If you live in the United States, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that the battle for broader civil rights for gay people is nearly over. The last few years have brought important victories in courts, legislatures and at the ballot box, and momentum is firmly on the side of increased equality.
That’s not true, however, in other parts of the world. The vitriol that has fueled U.S. culture wars for so long is now being exported, and some of our most ardent culture warriors are finding a far more receptive audience abroad.
In nations such as Uganda, Russia, Nigeria and Belize, an insidious homophobia engineered in America is taking root. I have seen this hate being spread with my own eyes.
In March 2009, while in Kampala, Uganda, researching reports of U.S. right-wing evangelical involvement in attacks on LGBTQ equality and reproductive justice, I was invited to a three-day conference on homosexuality hosted by the Family Life Network, which is based in New York. The keynote speaker was Scott Lively from Springfield, Mass., who introduced himself as a leading expert on the “international homosexual agenda.” I filmed Lively over the course of two days as he instructed religious and political leaders about how gays were coming to Uganda from the West to “recruit children into homosexuality.”
Some of his assertions would have been laughable had he not been so deadly serious. He claimed that a gay clique that included Adolf Hitler was behind the Holocaust, and he insinuated that gay people fueled the Rwandan genocide.
In the United States, Lively is widely dismissed as an anti-gay firebrand and Holocaust revisionist. But in Uganda, he was presented — and accepted — as a leading international authority. The public persecution of LGBTQ people escalated after Lively’s conference, with one local newspaper publishing the pictures and addresses of activists under the headline, “Hang Them.”
Lively was also invited to private briefings with political and religious leaders, and to address the Ugandan parliament during his 2009 visit. The next month, Ugandan lawmaker David Bahati unveiled his Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which in its original form called for the death penalty as punishment for a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality.”
In recent years, millions of dollars have been funneled from anti-LGBTQ evangelical conservatives to Uganda, funding local pastors and training them to adopt and mirror the culture-war language of the U.S. Christian right. Bahati and a notorious anti-gay pastor, Martin Ssempa, were personally mentored by U.S. conservatives. And powerful Christian right organizations such as the Family Research Council lobbied Congress to change a resolution denouncing the Uganda legislation.
Other prominent right-wing evangelicals have also made Uganda appearances, including California’s Rick Warren and Lou Engle, who founded TheCall ministry. They met with politicians, hosted rallies and public meetings, and used their influence and credibility to contribute to a culture war in Uganda much more intense and explosive than anything seen in the United States; Lively himself described the work as a “nuclear bomb” in Uganda. These conservative evangelicals later distanced themselves from the law, saying they didn’t think homosexuality should be criminalized, but it was too late.
In December, the Ugandan parliament finally passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and last month President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law. The death penalty provision was removed, but the law includes life sentences for homosexual “repeat offenders” and criminalizes advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ Ugandans.
Uganda has deservedly received widespread attention, but it’s not the only country with a culture war that carries the fingerprints of U.S. campaigners. Nigeria has passed a bill almost identical to Uganda’s, and Cameroon and Zambia are enthusiastically imprisoning LGBTQ people.
And let’s not forget Russia. In 2007, Lively traveled throughout Russia to, as he put it, bring a warning about the “homosexual political movement.” He urged Russians, among other things, “to criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality.” Last year, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that criminalizes distribution of “gay propaganda” to minors, including any material that “equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations.”
Later this year, the World Congress of Families — an Illinois-based conservative umbrella organization — will convene in Russia. As the group’s leader, Larry Jenkins, put it: “We’re convinced that Russia does and should play a very significant role in defense of the family and moral values worldwide. Russia has become a leader of promoting these values in the international arena.”
U.S. culture warriors have strategically focused on countries already suspicious of America, often ones with authoritarian leaders eager to turn public attention away from issues of corruption or economic inequality.
By recasting LGBTQ people in their countries as creations of the West, these leaders both feed on and fuel existing prejudices. Strongly worded statements from President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon merely reinforce the argument that the West is imposing an international “gay agenda” on unwilling nations. The irony, of course, is that these “anti-Western” policies were created and marketed by Americans.
The people of Uganda, Nigeria, Russia and elsewhere are leading their own struggles for human rights. Their fight is difficult enough without campaigns of vilification designed by a handful of Americans who distort the meaning of the Gospels to justify the criminalization of innocents.
Lively is facing a civil lawsuit in a Massachusetts court brought by the African group Sexual Minorities Uganda, which has accused him of violating international law by inciting persecution of Ugandan gays. Although Lively has denied the lawsuit’s allegations, it is one of the few cases that attempts to hold Americans accountable for inciting persecution overseas.
Lively and other culture warriors rely on their deeds abroad going largely unnoticed back home. When things get hot, as they did during the debate over Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill, they issue statements distancing themselves from the events they have set in motion. But they should be held accountable for the persecution of women and LGBTQ people abroad.
If we fail to do so, we’ll find that Nigeria, Russia and Uganda are just the beginning.
Kapya Kaoma is an Anglican priest and the senior religion and sexuality researcher at Political Research Associates in Boston. He wrote the reports “Colonizing African Values” and “Globalizing the Culture Wars.”