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How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda's Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse

A gay person in Kenya wears a mask to preserve his anonymity as part of a rare protest against Uganda's increasingly bigoted stance against homosexuality. Photo by AP/Ben Curtis
Sara Weschler
Contributor
Sara Weschler has been involved with advocacy surrounding the Lord's Resistance Army conflict since 2005 and started traveling to Uganda in 2007, ultimately moving there after college to work for a local…
Sara Weschler

On the morning after President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, a Ugandan friend of mine posted a celebratory Facebook status extolling his country’s persecution of the LGBT community and condemning the West for trying to impose immorality on a proudly “Christian nation.” The post ended with “we go, we go, we go, we go, Uganda, oyeee, we go,” the refrain of a Ugandan fight song I’ve often heard students chant on football pitches before a match with a major opponent.

My friend is not a bad person. He’s a freelance researcher for social justice groups in his home district; much of his reporting focuses on peace-building initiatives, and he’s one of the few Ugandan men I know who openly espouses feminist ideals. I’d seen hints of homophobia from him before, but never anything this blatant. Granted, it’s been nearly two years since my last stay in Uganda, and in that time my contact with this person has been sporadic. People change. But even so, the belligerence in his statement shocked me; it seemed out of character for him.

Because the time stamp on his status indicated that he had posted only moments earlier and I thought I might still catch him online, I clicked through to his wall and typed out a response. “It makes me sad that someone I respect is propagating hate,” I wrote, then hovered uneasily over the “post” button. Clicking the text again, I nudged the cursor back through the sentence and added a “so much” after my expression of respect. I paused and reread what I had written. Then I deleted my comment and scrolled away.

That was over two weeks ago. In the days since, there have been a lot of deleted sentences. My notebook is filling up with false starts and half-finished thoughts on the matter, but I keep hanging back uncertainly. The question of homosexuality in Uganda is one I generally steer clear of — not because I don’t have an opinion on the issue, but because I often question the wisdom of expressing it. When it comes to Ugandan perceptions of homosexuality, feelings have reached such a fever pitch over the past five years that any Westerner weighing in on the matter is likely only to stir up more anger.

And yet, there are things I feel I should say. I’ve been flustered and angry since the bill passed Uganda’s parliament in December and there is much I’ve been wanting to explain. What I’m realizing now, though, is that it’s not my Ugandan friends I want to address, it’s fellow Westerners. There are historical, cultural and political dimensions to this situation that the Western media have largely overlooked — dimensions that have very real implications for people on the ground and that ought to affect the way we approach this issue. It may not be my place right now to enter a Ugandan discussion on these matters, but perhaps I do have something to add to the Western one.

Related: Hear an interview with the author about this story on last week’s Truthdig Radio. Also, “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell: Anti-Gay Laws Make Targets of Us All.”

The last time I waded into this subject in earnest was in 2012. At the time, I had been living in Uganda for about 18 months and had been variously involved with the country for close to seven years. All along, I’d been cautious when approaching the topic of homosexuality. It was a subject I broached only with my closest Ugandan friends, and even then I was careful to tread lightly. Nor was the topic particularly hard to avoid in my day-to-day life. I lived in Gulu, a district in the north of the country that had recently emerged from two decades at the mercy of Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. As the employee of a local post-conflict recovery NGO, I was often privy to the concerns of community members, but these never brought me near the terrain of gay rights. Farmers came to our office with fears of food insecurity, with land disputes teetering on the brink of violence; returned child soldiers showed up with reports of harassment and stigmatization. In a community struggling to find its footing after 20 years of trauma and ethnic marginalization, questions of sexual identity understandably took a back seat. Perhaps this is why I was so thrown when the subject did finally surface in my work life one April morning during a local leaders’ workshop convened to discuss youth empowerment in the region.

The workshop was headed up by two local NGOs, one of which was my employer. Though I felt slightly out of place among the local councilors, clergy and village health team officers — a sort of vastly under-qualified intruder in the room — I participated for the simple reason that all my colleagues were participating. And for the first two days I fit in just fine. My trouble came on the third day when we were asked to break into groups and brainstorm a list of the most pressing dangers facing the area’s youth.

I honestly can’t tell you who was in my group or what challenges we came up with; the whole exercise has been obscured by the discussion that ensued. The first to present was a team from the neighboring district of Nwoya. They pinned their notes to the easel at the front of the room so that everyone could follow along, but because I was in the fourth or fifth row of seats, I couldn’t make out the contents until their spokesperson began reading aloud. “For our No. 1 concern,” he said, “we’d like to mention the danger of these foreign NGOs that are coming into the country to turn our children gay.” There was a pause and several dozen heads swiveled ever so slightly in my direction, discreetly angling to gauge the reaction of the only foreigner in the room. I stared into my notepad and waited for the group to move on to the second bullet point. The spokesman, however, seemed determined to elaborate. “You see,” he continued, “these Westerners come to Uganda to try to lure our youth into their lifestyle. This is why we have to root out this disgusting practice while there’s still time.” Grave nods all around. A woman from a different group spoke up to clarify (though it was not entirely clear for whom), saying, “They go into schools and use money and fancy phones to draw students away from the proper path.” Other voices chimed in with further descriptions of this “evil” and the threat posed by the “filth” these “morally bankrupt” organizations brought in from abroad. The discussion had clearly snagged on this topic, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I finally raised my hand.“Maybe,” I opened cautiously, “we should be a bit careful about what we put on this list. I’m hearing some pretty hateful language right now, and I think that regardless of how we might individually feel about homosexuality, we can all agree that hatred isn’t good for any community and that teaching our youth to hate others is never in anyone’s interest.” I hoped the statement was mild and conciliatory enough to close the subject, but several people in the room appeared to take it as bait: All of a sudden I found myself the target of four emphatic lectures at once. Already regretting my decision to step in, I tried again to move the conversation along to the next topic. “Look,” I said, “even if you honestly believe that homosexuality is a threat to youth, don’t you think it’s a bit of a distraction in this discussion? Don’t you think that in Gulu or Nwoya, of all places, there are more pressing threats that require our attention?”

A man in a crisp pink shirt and gray slacks fixed me with a pitying look. “For you, you cannot understand because in your country the gay propaganda has already triumphed,” he said. “But here in Uganda we have our true African culture that needs to be protected. You know, trying to destroy a culture is a kind of what? It is a kind of genocide. It is true! So we need to protect our society from the genocide of those outside groups that want to what? That want to turn our children gay.”

In response I countered, “But you can’t turn somebody gay. It’s not something you can become. It’s not something people decide on. It’s just something they are.” Patronizing head shakes rippled through the room. “You can’t control who you love,” I pressed, “and people who try to, live agonizing tortured lives. No one should have to live like that.” Silence. Then from one corner of the room, a loud contemptuous tsk followed by a series of snickers.

I’d like to say that I made my next point on principle, but it probably had more to do with pride. By now I was beginning to get angry. I could feel the righteous condescension of the whole group converging upon me and suddenly I wanted to lash out. I wanted to make my “opponents” uncomfortable. “Studies show that about one in every 15 people is born homosexual,” I told the pink-shirted man. I swept the assembled participants and quickly did the math before resuming. “That means that statistically speaking, there are probably around four homosexuals with us at this workshop right now,” I said.

The room erupted with something both raucous and vicious. People pounded their armrests and rocked in their seats, they slapped their hands together in a frenzied pantomime of amusement and glee. “No, no, no!” I tried to shout over the chaos. I searched the crowd for an ally, tried to catch the eye of a woman I’d sat with at breakfast for the past three mornings, turned imploringly to my own colleagues; nobody would hold my gaze. “I’m serious,” I yelled, “it’s not a joke.” But the laughter swelled to a howl, drowning me out completely. Deeply rattled, I stood up and left the room, kept walking until I was out on the street. And then, because I am a person for whom anger and sadness often tangle inextricably, I sat down on the curb and I sobbed.

Two years later, I’m still wondering whether speaking up that day was the right decision. I believe in what I said, but I am not sure I was the right person to say it. I have had fruitful conversations about homosexuality in Uganda. But these have always been with people I have known for years, people whose trust I have earned on a wide variety of issues before ever touching the subject of sexual orientation. This was a very different case. To the local leaders in that youth empowerment workshop, I was a near stranger; they had no reason to hear me out. I doubt that I changed any minds in that room and I fear that for a brief moment I made myself part of a shrill and bombastic contingent of Western advocates whose insensitive activism has in fact done more harm than good in Uganda.

That the groundwork for the Anti-Homosexuality Act was laid — at least in some part — by Americans is at this point widely acknowledged. Western coverage of the law has long highlighted the role of evangelical preachers like California attorney Scott Lively, and films like “God Loves Uganda” have documented the activism of American born-again Christians in the field. What is less often recognized is that the bill could well have languished indefinitely were it not for the fervid attention it received from both sides of the debate. American conservatives may well have stoked homophobic fears in Uganda, but Western LGBT rights activism has also played a role in bringing about this desperate state of affairs.

Much of Uganda’s homophobia is predicated on the notion that gay people aim to impose their lifestyle on the entire society, that there is a widespread effort by LGBT communities both at home and abroad to convert “normal” Ugandans to homosexuality. Unfortunately, American and European pressure on this issue has served only to reinforce this misconception.

One problem with Western LGBT activism vis-à-vis Uganda is that it is largely carried out by people who know little about the country beyond its stance on sexual orientation. Rather than engaging with the full spectrum of social injustice in Uganda, these activists target a problem that affects only a sliver of the population and demand that the whole society treat it as a priority. The fact that this stirs resentment should not come as a surprise. Anyone who works with stigmatized groups in a community where suffering is widespread can probably already see the flaw in such an approach. By singling out one demographic and privileging its plight over others’, you often end up drawing anger and hostility toward the very group you intended to help. Moreover, whenever you force an issue on a community you have not taken the time to fully understand, you run an exceptionally high risk of cultural miscommunication. In this case, well-intentioned but heavy-handed initiatives to foster tolerance were interpreted as attempts at cultural imperialism and conversion.I am not going to tell you that Uganda does not have a profound homophobia problem. All of the East African Community has a homophobia problem. Yet most gays and bisexuals in Kenya and Tanzania did not wake up this morning fearing for their lives. And several years ago, most Ugandan gays would not have felt such a fear either. Something has gone terribly wrong in Uganda over the past five years. What was once simply an ugly prejudice has morphed into a core cultural value. In the Uganda of 2014, homophobia has become tangled up with the very question of what it means to be Ugandan, and for that the West is largely to blame.

Ironically, this is not the first time that homosexuality, Christianity and Western influence have intersected to fuel anxieties about cultural identity in this part of the world. This June will mark the 130th anniversary of the execution of 32 Baganda Christians known today as the Uganda Martyrs. According to popular accounts in East Africa, the Martyrs, a group that consisted primarily of pageboys working in the service of the Buganda monarch Mwanga II, incurred the wrath of their king when they converted to Christianity and recognized Christ as their true Lord. The story of their subsequent slaughter has been incorporated into a wider narrative of Christian persecution in late 19th century Buganda and has become essential to the history of Christianity in the region. Records from the period, however, cast this episode in a more complicated light.

Although the execution of the Uganda Martyrs indeed coincided with a crackdown on Christianity in the Buganda kingdom, few other converts were killed in the supposed purge and many Christians retained prominent posts not only in the society at large, but even in Mwanga II’s most trusted court circles. This has led most historians of the period to speculate that there must have been other factors at play — a theory that contemporaneous documents tend to corroborate.

According to the journals and correspondence of European missionaries operating in Buganda at the time, Mwanga II opposed Christianity in general, but his specific anger at the pageboys appears rooted in an act of sexual defiance. Widely known to engage in intercourse with men, Mwanga II expected his pageboys to provide him with sexual services. Upon their conversion, however, the pages were urged by missionaries to resist the monarch’s advances (the Bible, after all, deemed sodomy a sin). Mwanga II most likely viewed their choice to heed foreigners on so intimate a matter as a particularly egregious form of betrayal. Thus, the young men’s conversion to Christianity, combined with their insubordination, came to represent a rejection of their ruler’s authority and, by extension, a defection to the intruders’ ranks.

When confronted by a French missionary, Mwanga II’s katikkiro (essentially a prime minister) justified the pageboys’ execution as follows: “It is our children that we are killing, not yours. As for you people, you are our guests; we will not drive you away, but as many as you teach we shall kill.” Thus, we see that the fear of foreigners coming in to destabilize the local society and lead people’s children astray has deep roots in Uganda — and how could it not, in a region that has witnessed more than a century of staggering manipulation and exploitation by Western powers? This rhetoric of “our children” surfaced again two weeks ago when the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s author David Bahati told the BBC that the law was meant to “stop the recruitment of our children to homosexuality.” A culture’s memory extends back through many generations. In a setting where European missionaries ultimately succeeded in converting the vast majority of the population to a foreign form of spirituality, is it really so hard to believe that people would see the latest onslaught of focused foreign attention as a new form of cultural proselytization?

By arrogantly pushing the issue of LGBT rights on a population whose values and history it does not understand, the West has only reinforced the fear that LGBT activists are out to convert “normal” people to their way of life. As a result, “rejecting” homosexuality is now equated with protecting Ugandan values and resisting cultural manipulation from the West. But the ramifications of American and European involvement on this issue do not end here.

Amid the predictable effusion of bile in the comments section of one Ugandan article on the EU’s response to the legislation, in a post itself percolating with hate, one commenter posed an interesting question. Where, he asked, were the EU and other Western powers when Uganda’s “political ‘minorities’ [were] being tortured in the street”? His other statements aside, he raises a good point here.

Two years ago, I rashly shook up a room of Ugandan local leaders with a controversial statistic. Now let me try a few numbers on you. As columnist Daniel K. Kalinaki noted in a recent Daily Monitor op-ed, a lot has happened in Uganda, statistically speaking, in the 12 weeks since the country’s parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Among other things, 1,344 mothers have died in childbirth due to inadequate medical care, 1,680 Ugandan girls and women have reported being raped (in a society where most rape victims are persuaded never to speak up), and 23,014 Ugandans have died of malaria — an illness that is both preventable and entirely treatable.

In a country with a rising HIV infection rate and dwindling anti-retroviral supplies, where thousands face the baffling threat of nodding syndrome and tens of thousands have experienced abduction at the hands of rebel fighters, a country that has seen decades of ethnic strife and in which people can be jailed indefinitely or even disappeared and tortured in government safe houses for expressing their political views, a country where police and military enjoy complete impunity even after killing scores of unarmed protesters (including at least one toddler), how dare we come in from the outside and tell locals that their most pressing concern should be the question of sexual orientation?One of the truly twisted aspects of the current situation in Uganda is that the very people you’d expect to stand as allies with the LGBT community are often the ones most staunchly opposed to it. My friend’s Facebook status was unsettling to me the other day, but it really wasn’t out of character. Some of the most progressive people I know in Uganda — people who devote their lives to truth and reconciliation work (even in the face of direct government threats), people who fight for the rights of women and marginalized ethnic groups — are also the most outspokenly homophobic.

This is not a coincidence; there is causality here. When people’s crushing struggles for justice are ignored again and again, when they feel repeatedly abandoned by an international community that purports to care about the rights of all humans, a certain anger begins to take root. “Gay rights are human rights,” we are fond of declaring, and nothing could be more patently true. Yet this is precisely not how they have been presented to most Ugandans. The West’s behavior toward Uganda has far too often framed gay rights as something separate from human rights, something more valuable and more pressing than the rights of the rest of the population. By aggressively intervening on behalf of the LGBT community, but standing silently by as an autocratic government alternates between criminal neglect and inexcusable abuse of the rest of its citizens, we in fact make Uganda’s gay population a lightning rod for popular anger. This is in no way a justification of the violence gay people face in Uganda; it is simply a description of a dangerous reality on the ground. The push for LGBT rights in Uganda can succeed only if it is integrated into efforts on behalf of human rights as a whole. As it stands, however, the West seems incapable of taking in Uganda’s full political landscape.

No one understands this last point better than Uganda’s president. Together with his ruling National Resistance Movement party, Museveni engages in a sort of perverse “pinkwashing” of his country’s political image. This may be a darkly apt term given the Ugandan security forces’ penchant for releasing torrents of fuchsia indelible ink on peaceful street demonstrations — a tactic that later allows them to track participants back to their homes for arrest. But I am referring, instead, to the government’s cynical manipulation of the LGBT rights issue to distract from its own self-serving assaults on the rights and interests of the Ugandan population as a whole. Time and again, Museveni and his cronies have used the Anti-Homosexuality Act to draw international attention away from pervasive crimes and abuses. And the West has played right into this game. Originally proposed in 2009, the bill enjoyed little in the way of concerted support and stalled in parliament for well over a year. It first resurfaced for discussion in spring 2011, just as “Walk to Work,” an opposition-led movement protesting Uganda’s soaring cost of living, began to pose a genuine threat to Museveni’s grip on power. The foreign media took the bait, focusing their sights on the anti-homosexuality legislation at a time when Uganda stood on the cusp of far-reaching political change, when opposition in the country was finally gaining traction and international support could have had deeply meaningful and tangible effects. In subsequent years, the bill has been repeatedly revived to distract the international community on issues ranging from the embezzlement of millions of dollars intended for the rehabilitation of the country’s war-torn northern districts, to Uganda’s support for the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the possible murder of politicians who inconvenienced the National Resistance Movement (see Helen Epstein’s recent editorial “Two Cheers for Gay Rights in Uganda” for a superb summary of these political developments). “No, no, don’t look at that,” one can almost hear Museveni saying, “look over here instead.” And each time the West has been happy to oblige.

To be fair, though, it’s not just outsiders who have fallen for this tactic. If anything, Museveni’s cynical manipulation of the Anti-Homosexuality Act has been even more successful at home. The president uses the law — and the response he has repeatedly managed to elicit from abroad — to frame himself as an intrepid leader resolutely defending profound Ugandan values against an onslaught of moral corruption from the West. More importantly perhaps, in the past month he has managed to employ the law as a bargaining chip, trading his commitment to sign it for the unquestioning support of the NRM party in the 2016 elections. Museveni, who once famously wrote that Uganda’s problem is “not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power,” will soon be wrapping up three decades in office. At this point, he cares far more about maintaining his position in the State House than he does about the day-to-day struggles of his people — homosexual or otherwise.I was initially going to conclude this essay with a little coda to my story about the local leaders’ workshop: a conversation I had the following day with a colleague who happened to be absent during the altercation itself. It’s an exchange I’m fond of relating, because it ended in him telling me, with utter certainty, that “this thing of gay rights … it will come to Uganda.” I have faith in what he said, but I also know that drawing too much comfort from his statement right now would be naive. Two weeks after the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, with homosexuals facing the constant threat of arrest or, worse yet, the prospect of horrific mob violence, his words ring painfully hollow.

Gay rights will come to Uganda, but they will come slowly, and they will come only as part of a wider movement toward social justice in the country. If we as foreigners want to be involved with this change we must be willing to back the human rights initiatives of all groups, not just the ones we identify with most easily. We must be willing to extend our attention spans beyond sound-bite explanations and knee-jerk solutions. There is no quick fix here and there are no shortcuts around the complexity of this issue. Any genuine and long-term solution will require patience, caution and, above all, an engagement with the full spectrum of human rights abuse in Uganda.

That being said, there are lives at stake today and there is a responsibility to protect those in danger right now. The situation facing Uganda’s LGBT community at this moment is nothing short of catastrophic. There is no simple way out of this, no silver lining to turn toward. Impulsive gestures, however well intentioned, may put lives at even greater risk. The past few days have seen the creation of a number of funds for the safeguarding of LGBT individuals in Uganda (for example, Protecting LGBT Ugandans from Mob Violence). This, and other similarly discreet measures, may constitute the best course of action for now, as they can help those in need without drawing the ire of the wider community. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, we must work to defuse public anger. Sadly, on this point, the dos are less obvious than the don’ts. But the don’ts are themselves important, and none more so than the following: Don’t cut aid to Uganda. Cutting aid will not make Uganda’s LGBT community safer. It will not hurt Museveni’s image at home or prompt a reconsideration of this legislation. All it will do is reinforce the local belief that the only Ugandans who matter to the outside world are gay Ugandans — one of the very misconceptions that brought us where we are today. Right now, we must stand with Uganda’s LGBT community without standing against the rest of the country’s population. Gay rights are human rights. And in Uganda, as everywhere, human rights are a concern for all people; it’s time we finally started treating them as such.

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