How Deep Is the Republican Christian Right's Connection to the Anti-Gay Bills Sweeping Sub-Saharan Africa?

The Right Wing

Uganda’s notorious "kill-the-gays" bill, supported by some far-right Christian advocates in United States, was placed back on the Ugandan Parliament’s schedule for a vote yesterday. The proposed legislation punishes repeated instances of “homosexual behavior” – or sex – with the death penalty. Unless a member of Parliament releases the date and time to the public, it could be brought before the legislature’s Lower House for a vote at any moment. After that, it would need to pass the Upper House, and could become law very quickly.

This means it’s time to put pressure on the White House and the State Department to use diplomatic pressures to put a stop to this bill and others like it once and for all. (An officer at the State Department’s press office told me the agency could not comment for this article because the legislation has not yet passed.) We must also call upon State to cease the practice of deporting LGBT Ugandans back to their home country. As journalist Jeff Sharlet points out, international pressure has taken this bill off the table in the past and could very well do so again. Still, similar campaigns are underway throughout Africa. The worldwide fight against LGBT human rights abuses is only beginning.

In the weeks following Hillary Clinton’s historic December United Nations speech claiming that “gay rights are human rights,” the conservative Christian community in the United States has castigated the Obama administration. Clinton's speech was popularly interpreted as a rebuke of countries like Uganda, where the Anti-Homosexuality bill calling for the execution of some LGBT people, keeps popping up. The Christian Right is particularly outraged by State Department plans to withhold aid to countries that violate basic LGBT human rights.

At Right-Wing Watch, Brian Tashman posted immediate condemnations from 700 Club Host Pat Robertson and Christian radio host Janet Meffird. Robertson said, “This country cannot continue to violate God’s principles and to make a mockery of his laws and think we’re going to get away with it. And when the blow comes, it’s going to be horrible.”

Meffird jumped into the fray to support anti-gay measures on the table in Nigeria that include long-term imprisonment. She dismissed claims that these anti-gay campaigns are stoking violence against LGBT people, asking, “All right, but they’re not killing them, are they?”

Matt Barber of the right-wing Liberty Council Action said, “[T]his Obama administration, instead of focusing on real human rights abuses, is trying to force nations to adopt America’s immoral positions on issues of sexuality.” Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council, called it an attempt “to impose an alien ideology on other countries.”

Peter Labarbera, president of Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, was perhaps the most histrionic of all. He called the new initiative “an affront to our Declaration of Independence.” He wrote, “Homosexuality – once widely regarded as a Crime Against Nature [sic] – is no more a ‘fundamental human right’ than any other sexual sin. Moreover, its practice is linked disproportionately to sexual diseases like HIV, anal cancer, hepatitis, gonorrhea and syphilis. Culturally and practically speaking, what makes this perversion unique is that it has a powerful and well-funded (‘gay’) movement behind it… All Americans who love God and respect his wonderful design for mankind should be ashamed of Obama’s and Hillary’s campaign to force a deeply flawed sexual ideology on innocent nations that do NOT want to emulate American decadence.”

This was a predictable response. The radical right’s hostility toward LGBT people is well-known. Any measure to protect LGBT people from abuse is viewed as “special treatment.” And so far, gays and lesbians have been a favorite wedge topic for conservative candidates trying to distinguish themselves from frontrunner Mitt Romney and court a far-right base. Rick Santorum famously told Glenn Beck that states should have the freedom to criminalize gay sex. 

Santorum has been nothing if not consistent on this issue. In 2003, he was even less circumspect, saying, “We have...sodomy laws [in some states,] and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? Yes, I believe it does.”  

It’s unsettling to see a major candidate casually promote LGBT criminalization. That’s because his rhetoric is so close to that of these same leaders who are active proponents of harsher LGBT criminalization laws throughout sub-Saharan Africa. But it isn’t easy to uncover the connections, which are often shrouded in secrecy. 

We really just know one thing with certainty: Members of the Christian right in the United States are promoting human rights abuses against LGBT people throughout the continent. But it is not always possible to find specific information about what they do. Very few American evangelicals are willing to admit the extent of their involvement in the wave of anti-gay legislation sweeping Africa. Certainly, they might express open support of the bill. But you won’t see them admit to providing financial support to these pastors, and you certainly won’t hear that they’ve been involved in country-specific criminalization campaigns. Conversations about these topics often involve a lot of hearsay and rumor.

It is downright impossible to trace the money trail. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, tells me that “religious groups that intervene in political issues receive very little oversight in the United States.” It is even more difficult, he adds, to track “what religious groups spend overseas.”

Like all non-profits, religious organizations in the US are required to report basic expenditures on IRS Form 990. But very little detail is required. An American missionary organization could go to Uganda to promote the Anti-Homosexuality bill, and resources used for this purpose could be recorded in the innocuous “other expenses” box. If pressed for more detail, a missionary group could use vague language like “outreach” or “overseas missions.”

As people in the US focus on the upcoming Republican primaries, Warren Throckmorton tells me, there is a veritable explosion of anti-gay organizing throughout sub-Saharan Africa. And very few journalists are talking about it. Throckmorton, a professor of psychology at Grove City College, is an evangelical Christian and former “ex-gay” advocate who now tracks anti-gay groups in the US that push for punitive anti-gay legislation throughout the world. He tells me that the bill has been influential well outside of Uganda’s borders. Nigeria’s Senate passed very restrictive anti-gay legislation in November, and similar anti-gay campaigns are being introduced in Zambia, Malawi, Cameroon and elsewhere.

Much of our information about the Christian right’s role in spreading anti-gay hate in Africa comes from Uganda, where members of parliament continue to revive the Anti-Homosexuality bill. The bill not only punishes LGBT people, but criminalizes heterosexual people who fail to expose their LGBT friends. They face up to three years in prison. And it doesn’t stop there. If convicted of a second offense, as activist Rob Tish has shown, people could face execution for not reporting friends. The bill was tabled in November 2011 due to international pressure but was brought back as soon as the next legislative session began yesterday.

Imagine a self-proclaimed “homosexuality expert” who says he knows more about his subject than anyone else in the world, teaching you that gays were responsible for the worst genocides of the 20th century. That’s precisely what Scott Lively of California’s Abiding Truth Ministries did before a crowd of Ugandans at an anti-gay conference in Kampala in 2009.

This would be an explosive point of view in any country. And it is absurdly irresponsible given that many Ugandans believe homosexuality to be a Western, or colonial, import. But this didn’t prevent Lively from telling his 2009 Ugandan audience that gays were “probably” the perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide. Nor did it stop him from promoting the lie on which he’s built a career: the idea that gay men oversaw the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. The chilling footage of Lively’s speech, in which gay men are cast as “brutish sociopaths,” child rapists and mass murderers, is worth watching:

Not surprisingly, the Southern Poverty Law Center regards Abiding Truth Ministries as a hate group. Its work has touched off a firestorm of anti-gay activism and violence in Africa.

Gay rights activist Jim Burroway says his LGBT contacts in Uganda live in what sounds like a constant state of siege. Founder of Ex-Gay Watch and editor at Box Turtle Bulletin, Burroway has been tracking developments in Uganda since 2009. His Ugandan LGBT contacts report increased violence against people in their communities. They claim that things have escalated slowly since American missionaries stepped up their demonization of LGBT people about a decade ago. Some say they lived in relative peace back then. But many now go into hiding or seek asylum in other countries.

Homosexuality has long been a criminal offense in Uganda, just as it is in 36 other African countries. Throckmorton is doubtful that Uganda will ultimately defy the international community and implement the new, harsher legislation. Still, officials insist on trotting it out every few months. When this happens, Throckmorton and Burroway say, the public conversation takes a violent turn.

In 2010, just a few days before the first anniversary of the bill’s introduction in parliament, Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper published a cover piece with names and photographs of 100 LGBT Ugandans. Its headline: “Hang them.”

In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that “[m]embers of the LGBT community have faced increased harassment and threats since the bill’s introduction.” Just a couple of months before the report was published, gay activist David Kato was murdered in his home. Police officially reported that he was killed for refusing to pay for consensual sex. Whether or not this is true, South African-born Advocate contributor Melanie Nathan tells me, many LGBT Ugandans believe he was targeted because of his political activism. 

Most Christian groups that promote gay criminalization in Africa are more secretive about it than Lively was. But it’s clear he did not act alone in Uganda. In his 2010 book, C Street, Jeff Sharlet exposed the Family, the fundamentalist group behind the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. Sharlet showed that members of the Family are associates of bill sponsor David Bahati. Throckmorton says they “provided him with training opportunities and networked him.”

And other American evangelicals, I’m told, have associations with the officials and pastors who support the bill. We know that [fundamentalist] New Apostolic group, the “7 Mountains Conference,” hosted an event with pastor Julius Oyet, a vocal bill supporter who may have helped recruit bill sponsor David Bahati.

The New Apostolic movement is loosely comprised of pentecostal preachers who seek to establish Biblical law instead of secular law throughout the world. Some of its members have become increasingly outspoken in support of the bill. Lou Engle, another prominent New Apostolic figure, held a 2010 event called The Call Uganda in capital city, Kampala. It featured both public officials and religious leaders who support the bill. Though Engle tried to distance himself from the bill’s most violent provisions, he refused to refute it.

All of my sources agree that there are many US groups advocating for the violent persecution of gays and lesbians in Africa. But the problem, as they see it, is that they have learned to operate quietly.

None of the people I talk to envision a top-down conspiracy emanating from US elites. Instead, they believe that a number of Christian groups have begun converging around this same issue in different places on the continent. They may interact casually, but the Family is not bankrolling the New Apostolic Reformation is not bankrolling Americans for Truth Against Homosexuality, and so on.

Still, there are some indications that the groups are becoming savvier organizers. Throckmorton says he thinks the Foundation for African Heritage, set up to look like an indigenous African organization, is a front backed by right-winger Don Feder’s World Congress of Families.

And Burroway suggests that the connections may run much deeper, and are not necessarily relegated to far-right fringe groups. Throckmorton says that Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, a major bill supporter, made inroads among many moderate evangelical Christians in the US before the bill to “kill the gays” was born.

He says Ssempa initially promoted Uganda’s “ABC” AIDS prevention plan, which stressed abstinence, being faithful and condoms, “though he really deemphasized the condoms… The other thing [he said] you could do is to curtail ‘homosexual behavior.’”

Moderate American evangelicals like Rick Warren were enamored of his push for abstinence, and generally agreed with his condemnation of homosexuality. Warren, the megachurch pastor who came to national prominence when he was chosen to deliver Obama’s innaugural prayer in 2009, saw no reason to write Ssempa off as an extremist for quite some time.

Like many evangelicals, Ssempa understood homosexuality as a “sin,” but Throckmorton says this wasn’t really “his calling card.” And he certainly didn’t start out calling for death to LGBT people by hanging.

In the beginning, Ssempa told American supporters and colleagues that the bill only penalized people who abused children. Throckmorton says he confronted leaders at Las Vegas’s Canyon Ridge Christian Church who supported Ssempa. He says he read portions of the bill to them, but they refused to listen. In fact, they insisted on believing Ssempa “until it started to hurt” – that is, until it created public relations problems for the megachurch. That’s what “finally made them read the bill,” he says, and it sunk in that their man “Ssempa was really behind an effort to kill gays.” So, they backed away from the pastor.

Still, Burroway says it’s impossible to know for sure whether or not the support has ended. Without access to financial records, there is no way to be certain. Rick Warren, the Family, Willow Creek and Canyon Ridge megachurches and others have publicly disavowed Ssempa’s ideology. But unless they open their accounts in full, we will never really know where they stand. They don’t do this, largely because they are not legally obliged to divulge specific expenses on their tax forms.

Such evangelicals have tried to stake out a claim to a moderate evangelicalism, and they prefer not to be associated with fundamentalists like Bryan Fischer, who openly call for gay criminalization even in the United States. It’s the hardcore fundamentalists – representatives of the Family Research Council, World Congress of Families, Liberty Council, New Apostolic Reformation and others – who air their goals in the open. And even they are smart enough not to talk about financial support provided to anti-gay legislators and pastors in sub-Saharan Africa.

Burroway suspects that some of these groups may be funneling money into political campaigns to advance their causes. Contributions to candidates for public office from religious organizations are prohibited in the United States. Citizens who suspect that an organization is violating laws that protect the separation of church and state can file a complaint with the IRS. 

But what about religious organizations in the US trying to influence foreign elections? Should a concerned citizen who has information about this sort of abuse file a complaint with the IRS? Rob Boston, policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, seems doubtful that the IRS would take on complaints about foreign activities like this. He doesn’t think there is any clear precedent for it. Still, he adds, it could make an “interesting test case.” In the meantime, Throckmorton and Burroway say ominous things to me about Nigeria. Both expect the fallout to be much bloodier than in Uganda. Throckmorton says there may be a “very dark time” ahead for the country, which is already volatile and deeply divided by sectarian and religious conflict.

With the exception of a few true believers, my sources don’t generally think American proponents understand the gravity of what they’re supporting. There will be a body count. In fact, there is one already, as abuse and arrests escalate against LGBT people throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Again, many believe Kato was murdered because of his activism on behalf of gay rights. Activist Jean-Claude Roger Mdebe was sentenced to 36 months in prison in Cameroon for being gay. In Nigeria, gay organizations say that blackmail and extortion are commonly used to take advantage of LGBT people. Even South Africa, which boasts one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, has a major problem with the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians. And authorities determined that the 2011 murders of five gay men in Johannesburg were not the work of a serial killer, but multiple killers.

Ultimately, homophobic conspiracy theories have a lot of currency in many African countries. I’m told that African leaders who get caught up in this struggle to expel alleged “Western imports” like homosexuality fail to pick up on the fact that fundamentalist Christianity is – if nothing else – a Western import. And so-called “pro-family” organizations tend to be specifically American imports.

One journalist who does not want to be named tells me the handwringing over homosexuality in countries like Uganda and Nigeria – not unlike that in the United States – seems like a distraction. That is, it prevents people from taking on real political issues like economic inequality, food insecurity and the excesses of global capitalism. It’s much easier to scapegoat already marginalized minority communities.

Vilified communities in deeply divided societies have historically served as scapegoats. In times of economic panic and insecurity, they’re often the first casualties of societal breakdown. So, things do not bode well for the LGBT communities in sub-Saharan Africa. American support for gay criminalization has lit a spark that seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.

The situation is pretty bleak region-wide, and none of the Republican presidential candidates are likely to help matters much. I am told that the Republican candidates for president do not have direct ties with pastors like Martin Ssempa or Julius Oyet. But they most certainly feel the need to play nice with pastors who do.

Santorum may be the only candidate still in the running who supports criminalizing homosexuality, but in 2010, Newt Gingrich teamed up with the New Apostolic leader Lou Engle to pray for “revival” in the US. And former candidate Rick Perry was roundly endorsed by most pastors affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation.

Mitt Romney, still trying to win the hardline base within his party, keeps going on about how he thinks marriage is between a man and a woman. But the hardline base is way past marriage. They want criminalization. They want outright persecution. In various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, they flirt with wanting execution. Most Americans scoff at rhetoric about gay criminalization. Not so much in deeply homophobic societies where homosexuality has historically been linked to colonial excess.

If you’d like to help out, there are several Ugandan organizations working for justice for the LGBT community in the country. You can find a few of them listed at the Icebreakers Uganda Web site. Icebreakers provides familial support and solidarity to LGBT people who have been ostracized by their communities. Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by human rights advocate Frank Mugisha, is probably the best-known organization operating within Uganda. Alternatively, check out the 200 LGBT advocacy groups based in various African countries and listed at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

In the meantime, keep pressure on the Obama administration to stop LGBT deportations to Uganda and help put an end to the country’s dangerous Kill-the-Gays bill. A move back into Parliament’s committee is not good enough. The threat of death cannot be permitted to hang over LGBT communities in Uganda indefinitely. But, as with any diplomatic endeavor, the US government must tread carefully. Rescinding food and development aid, for example, could be dangerous for LGBT Ugandans, who would likely be scapegoated. In order to help, any US diplomatic efforts should put the immediate safety of LGBT Ugandans first, and steer clear of heavy handed policies likely to increase backlash. International pressure can prevent this bill from becoming the law of the land.

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