On January 18, 2013, a new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams premiered worldwide at the Sundance Film Festival. In God Loves Uganda, Williams aims to make American Christians aware of how their collection plate donations might be contributing to programs abroad. Williams, a gay man raised in a devoutly Christian household, made his video in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that is awaiting approval in Uganda’s Parliament. When asked by interviewer Kevin Ritchie why he chose to focus on the evangelical missionaries rather than the LGBT activists in the country, Williams replied that he is “much more interested in the people who want to kill me.”
To understand the anti-gay missionaries, Williams made an effort to surround himself with those people that made him the most uncomfortable. Despite the missionaries’ hateful rhetoric, “they’re still a person” and he wanted to create a successful dialogue that would help the audience learn and grow. Called “the most terrifying film of the year” by Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer David Courier, Williams hopes the film will impact debates in the U.S. surrounding evangelicalism and foreign policy.
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill
In addition to the Constitution Amendment Act of 2005, which prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex, homosexuality is also criminalized under the Ugandan Penal Code.
According to the International Federation of Human Rights, the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill would significantly broaden this criminalization and contribute to an increase of arbitrary arrests, physical violence, and discrimination against LGBTs. Last year, David Kato, a prominent LGBThuman rights defender in Uganda, was murdered after his name and photo were released in the news.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was originally introduced to the Ugandan Parliament in October 2009 by David Bahati, a Ugandan Member of Parliament (MP). Upon the introduction of the bill in 2009, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni fielded a personal phone call from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who expressed U.S. opposition to the bill.
According to investigative journalist and author John Sharlet, Bahati is a member of ‘The Family’. Based out of Washington D.C., The Family is a secretive fellowship of powerful American Christian politicians who are anti-gay and anti-abortion. In his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Sharlet investigates The Family’s critical role in formulating the original Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced by Bahati. In an interview with the New York Times, Bahati said that the idea for the bill first arose from a conversation with members of The Family in 2008, because it was “too late” in America to propose such legislation. According to the Reverend Kapya Kaoma of Zambia, much of Africa’s anti-homosexuality movement is supported by American evangelicals. Lobbying for the bill in Uganda has been generously funded by conservative U.S. Christian organizations that range from evangelicals to Catholics to Mormons.
There is a prevailing belief in Uganda that homosexuals recruit people into their sexual orientation. In a December 2010 interview with Rachel Maddow, Bahati proclaimed that $15 million had been invested in Uganda to “recruit children into being gay.” He asserted that children are tempted with money used to “lure them into the practice of homosexuality.”
In regards to Ugandan views of homosexuality, Ugandan Edith Gwokyalya said, “In my opinion, we Africans hold our cultural expectations in high esteem. Homosexuality is one of those things that are culturally viewed as taboo, therefore the idea of it is greatly rejected. ” Gwokyalya says that although some people feel that homosexuality is their right, it does not change the cultural perception, and so gays are still looked down upon.
Strong opposition from international governments and civil society organizations helped delay the bill for more than two years. In February 2012, Bahati reintroduced the bill to Parliament amidst applause from fellow MPs. Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, announced that she would pass the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill as a “Christmas present” to Ugandans.
Is Homosexuality the Real Issue?
The bill is seen by many as a distraction for the country’s underlying problems. Many members of Parliament see the bill as a unifier, a guaranteed popularity booster. Those opposed to the bill believe it is being kept alive to distract Ugandans from the real issues; in December oil legislation stalled, and several European nations cut aid to the country because of a corruption scandal. Be that as it may, homosexuality legislation remains an undeniably prominent issue for Ugandans.
Although many details of the bill have been kept confidential, the reintroduced bill contains such punitive measure as a seven-year sentence for consenting adults who have gay sex, life sentences for people in same sex marriages and even jail time for those that do not report known LGBTs to authorities. Unlike the original bill, Ugandan lawmakers say that the new bill does not contain the death penalty clause for “aggravated homosexuality.” This includes homosexual acts in which HIV is spread, or gay adults who have sex with minors. It was this clause that gave the 2009 bill the notorious nickname, the “Kill the Gays bill.”
U.S. Government Condemns the Bill
U.S. President Barack Obama has called the bill “odious.” In November 2012, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson traveled to Uganda to “reiterate the U.S. administration’s ‘vocal’ concerns about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” During a press briefing on November 26, 2012, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland communicated U.S. condemnation of the bill and stated that the chief concern at hand is the criminalization of homosexuality. The goal of Assistant Secretary Carson’s trip was to emphasize the U.S. stance to Ugandan President Museveni, the Parliament, and to key decision makers in Uganda. Nuland refused to comment on whether the U.S. would join countries such as Britain, Norway and Sweden who have threatened to cut foreign aid to Uganda if the bill becomes law. She stated that the U.S. administration is currently focused on “raising awareness of the concerns within Uganda about this bill so that we don’t get to that stage.”
The International Human Rights Community Responds
In a press statement released on December 7, 2012, Souhayr Belhassen, the President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), declared that “the anti-homosexuality bill has to be rejected unconditionally.” Sidiki Kaba, Honorary President of FIDH, said, “if passed, this bill will seriously jeopardize fundamental freedoms and represent a setback for the country.” The bill is at odds with Uganda’s domestic and international human rights commitments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
On December 10, dozens of LGBT activists stormed the Ugandan Embassy in London protesting what they call the “world’s most harsh and comprehensively homophobic law.” On January 9, 2013, the University of Buckingham (UB) in the UK suspended its affiliation with Victoria University in Uganda because of the anti-gay bill. UB wanted Victoria University to include a clause in its statute stating that no person will be discriminated on the basis of “sexual orientation.” However, because the Ugandan Constitution and Penal Code prohibits homosexuality, Victoria University could not oblige. Dr. David Young, Vice-Chancellor of UB, said, “there are fundamental differences between the two nations’ respective laws regarding equality and diversity, which cannot be reconciled.”
More than 445,000 people have joined a campaign on Change.com, urging Citibank and Barclays to publicly condemn the bill. Both Citibank and Barclays have major operations in Uganda, and Citibank customer Collin Burton, who launched the campaign, said, “Now, perhaps more than ever before, we need the international business community to step up and lead by the corporate values they tout on their websites. Human lives are counting on it.”
Strong Support from the Religious Right
News of the bill’s reintroduction was greeted with enthusiasm by leaders on the religious right. American anti-gay extremist Scott Lively has been a major backer for the bill since its inception, and called the recent progress “a huge blessing for Uganda. Museveni is calmly and confidently setting the course of his nation by the guidance of the Bible, in a way that also shows great courage and resolve.” This same community of Christian American right-wing leaders praised Museveni extensively for his prayer of national atonement, delivered in October. Museveni’s prayer focused on overcoming demonic influences like witchcraft, and sounded very similar to prayers given at American events sponsored by religious right organizations. Conservative evangelicals were ecstatic, cheering Museveni for providing “an inspirational moment for the nation.”
In God Loves Uganda, the film focuses on the activities of the International House of Prayer, an anti-gay church located in Kansas City, Missouri. According to the film, the church has helped to create a new level of hatred and violence against gays in Uganda. Through his film, Williams demonstrates that missionaries today are not just focused on bringing Jesus to Africa, but also the entire political agenda of the American conservative movement. Along with the message that “Jesus saves” evangelical missionaries also communicate their controversial stances against birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.
James Onen, the host of a popular morning show on the Ugandan radio station Sanu FM interviewed Solomon Male, a Ugandan Pastor who has openly taken a stand against homosexuality. Onen reported that “with spite in his voice,” Pastor Male told him that “the bill should be called the Pro-Homosexuality Bill because it was the best thing to happen to the gay community in Uganda.” Onen says that Pastor Male believes the bill has made people learn about homosexuality by creating conversation around it. Anti-gay as well as LGBT activists agree that before the proposal of this bill, homosexuality was never discussed. And according to some Ugandans, homophobia “did not exist in Uganda” because sexual relations between people of the same sex was never acknowledged, and therefore it was not an issue.
The Anti-Homosexuality bill has ignited discussions in Uganda related to sexual orientation, but many Ugandans and international observers are concerned that this issue is directing the focus of the country away from corruption scandals and serious financial debts to an easier, more unifying subject for the nation.