In 1979, Reverend Jerry Falwell announced a “declaration of war” on homosexuality in America. While this war is losing credibility domestically, it’s gaining dangerous momentum abroad.
On Monday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-homosexuality bill sentencing those convicted of homosexuality to a life in prison. The Ugandan government spokesman, Ofwono Opondo, said President Museveni wanted to sign the bill “with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation.” Ugandan politicians view the passing of this bill as a testament to their sovereignty and their ability to prevail against threats of western imperialism. Though quick to dismiss condemnations of the bill, Ugandan politicians readily received a different type of western pressure coming from a specific group of American evangelicals working to restrict the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.
In 2011, I worked in Kampala with a coalition of forty local human rights organizations advocating to defeat Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. Known as “The Coalition,” this group of dedicated activists has shown impressive collaboration and mobilization in an environment where speaking out on these issues is illegal and forcefully discouraged. I saw how their efforts are bolstered by western human rights organizations and governmental bodies who lend resources and support to their Ugandan counterparts fighting for LGBT rights. Over the past few years, political leaders in the United States have made progress in instituting a strategy to promote LGBT rights both domestically and globally. This can be seen through actions such as Obama’s Presidential Memorandum prioritizing global LGBT rights and Hillary Clinton’s speech promoting gay rights as human rights. But this transnational activism has limits, especially in the presence of a competing movement with the opposite agenda.
What I also witnessed in Uganda— and what is often hushed from the media—is the influence of a network with American origins and the destructive mission of restricting LGBT rights worldwide. Spearheaded by a group of American evangelicals, this movement’s influence in Uganda is palpable. After losing credibility in the U.S., the Jerry Falwell followers searched abroad for communities amenable to their influence.
Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill is proof of this dangerous partnership and the exportation of a toxic ideology. In 2009, well-known American evangelicals, including Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer held a conference in Uganda called the “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda.” At this conference, which was well attended by religious leaders and Ugandan parliamentarians, the American leaders argued that LGBT individuals seek to destroy Ugandan culture and society. In Uganda, where 95% of citizens view homosexuality as repugnant and morally unacceptable, these American arguments resonated deeply. Following the conference, Scott Lively proudly announced in a blog post that his campaign was like “a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda in Uganda.” And five months later, David Bahati, member of Ugandan parliament, drafted Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.
A few weeks ago, Obama warned Museveni that enacting an anti-gay law would be a “huge step backward” for all Ugandans and would complicate U.S. relations with Uganda. Obama’s comments, along with similar threats from western nations, only propelled efforts in Uganda to pass the bill.
The consequences of the anti-homosexuality bill are far removed from our everyday life in the U.S., but our ideological connections to it run deep. Rather than making empty threats, public efforts to condemn the bill should focus on addressing one of the root causes of this dangerous homophobia. Religion plays a huge role in this global debate, and is one of the most important factors guiding Ugandan political leaders. We have seen how the messages of American evangelicals can influence policies in Uganda. But what we haven’t seen is the possible impact of messages coming from other religious leaders—messages showing how the right to love and the right to live free of discrimination are not mutually exclusive.
About the author: Ashley Speyer has been working in the field of international development and human rights since 2007. At age 16, she partnered with a women’s cooperative in Tanzania and started a non-profit organization, Bricks + Books, to promote educational development. She then spent time in Uganda where she worked with a group of human rights activists working to defeat Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.