harsh law comes in a context of perceived challenges to men's role in society. Women's increased agency, including deciding whether to have children and how many, is experienced as a threat by some men. A relationship between two men raises the fear that one of the men will behave "like a woman" in the household, which undermines any supposedly natural definition of men's position in society.

Senyonjo's position is that even if the Bible is interpreted as against homosexuality - which he adds is not necessarily the correct interpretation - the church should provide pastoral care rather than punishment. He was excluded from further participation at the conference when his position became known.   It is suspected that Lively, whose "Defend the Family" website promotes several homophobic books, also met with a number of Ugandan parliamentarians.

Codifying discrimination

A bill has since been drafted and was tabled on Oct 14 in Uganda’s parliament, legalising not only the persecution of lesbians and gays but also of straights that "support" them. The bill applies to Ugandans inside and outside the country. It nullifies Uganda's ratification of any international treaties that support LGBTI human rights and explicitly rejects the notion that homosexuals have human rights.

Instead, the bill creates an offence called "aggravated homosexuality", defined as having homosexual sex with someone under 18 or with someone who is disabled, or being a "serial offender" or HIV positive when having sex with someone of the same sex. These "crimes" carry the death penalty.

The bill also outlaws lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights advocacy and organisations.

"The law forces Ugandans to spy on each other because you can be punished if you don’t report suspected homosexuals to the police," said Senyonjo.

Opposing hate

Senyonjo and Macauley were in South Africa to attend the first African dialogue on Nov 2-5 between clergy and activists working for LGBTI rights. It was co-hosted by the South Africa-based Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM), a Christian organization which promotes the full participation of LGBTI people in religious communities, and Namibia’s Rainbow Project, a non-governmental organization working to safeguard sexual diversity.

Some delegates at the dialogue drafted a letter calling on Christians to oppose the Ugandan "hate bill" as "any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities face fines of 2,650 dollars or three years' imprisonment. Any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil faces the same punishment.

"The bill threatens to ruin the reputation of anyone who works with the gay or lesbian population, such as medical doctors working in HIV/AIDS and civil society leaders active in the fields of sexual and reproductive health, hence further undermining public health efforts to combat the spread of HIV," according to the letter.

"We are aware that in many countries in Africa that criminalises homosexuality, the church played a role in supporting those laws," said Pieter Oberholzer, who heads IAM.

"The Ugandan law reminds one of the ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust. In South Africa, the increased killing of black lesbians happened after church leaders reacted to the same-sex marriage of 2006, saying it is unchristian. It gave their followers the idea that lesbians and gays should be punished," he added.

Pan-African solidarity

In all, 77 clergy and activists from 13 countries attended the dialogue, including nine bishops, four general secretaries of national councils of churches and four theologians. The countries represented were Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"We were asking ourselves what we could do about the fact that the church speaks about lesbians and gays but not to them," explained Oberholzer. The dialogue created a "safe space" for clergy and activists to share their experiences and thoughts on the matter and all are determined to take the process further in their own countries.

Some of the obstacles identified as standing in the way of dialogue between LGBTI people and clergy were: ignorance about sexuality; scriptural interpretations; silence and invisibility of LGBTI people in religious communities; taboos on discussing sexuality in some African societies; hierarchical church structures; and oppressive laws.

The problem of patriarchy is even more urgent than addressing fundamentalism in the church, Oberholzer told IPS. "LGBTI rights and women’s rights go hand in hand."

Senyonjo believes that the Ugandan law stems from the urge to protect patriarchal arrangements: "It is men who want the law. They have a very loud voice. The church is still very patriarchal. They want the man to be the head of the family. Even at weddings they say the man is the head and the woman has to be obedient."

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