Jonathan O’Toole—an American anti-choice activist based in Nakuru, Kenya—makes no secret of his opinions about President Obama. “I hate Obama, I hate his guts,” he told me in a recent interview. “I’m against him. I’m his enemy.”
Indeed, in the struggle for human rights—including the rights of women and LGBTQI people—Jonathan O’Toole stands in stark opposition to the president’s pro-choice, pro-LGBTQI efforts. And in Kenya, O’Toole isn’t alone. East Africa has proven to be fertile territory for his Christian Right agenda.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding President Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya, where he will be attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. While some Kenyans are eagerly anticipating the long-promised visit (the president’s first trip to his father’s homeland since 2006), others are already organizing protests, threatening acts of defiance if Obama dares speak out for LGBTQI equality while in the country.
At a press conference on July 6, Kenyan lawmakers and religious leaders, including National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, said the president risks opening “floodgates of evil” by promoting LGBTQI rights, adding “we have a responsibility to protect our children.” One of the speakers, MP Charles Njagagua, warned that if President Obama spoke in favor of LGBTQI rights during his speech to the National Assembly, he would be ejected from the House.
Another Kenyan leader, Samuel Thuita, a senior member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, threatened to throw eggs at Obama if he speaks out about LGBTQI rights during his time in Kenya, correlating the act with historic resistance to British imperialism:
“The founding father of the nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was pelted with rotten eggs in Britain for only agitating for our independence. I will mobilise and lead every member of the council, including women and the youth, and Kenyans in general to throw rotten eggs at Obama if he dares introduce the gay and lesbian debate.”
And Obama isn’t the only one being threatened. Denis Nzioka, a Kenyan LGBTQI rights activist, reported to the International Business Times that homophobia is on the rise. “There have been more beatings, evictions and attacks when public discourse focuses on the [LGBTQI] community,” he explained. “It gets heightened and it will only increase momentum as Obama’s visit gets closer.”
By contrast to the United States, where the White House was recently awash with the colors of the rainbow following the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, in Kenya, those found guilty of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison.
According to local reporting, “Thuita urged Kenyans and Africans to uphold their customs and not fall prey to neocolonialism being introduced through the back door.”
This tactic of coopting and twisting the language of neocolonialism to suggest that homosexuality—rather than homophobia—is the foreign [ideological] agent is increasingly employed by Christian Right-influenced African leaders, who have found that scapegoating LGBTQI people is a highly effective way of distracting constituents from economic deficits and political corruption, and thus maintaining power.
As PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has observed, this self-serving twist on colonialism and neocolonialism is far from accurate:
“[I]t is not LGBTQ people who are foreign to Africa, but rather the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that is being used against them. […] It is true that Western nations have not always acted in the interest of Africa (to put it mildly), but to use the West as an excuse to persecute and imprison innocent persons is appalling. Politicians like [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe and [The Gambia President Yahya] Jammeh, who have robbed their respective nations of billions of dollars, are also responsible for their countries’ dire economic states. These African leaders condemn the West and scapegoat gays to distract from real issues facing their nations and to hide their own incompetence, corruption, and despotism.”
Meanwhile, the real neocolonial narrative is being scripted and directed by right-wing Christian culture warriors from the United States. Sharon Slater of Family Watch International and John Eastman of the National Organization for Marriage were featured speakers at Kenya’s “National Family Conference” this past May (an event sponsored by the U.S.-based culture war-exporting group World Congress of Families). Rick Warren of Saddleback Church announced during a 2014 visit to Kenya that he intends on expanding his ministry into East Africa (this element of Warren’s dominionist agenda will assuredly gain momentum during his “All-Africa Purpose Driven Conference,” set to be convened in Rwanda next year). The American Center for Law & Justice—which advocates against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality—established their East Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya in 2011.
And then there are the less familiar faces—people like Jonathan O’Toole—who are amplifying the U.S. Christian Right’s global attack on LGBTQI equality and reproductive justice.
Some may recall O’Toole from Soldiers in the Army of God, an HBO documentary released in 2000 that featured interviews with several high-profile anti-choice extremists. O’Toole—then just 19-years-old—became the focal point of the film as he traveled the country seeking the most “radical” and “terroristic” anti-choice group he could find.
Today, O’Toole’s main culture war weapon is ProjectSEE.org, an acronym for “Stop Exporting Evil.” O’Toole, who first visited Kenya in 2007, uses the website to warn Africans about the “satanic” culture of the West.
One section of the website is modeled after the Nuremberg Files website, a project established by the late Neal Horsley, who was a close friend and mentor to O’Toole.1 The Nuremberg Files served as an online database of American abortion service providers, including their names, pictures, and contact information. As Dahlia Lithwick at the Slate reported in 2002, “The ‘wanted’ program was pretty effective at dissuading abortion doctors. After his name appeared on a poster in 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed entering a Florida abortion clinic. Five months later and after his name appeared on a wanted poster, Dr. George Patterson was shot and killed. In 1994, after his name appeared on a poster, Dr. John Britton was killed by Paul Hill.”
After a lengthy legal battle, the courts ultimately found Horsley’s Nuremberg Files to be unlawful and the site was subsequently shut down.
O’Toole, however, has revived the idea with printer-friendly “not wanted” posters on the ProjectSEE website, including one for David Kuria Mbote – former director of the Gay & Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and Kenya’s first openly gay man to run for political office. O’Toole told me he has no way of tracking how many posters have been distributed independent of his own group’s efforts, but boasted that thousands have been posted around Nakuru (the fourth largest city in Kenya), and about a thousand more have been put up in Nairobi.
The poster for Kuria includes a picture of his face and his contact information, along with the label “Nairobi Shoga” (shoga is a derogatory term for a gay man in Swahili). Local LGBTQI rights activists have submitted complaints to Kenya’s Communications Commission (in charge of regulating internet content in the country), but were told that Kenya had no authority over the site since it’s registered in the United States (under O’Toole’s name).
The tactic spark memories of the Rolling Stone case in Uganda, where the tabloid newspaper (no relation to the U.S. publication) published the names and pictures of 100 of the country’s “top homos,” and called for their execution with a banner reading “hang them.” David Kato, a prominent LGBTQI activist who was included on the list, was murdered just three months later.
After Kuria’s name was added to O’Toole’s “not wanted” list, he received threats by phone and e-mail, and odd dents appeared on his car when he left it parked in the lot outside his home at night. Kuria was ultimately forced to move after a man came to his house and threatened him.
“The implication was that I would die,” said Kuria.
Despite the violent outcomes of this sort of propaganda, in O’Toole’s mind, his work comes from a place of love. Paul Nevin, an independent journalist who recently traveled to Kenya on a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, explained that O’Toole “believes that many of those in the Middle Ages who were burning people at the stake to save them from hell, were doing it out of love.”
Following the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision on June 26, President Obama tweeted, “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins”
What it would mean for love to win in Kenya is a frightening thing to contemplate, given the growing influence of American culture warriors in Africa. Those who have fought against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality here in the States, continue to wreak havoc abroad, and until we work to expose, confront, and hold them accountable, O’Toole’s version of “love” will keep gaining ground.
- Horsley once boasted, “Jonathan [O’Toole] might well be more dangerous to the homosexual outlaws of the world than me. After all, Project SEE is not merely about holding one rich and famous homosexual like Elton John accountable; it’s about stopping the legalization of homosexuality throughout the world.”