News & Politics

Arch-Conservative U.S. Christians Help Uganda 'Kill-the-Gays' Bill Stay Alive

Uganda's anti-gay bill, which espouses the death penalty for homosexual acts, still lives -- with the help of the U.S. religious right.

It may have receded from the front pages of the nation's newspapers, but despite stern words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, Uganda's extraordinary Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 -- which provides the death penalty for certain homosexual acts -- is still alive in the Uganda parliament, with the apparent blessing of Christian-right groups such as the Family Research Council, which was revealed last week to have lobbied Congress to soften a House resolution condemning the murderous bill, even though FRC says it opposes Uganda's anti-gay proposal.

Others, such as the New Apostolic Reformation movement and Lou Engle's TheCall, have also tried to have it both ways, saying they oppose the Uganda law while simultaneously making common cause with its supporters. And a new documentary from "In the Life," a program seen on most PBS stations, details the role, also reported by AlterNet, of the Family (a secretive religious group also known as the Fellowship) in creating the conditions that made the bill possible. (Full disclosure: I make a cameo appearance in the documentary, which you can view at the end of this article.)

Last week, Joe.My.God., an LGBT blog, reported that the Family Research Council spent $25,000 to lobby against a U.S. House resolution condemning the Uganda bill. In response, FRC released a statement saying that the blog misrepresented its lobbying, describing the expose and subsequent coverage as "inaccurate internet reports." The House resolution has been stalled since February. In its statement, FRC went on to say that it does not support the Uganda bill, but sought to make "more factually accurate" the description of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act in drafts of the House resolution.  The statement's writer also said that FRC sought "to remove sweeping and inaccurate assertions that homosexual conduct is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right."

Not so fast. While FRC says it does not support the Uganda bill, it does not wholly condemn it. If it did not support the anti-homosexuality bill, why would its leaders be so concerned that the House resolution present the content of the anti-gay bill in language acceptable to FRC? When I called FRC on Friday afternoon to ask which aspects of the proposed Uganda law were inaccurately represented in the House resolution, there was no one immediately available who could address the subject. AlterNet held this story for FRC's comment, but none has been forthcoming.

When I examined the House resolution (PDF) in its current state, I found that it accurately depicted the text of the Uganda bill, including the penalty of death for an offense labeled "aggravated homosexuality," life in prison for the crime of having touched another person "with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality," and prison terms of up to seven years to anyone deemed to "promote homosexuality" -- leaving gay-rights activists, and even clerics with gay-focused ministries targeted for a felony conviction.

And nowhere does the House resolution declare, as FRC alleges, "that homosexual conduct is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right." Rather, the House resolution says that the Uganda bill "threatens the protection of fundamental human rights" for LGBT people and those who support them, a claim proven by the very text of the proposed Uganda law.

In February, FRC President Tony Perkins defended the Uganda bill in his weekly radio podcast, using criticism of the proposed law as an example of incivility in Washington. "The press has widely mischaracterized the law, which calls for the death penalty, not for homosexual behavior which is already a crime, but for acts such as intentionally spreading HIV/AIDS, or preying upon vulnerable individuals such as children..." Perkins said. Leaving aside the question of whether the death penalty is ever justified, Perkins leaves out another of the bill's provisions, which calls confers the death penalty on "serial offenders" of Uganda's ban on consensual homosexual sex between adults.

While FRC protests that it does not support the Uganda law, like other Christian right groups, such as TheCall, it surely gives comfort to those who do.

Last month, TheCall's Lou Engle, who led the charge for California's Proposition 8 (the ballot measure that overturned the sanctioning of same-sex marriage by the state supreme court), convened a revival rally in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, that featured proponents of the Anti-Homosexuality Act calling for the bill's passage from the stage. The week before his Kampala appearance, Engle issued a statement saying he knew nothing of the Ugandan bill when he made the arrangements for the rally (this seems unlikely, given the high-profile news coverage the bill received in February), and went on to state:

Now recently, TheCall has been wrongfully marked and vilified as an organization promoting hatred and violence against homosexuals and as one that supports the Uganda bill as currently written. To the contrary, we have never made a private or a public statement of support for that bill. Though we honor the courage and stand with the stated purpose of the many Church leaders in Uganda who are seeking to protect the traditional and biblical family foundations of the nation, we have serious concerns with the bill as presently written, especially in terms of some of the harsh penalties for certain homosexual behaviors or offenses.

But, as reported by Michael Wilkerson for Religion Dispatches, Engle's appearance at the rally "was sandwiched between two speakers who openly supported the bill." Warming up the crowd for Engle's appearance was Julius Oyet of the New Apostolic Reformation movement (with which Sarah Palin is connected) who said, "We call on parliament not to debate Heaven. We call on them to pass the bill and say no to homosexuality.” Engle was immediately followed on the stage by James Nsaba Buturo, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, who, according to Wilkerson, said, "The bill will be passed into law without any debate...We must tell the whole world that Uganda will not accept that nonsense that says homosexuality is a human right. It is an abomination."

Lou Engle has lately become one of the religious right's chief darlings, recently appearing at a conference devoted to diversity in the Christian right that took place at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (reported for AlterNet by Sarah Posner). In a December 2009 FRC "prayercast" designed to oppose health care reform, Engle appeared alongside Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and his close friend, Sen. Sam Brownback, a member of the Family.

In an episode titled "Intersections of Church and State," the PBS show "In the Life" (video at the end of this article) explores the Family's relationship to the driving forces behind Uganda's "kill-the-gays," interviewing with Jeff Sharlet, author of the book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. In December 2009, Brownback told reporter Mike Stark that he didn't know enough about the Uganda bill's "specifics" to condemn it. (Other members of the Family, including Senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, both R-Okla., as well as Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Ensign, R-Nev., eventually stepped forward to condemn the bill.)

On the eve of the National Prayer Breakfast, a annual event sponsored by the Family, at which President Obama was scheduled to speak, the issue became a point of contention between gay groups and the White House. AlterNet published an extensive interview with Sharlet just days ahead of Obama's appearance, in which he explained how the Family's influence in Uganda, where the dictator Yoweri Museveni is closely affiliated with the Family, is playing out in the country's religious culture:

"I think the Family opened the doors to Uganda for what they consider [to be] an evangelical revival, and the result was to make this country sort of a guinea pig for experiments in the American culture war," Sharlet said. "This is a way foreign policy often works; political experiments happen at the fringes and policies that can't be implemented here at home are tried out there."

In the case of the anti-gay bill, Sharlet said, the Family's influence got away from them in a bill that ultimately gave the group the kind of visibility it never wanted for a bill its own Washington, D.C., members likely deem "too extreme."

Sharlet explains in the PBS documentary how the controversy over the bill, reported repeatedly by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, rose to such a clamor in the days preceding the National Prayer Breakfast that the Family abruptly replaced its scheduled keynote speaker, Spain's Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (a supporter of LGBT rights) with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who used the occasion to condemn Uganda's anti-gay bill. Clinton's admonition, though, is reported to have come with no threat of aid withdrawal, so the bill still lives, although a cabinet committee appointed by Museveni under U.S. pressure has urged the bill's withdrawal. That was a month ago, yet the bill still lives.

Highlighted in the documentary is the story of a young Ugandan named Moses who is currently seeking asylum in the United States. So fearful is he for his life that he spoke with a paper bag over his head at a news conference at the National Press Club, convened by a coalition of religious and gay-rights groups just days before the Prayer Breakfast. There he described how, targeted for being gay, he was raped so brutally by a policeman in his home country that he bled for days, but dared not seek medical attention for fear of being thrown in prison, where he would likely suffer more of the same.

Just last week, the Center for American Progress hosted retired Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of the Anglican Church, who is constantly on the run due to the death threats he and his wife receive because of his ministry to LGBT people. For his good works, 78-year-old Senyonjo has been stripped of his pension by the church.

In his interview at CAP by Gene Robinson (the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church), Senyonjo explains how the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has been exploited by religious-right leaders to target LGBT people in a land that is overwhelmingly religious. Although the Bible never specifies the sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as that of homosexuality, those sins have long been presented by Christians as homosexual acts. (Amanda Terkel's report on the interview and video of the event are here.)

Through the preaching of evangelists, many Ugandans have come to believe that homosexuality could lead to the similar destruction of their nation. In a land plagued with AIDS, that's not a tough sell. The irony is, before the religious right had its way with Uganda, it had one of the best records in Africa of containing its AIDS epidemic. But, according to Senyonjo, the trend toward abstinence-only sex education flogged by the right in the U.S. has been exported to Uganda, where it is having dire consequences -- a fate that the demonization of LGBT people can only make worse.




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Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.