American politicians and journalists have sharply criticized Uganda’s apparent hostility toward gay men and lesbians. When in February Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill imposing harsh criminal penalties for homosexual acts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the Ugandan law as a violation of international human rights. When a tabloid in Kampala, the nation’s largest city, published a list of “Uganda’s 200 Top Gays,” American newspapers reported that this mass “outing” led those on the list to fear for their lives and to seek desperately to flee the country.
In response to this criticism, the Ugandan government characterized the political comments and journalistic reports as disturbingly arrogant. Once again, the U.S. seemed to be trying to control Ugandan lawmaking and public opinion, the government said. Museveni himself insisted “outsiders” should leave his nation alone and vowed he would not give in. “If the West does not want to work with us because of homosexuals,” Museveni said, “then we have enough space to ourselves here.”
Is the dispute simply a matter of American support for gay rights colliding with Ugandan homophobia? As is usually the case in an international dispute of this sort, the controversy involves more than the purported enlightenment of the West on the one hand and the narrow-mindedness in the developing world on the other. There is ample evidence that American evangelical Christians heavily influenced Uganda’s political and religious leaders, who as a result of this influence turned on the nation’s gay men and lesbians.
When asked for specifics, struggling Ugandan gay rights groups have pointed to the efforts of Massachusetts evangelical Scott Lively, who with met the Ugandan Parliament in a four-hour closed session. Lively has characterized the gay rights movement as “evil” and even claimed that Germany’s Nazi leaders were homosexuals. Also cited are the activities in Uganda of Exodus International, an “ex-gay” advocacy group, which claims homosexuals can become heterosexuals by relying on Jesus Christ, and the efforts of the International House of Prayer, a missionary group that sends young Americans to Uganda to preach against not only homosexuality but also abortion.
More generally, the suggestion is that conservative, evangelical Christian churches in Uganda have promoted and championed the anti-gay legislation and sentiments. These churches have quarreled with their mainline Christian counterparts, specifically the American Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches. The disagreements have centered on gay rights and representation in the churches. In Uganda, at least, the growing, well-funded network of conservative evangelical churches is winning the intra-Christianity battle.
Christianity in general is, of course, not indigenous to Uganda, and, furthermore, the growth and influence of conservative, evangelical Christian churches is a relatively recent phenomenon. The most important tension might not involve Ugandans resisting American pressure with regard to gay rights but rather American religious groups worming their way into Ugandan hearts and minds and turning Ugandans against gay men and lesbians. In the opinion of some, the American Christian Right, sensing a looming defeat in the culture wars at home, has opened a new front and is successfully waging battle on African soil.