Finding The Root Of Anti-Gay Sentiment In Uganda

Gay Uganda Man Seeking Asylum in US Hides Face With Hood i i

Moses (right), a gay Ugandan man seeking asylum in the United States, hides his face with a makeshift hood as he attends a press conference in Washington, D.C., in February. The press conference was organized to announce the formation of an event to "affirm inclusive values and call on all nations, including Uganda, to decriminalize the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people." Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Gay Uganda Man Seeking Asylum in US Hides Face With Hood

Moses (right), a gay Ugandan man seeking asylum in the United States, hides his face with a makeshift hood as he attends a press conference in Washington, D.C., in February. The press conference was organized to announce the formation of an event to "affirm inclusive values and call on all nations, including Uganda, to decriminalize the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill was introduced by parliament member David Bahati in October 2009. The bill seeks to eradicate homosexuality from Uganda and become a model for the rest of Africa.

Among the proposals in the bill: prison terms for Ugandans who fail to report a homosexual within 24 hours; lifelong prison sentences for a single homosexual act; and the death sentence for a range of acts, including having gay sex while HIV-positive, having gay sex with a disabled person or being classified as a "serial offender" — that is, someone who has gay sex more than once.

"It had overwhelming popular support in Uganda. You could hardly imagine a more popular initiative," says investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet. "It just sort of seized this frenzy — and then there was a lot of international pressure against it. You had Sweden threatening to cut off foreign aid, you had Germany saying, 'We'll give you a lot more money if you don't pass it' — and it's now gone into this holding pattern. ... [But] it remains incredibly dangerous."

Sharlet recently traveled to Uganda to speak with Bahati, the bill's author. He writes about that meeting in a September 2010 Harper's Magazine magazine piece, "Straight Man's Burden." He describes how gay Ugandans are struggling to survive — and recounts his meetings with Bahati — in a conversation with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

"Bahati said: 'If you come here, you'll see homosexuals from Europe and America are luring our children into homosexuality by distributing cell phones and iPods and things like this,' " Sharlet recounts. "And he said, 'And I can explain to you what I really want to do.' "

Sharlet accompanied Bahati to a restaurant and later to his home, where Bahati told Sharlet that he wanted "to kill every last gay person."

"It was a very chilling moment, because I'm sitting there with this man who's talking about his plans for genocide, and has demonstrated over the period of my relationship with him that he's not some back bencher — he's a real rising star in the movement," Sharlet says. "This was something that I hadn't understood before I went to Uganda, that this was a guy with real potential and real sway and increasingly a following in Uganda."

And he has connections to American leaders. Sharlet explains that Bahati is one of the Uganda leaders of an American evangelical movement called the Fellowship, or the Family — the secretive fellowship of powerful Christian politicians who wield considerable political influence, both in Washington and abroad.

Jeff Sharlet i i

Jeff Sharlet is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and Rolling Stone. Courtesy of the author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the author
Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and Rolling Stone.

Courtesy of the author

"I discovered ... that there was this very direct relationship," Sharlet says. "And [the Fellowship members] are emphatic and saying: 'We haven't killed any gay people in Uganda. This isn't what we had in mind. We didn't pull the trigger.' And that's true. They didn't pull the trigger. But there's a sense in which they built the gun, which was this institutional idea of government being decided by small groups of elite leaders like Bahati, getting together and trying to conform government to their idea of Biblical law. And this is what their American benefactors wanted them to do."

Sharlet has written extensively about the Family, whose members include senators and representatives. He's the author of The Family and the forthcoming book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and Rolling Stone. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post and Mother Jones


Interview Highlights

On Bahati's ties to the Family

"David Bahati has been over to the United States to study the Christian leadership principles of the Family — or the principles of Jesus, as they call them. And he was upset [when I visited], because he had gotten into a sort of schism with the group. [Because] when the [anti-homosexuality] bill became publicized, the American Family — which organizes something called the National Prayer Breakfast — really tried to distance themselves from Bahati."

On what Bahati hopes to achieve

"When you speak to [Bahati's] allies, they're pretty clear: This is a project to eradicate homosexuality in Uganda, and they hope it will become a model for all of Africa. They're not saying, 'This is a reform.' They're saying, 'We can do this. We are at the crux.' When I was there, an American pastor [named] Lou Engle, who leads a big Christian right group called The Call, said, 'This is ground zero of the great war with homosexuality.' So they're fired up by this rhetoric. But the real threat of genocide is not so much killing all of the gay people in Uganda. Because their homophobia is so deep, in a lot of ways they can't see homosexuality. So I would travel around sometimes with gay activists, and we'd speak to anti-gay crusaders — who were very certain they could spot a gay person anywhere — and they missed the guy standing right in front of them."

On the international response to the anti-homosexuality bill

"There is some hope because the international outcry did have an effect. Not only in scaring [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni, but in waking up a lot of Ugandan Christians — devout Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians — who at least turned against the death penalty because of this. And also, building support for Ugandan gay activists — gay groups all over the world are saying: 'You're in the firing line there. How can we help?' It's not a done deal. The violence has already started. It will probably get worse, much worse. But there is some hope."

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