An American Episcopal bishop was traveling in South Africa shortly after Gene Robinson had been consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. While visiting a rural seminary, the bishop found a group of students, sitting around a late-night campfire, engrossed in animated conversation in their native Swahili language. Interested to know what deep theological query was up for debate, the bishop asked his translator what the group was talking about, and was amused to learn that the topic of discussion was none other than his dear friend, Gene.
Speaking through his translator, the bishop said to the group, “As it so happens, I know Gene – he’s a good friend of mine. In fact, I’ve been to his house and have had dinner with him and his partner. What would you like to know about him?”
This disclosure sparked another lively debate among the seminarians, who ultimately returned to the translator with one burning question: “Who cooks?”
As the Anglican Church was being torn asunder over the ordination of LGBTQ individuals, it’s somewhat funny that such a seemingly simple concern would be the question for the South African seminarians. But it also illustrates some of the deeper issues at play. In cultures where strict gender roles are considered fundamental to the integrity of family and community, it can be difficult for someone to imagine how a family might eat, for example, if the household doesn’t include someone who’s traditionally understood to hold cooking responsibilities.
However, as noted in the recent “Scientific Statement on Homosexuality” submitted to Uganda’s President Museveni by a team of expert (Ugandan) scientists, “Homosexuality existed in Africa way before the coming of the white man.” And evidently, somebody managed to get the cooking done.
Under the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865, England was able to impose its laws on colonized territories, including Uganda. This package of imported morality included the 1533 Buggery Act, which originally condemned anyone found guilty of an “unnatural sex act” to death and loss of property. By 1885, although the death penalty was replaced with imprisonment, the Courts specified that anal sex between men was a crime.
England and Wales got rid of their sodomy laws in 1967 (decades before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling in 2003 which finally eliminated sodomy laws here), but Uganda had gained its independence in 1962, and the homophobia inherited from British colonial rule remained on the books.
These relics of the colonial era, combined with a new wave of aggressive fervor from U.S. conservative evangelical missionaries, have created the perfect foundation for an all-out war against LGBTQ people (formally declared by Pres. Museveni in his Valentine’s Day address last week). That foundation is further fueled by the historic trauma of colonization, which helps enable leaders like Museveni to cast homosexuality as a Western import, and criminalization of homosexuality as an anti-colonial act of “resistance” rather than oppression.
The attacks on LGBTQ people have more to do with post-colonial backlash against the West than with upholding “traditional African values,” as was illustrated by The Gambia president Yahya Jammeh’s recent speech, marking the 49th anniversary of The Gambia’s independence from Britain. Speaking on state television, Jammeh proclaimed that his country would defend its sovereignty and Islamic beliefs and not yield to outside pressure on LGBTQ issues. Addressing threats from the United States and other Western nations to cut foreign aid to countries that pass anti-homosexuality laws, Jammeh declared, “We will … not accept any friendship, aid or any other gesture that is conditional on accepting homosexuals or LGBT as they are now baptized by the powers that promote them.”
“As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhea, Bacteria, and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence,” he added.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s spokesperson, Tamale Mirundi, has stated that the country “can do without” American foreign aid and that Museveni “cannot be intimidated.” (Currently, the U.S. contributes around $400 million in foreign aid to Uganda every year, much of which goes towards humanitarian causes, including the battle against HIV/AIDS.)
Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity who has actively campaigned against the LGBTQ community, has also proclaimed that Ugandans would rather “die poor than live in an immoral nation.”
According to Mirundi, “If you use the [foreign] aid or other strings you are inciting the population in Uganda to rally behind the President.”
Indeed, President Obama’s recent condemnation of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill may have received praise from LGBTQ and human rights advocates in the United States, but the shaming of Uganda’s leader is likely to only further entrench international opponents. As Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has observed, “By signing this draconian bill, Museveni repositions himself as the defender of Uganda against ‘Western imperialism’ on one hand, and the defender of Ugandan religious and cultural values to the populace, on the other.”
This same dynamic is playing out in Russia, where President Putin has been boosting his political standing and solidifying his power through a strategic pro-Russian/anti-Western campaign that positions LGBTQ people as the ultimate Western-made threat to Mother Russia.
Presenting Russia’s “Report on the Human Rights Situation in the European Union” at the 32nd EU-Russia Summit last month, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights commissioner, said the EU and its 28 member states saw it as a priority to disseminate their “neo-liberal values as a universal lifestyle for all other members of the international community.” Citing the EU’s “aggressive promotion of the sexual minorities’ rights,” the report argued that “Such an approach encounters resistance not only in the countries upholding traditional values, but also in those countries which have always taken a liberal attitude towards queers.”
So what are concerned Western activists to do?
Any thoughtfully considered approach to solidarity work must centralize the leadership of those who are most directly affected by the injustice at hand, so when the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law calls for U.S. and other countries to withdraw their Ambassadors to Uganda and Nigeria, the request needs to be taken seriously.
In a press statement released by the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin said, “The Ugandan and Nigerian governments’ decisions to treat their LGBT citizens like criminals cannot be accepted as business as usual by the U.S. government. We urge Secretary Kerry to recall both Ambassadors for consultations in Washington to make clear the seriousness of the situation in both countries.”
The U.S.-based LGBTQ rights group All Out has also joined the effort with an online petition. In their explanation of the campaign, organizers write, “If thousands and thousands of us speak out right now we can get the attention of the whole world. We could even get world leaders, major corporations, and religious institutions with sway in Uganda to use their influence.”
But there’s another influencing factor in the struggle for LGBTQ justice in Uganda that cuts in international aid would paradoxically bolster: that of right-wing U.S. evangelicals—the very same people who laid the foundation for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the first place. While diplomatic pressure may prevent further criminalization of LGBTQ Ugandans in a legislative sense, reversing over 150 years of colonial and neocolonial anti-LGBTQ indoctrination requires more than a condemnatory statement from the U.S. Secretary of State.
Perhaps our greatest contribution as Americans is to start here at home—to confront those who have propagated violence and virulent messages against LGBTQ people around the world, hold them accountable for the harm that they’ve caused, and develop long-term strategies for transforming hearts and minds and building toward truly comprehensive liberation.