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07 Mar 2014 00:00
Activists say an emotive conference in 2009, featuring anti-gay US activist Scott Lively, ignited local campaigns led by the church against homosexuality. (Jeremiah Newton)
Ugandan gay rights activist Dennis Wamala (28) can pinpoint when "the war went from rhetoric to action".
It was in early March 2009. Ugandan Pentecostal pastors such as Martin Ssempa and Solomon Moses Male had begun to make a noise a few years earlier about gays allegedly recruiting children at schools with Western help, according to Wamala.
Later, three American evangelical Christians jetted into Kampala to be keynote speakers at the Seminar on Exploring the International Homosexual Agenda.
They were Scott Lively, the co-founder of the international anti-gay extremist group Watchmen on the Walls, and the co-author of The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party; Don Schmierer, who has worked with "homosexual recovery groups" and has penned five books relating to "ex-gay therapy"; and Caleb Lee Brundidge, an "ex-gay" who is said to lead groups to mortuaries in an attempt to raise the dead and who has experience working as a "sexual reorientation coach".
Homosexual acts were already illegal in Uganda under sodomy laws introduced during colonialism, and were punishable by 14 years to life in prison.
"You'd hear isolated cases, so-and-so was beaten because they were kissing, hugging.
But it's not like it is now," Wamala, who works at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) support group Icebreakers, said on March 3, just before he went to check on another Ugandan distressed after being outed as a "homo" by local tabloid Red Pepper.
With their eyes and ears to the ground, in March 2009, Uganda’s LGBTI community got wind that the seminar, advertised by church posters, was being hosted by the Uganda-based Family Life Network (FLN), founded by Ugandan pastor Stephen Langa, just two days before it began at Kampala’s Hotel Triangle.
Wamala was an "undercover" fly on the wall with two other activists and silently endured "a million and one lies" about gays at the seminar, targeted at parents, politicians and preachers, whom they charged 25 000 Ugandan shillings (R108) a day.
"I have to give them credit. They are good. Don Schmierer would even cry," said Wamala, who has been an activist since 2004, and has faced death threats.
"People in the audience began crying, and you could feel the anger burning. Everyone left saying, 'We need to do something about this'."
Reverend Dr Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican priest and senior religious and sexuality researcher at social justice think-tank Political Research Associates, attended the conference and the separate strategic meeting on combating homosexuality hosted by the FLN five days later. He recalls being informed that Parliament, having heard from Lively, believed that a new Bill was needed to take into consideration the international gay agenda.
The same week, Kaoma said, Ugandans petitioned Parliament for new legislation. He claims the first draft of a Bill, which he says contained "all the talking points of Scott Lively", was presented to Parliament on April 20 2009.
The Bill wasn't officially brought to the floor until October 2009, when MP David Bahati introduced legislation containing a death penalty provision for certain homosexual acts such as gay people with Aids having sex.
Fast forward nearly five years, and President Yoweri Museveni signs the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, prescribing life sentences for gay sex and same-sex marriage, but without the death penalty clause.
Both Wamala and Kaoma are adamant that what’s come to fruition can be traced back to 2009.
"Ugandans are people who really don't talk about sex that much," said Wamala. "If you go to rural areas, it's largely ignored. So, if they [Lively and company] hadn’t come and lit this flame, I'm sure people would just have continued ignoring it.
"This workshop was a strategy to cement what was already going on. It was definitely a turning point. Everyone left as a campaigner against us."
Kaoma, the first researcher to expose the strong links between American right-wing evangelicals and anti-gay laws in Uganda, said he warned in 2009 that Lively's seminar had "planted hatred and a new law was coming".
Lively has denied claims that he was involved in the drawing up of the anti-homosexuality legislation.
In an email to the Mail & Guardian last week, Lively, who is the president of conservative Christian association Defend the Family International and a "Bible-believing Christian missionary to the global pro-family movement", said: "I did not participate in the drafting of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill but was asked to review it before it was released to the public.
"I suggested a shift in emphasis from punishment to prevention and rehabilitation. They did not follow my suggestions."
In a February 25 blog post, Lively said that he believed "the Russian approach of banning homosexual propaganda [aimed at] children as a preventive measure is a better model for other nations of the world looking [to] avoid the moral degeneracy that has occurred in the US and European Union due to so-called 'gay rights' ".
In March 2012, the lobby group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug) sued Lively, accusing him of conducting a campaign of homophobia in Uganda. The advocacy group filed the lawsuit in Massachusetts, under a statute that the group said allowed noncitizens to launch United States court actions for violations of international law. The lawsuit also names Langa, Ssempa, Bahati and James Buturo, a former Uganda minister of ethics and integrity.
Pamela Spees, staff attorney at the Centre for Constitutional Rights and a lawyer representing Smug, said the parties were exchanging evidence and taking testimonies, but it was a long process, and the next court date would be in May 2015.
Wamala said the case was about "trying to tell the world that you cannot just come into a country, plant your seeds of hate, and then go".
"Even if it's not about homosexuality, even if it's another ideal," he said. "And we're trying to tell pastors here that there is freedom of speech, freedom of expression. But you need to know where the boundaries are."
Lively said that he had "no current plans to return to Uganda or to travel to any other country".
But Gary Skinner, the founder of the extremely popular and well-connected "cell-based community church" Watoto Church and the team leader of Watoto Ministries, which cares for HIV and Aids orphans, has a huge presence.
During one packed service at Watoto Church Central in downtown Kampala on Sunday March 2, Skinner asked his flock: "Do you not know verse 19 [1 Corinthians 6:19] that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?"
Bouncing up and down on an auditorium stage, a waterfall lit up by red lights behind him as his image was beamed to hundreds of regular followers sitting in other parts of the building, he continued: "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your … sexuality."
Uganda has been fertile ground for Pentecostal movements, but Kaoma said American conservatives had also managed to wield considerable influence in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia, Jamaica and some Eastern Europe countries courtesy of pastors portraying themselves as "preachers of factual Christianity".
"They are taken seriously by African audiences, who see them as representatives of Christianity," he said. "They have also taken advantage of a colonial residue or internalised colonialism, by which I mean the respect white people attract among Africans. Hence, they find it easy to propagate their ideologies and attract big audiences. They find it easy to meet politicians and present their cases to political leaders."
As Skinner was preaching at Watoto Church Central, the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Stanley Ntangali, was at St Andrews Church in Bukoto, another Kampala suburb. During a service, he warned that Uganda was ready to break away from the Church of England if its views on homosexuality were not respected.
But Kaoma said the Anglican Communion had little influence over Uganda. American conservative extremists with direct links to local pastors, who this week had endorsed Museveni for a fifth term, were the "darlings".
With reports that Tanzania and Kenya might be considering introducing anti-gay laws, Kaoma said it was a critical moment for LGBTI rights struggles. The way the issue was addressed in Uganda and Nigeria would affect other countries.
"The marriage between politics and religion in Uganda makes it impossible to stamp out homophobia," Kaoma said. "The only way this can be addressed is by changing political and religious power.
"Uganda's future depends on how Ugandans perceive themselves in the global community."
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