The Fresh Air Interview: Journalist Jeff Sharlet -- 'Finding Roots Of Anti-Gay Sentiment in Uganda' Investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet traveled to Uganda to meet with the man who wrote an anti-homosexuality bill that calls for life imprisonment and the death penalty for gay Ugandans. Sharlet explains how U.S. religious leaders have encouraged the anti-gay sentiment in Uganda.
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Finding The Root Of Anti-Gay Sentiment In Uganda

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Finding The Root Of Anti-Gay Sentiment In Uganda

Finding The Root Of Anti-Gay Sentiment In Uganda

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

My guest Jeff Sharlet recently traveled to Uganda to meet David Bahati, the Member of Parliament who introduced the draconian anti-homosexuality bill. Bahati is a leader of the Ugandan parliament's branch of The Fellowship, which is connected to the secretive American evangelical group, The Fellowship, that is also known as The Family.

Sharlet is the author of the bestseller "The Family," about this fundamentalist group and the influential senators and congressmen affiliated with it. Sharlet's follow-up book, "C-Street" will be published in September.

He went to Uganda at the invitation of David Bahati. Sharlet's article, "Straight Man's Burden: The American Roots of Uganda's Anti-Gay Persecutions," is published in the September issue of "Harper's." Sharlet is a contributing editor of the magazine. He's also an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College.

Jeff Sharlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your trip to Uganda, just give us a little refresher course on the anti-homosexual bill and where it stands now.

Professor JEFF SHARLET (English, Dartmouth College): Well, the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced in 2009. It's a bill that essentially seeks to eradicate homosexuality from Uganda and become a model for the rest of Africa. Homosexuality is already illegal but it would make the penalties much stiffer, including death penalty for whats described in the bill as Serial Offender, and that can be someone who has gay sex more than once.

That also is aggravated homosexuality, if you're HIV-positive and you have sex, even with another consenting adult and you're aware of things - death penalty. If you have sex with someone who's disabled - again, consenting adult doesnt matter - death penalty. There's also a life sentence for a one time act. There's a seven-year sentence for the promotion of homosexuality, and a three-year sentence for failure to report a known homosexual - whether it's a relative or anything with that - and you have 24 hours to do that.

GROSS: What's the present status of the bill?

Prof. SHARLET: Well, the bill as introduced in 2009 had overwhelming popular support in Uganda. I mean you could hardly imagine a sort of more popular initiative at that moment. It just sort of seized this kind of - this frenzy. And then there was a lot of international pressure against it. And 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 sort of now gone into this kind of holding pattern. .

The dictator, a guy name Museveni, had a sort of presidential commission say, look, we can achieve all these ends with current laws. Didnt advise against it, just said we can do it in a different way. And it's now waiting a second reading in the parliament.

And essentially what it is right now is sort of a tiger on the leash. It's something that the dictator can - if he feels he's threatened and he needs to rally public support and distract them - he can get this thing passed in probably about four weeks. So it remains incredibly dangerous.

GROSS: But there have been reports that President Museveni said he would sign this bill only if the death penalty was removed from it.

Prof. SHARLET: Yeah, I think thats actually a real possibility, that the death penalty will be removed from it. And unfortunately we have this situation right now, where there's, especially some of the American groups that have sort of been involved and are supporting it, they're going to declare that a human rights victory - a law that provides life in prison for homosexuality - long prison terms for even this conversation we're having right now, they're going to call that a human rights victory.

The death penalty might be stripped out. I spoke to the author of the bill and he said, you know, this is democracy; step by step, we'll get there. He's very confident that one day, democracy will lead to killing. Yeah.

GROSS: You keep referring to Museveni as a dictator. Is he commonly regarded as a dictator?

Prof. SHARLET: It's a little bit debated, but he's been in power for - since 1986 - 24 years. He changed the constitution to keep being re-elected. If he doesnt like you, you get killed, you get thrown in prison. It's a much more softer dictatorship. But yeah, he's pretty commonly referred to as a dictator.

I mean, you know, this is not like a, you know, this is not like Gadhafi, the sort of crazed kind of thing. But yeah, he's a dictator and he's been there forever. And no one expects him - there's an election next year, which what a lot of this has to deal with, and he's not likely to give up power. He's surrounded himself with a sort of Republican Guard style separate military, led by his son. Yeah, he's a dictator.

GROSS: Jeff, youve been reporting on this Ugandan anti-homosexual bill from the United States. But recently you actually went to Uganda. What did you hope to learn there?

Prof. SHARLET: Well, I went, really, to meet with David Bahati, the author of the bill. Because I'd been reporting on it, we ended up speaking. And he invited me to Uganda. He said, look, if you come here, you'll see yourself whats really going on. For instance, you'll see that homosexuals from Europe and America are luring our children into homosexuality by distributing cell phones and iPods and things like this - that no Ugandan on his or her own would ever become gay, but they're sort of bribed into it.

And he says, and I can explain to you what I really want to do. And because Ive been reporting on it, and here was, really, the author of this really potentially genocidal bill, saying come on over and Ill tell you what it's all about. I thought I had to take him up on that invitation.

GROSS: How did he know your work?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHARLET: FRESH AIR, actually.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHARLET: Because we had spoken about this before and a sort of a report on that interview was on the front page, I believe, of major Ugandan newspaper. And it sort of amped things up a little bit.

But I mean David Bahati knew my work, partly because I had been writing about this organization called The Family or The Fellowship. And he's one of the leaders of the group's presence in Uganda, which is one of their strongest countries in Africa and a place where theyve invested millions of dollars in leadership development.

And David Bahati has been over to the United States to the study the sort of the Christian leadership principles of The Family or the Principles of Jesus, as they call them. And here I was reporting about this organization, and he was upset because he had come into sort of a schism with the group.

When the bill became publicized, the American Family - which organizes something The Annual National Prayer Breakfast, the president always speaks there - really tried to distance themselves from Bahati, and at first said that he wasnt invited. And Bahati was very emphatic and said, no, Im invited - in fact, I was there in 2007, I was there in 2009; I helped organize the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast in Uganda, to which American politicians come.

And I think he saw me as a journalist who could tell his story in a little bit. He wanted it known that he did have these connections, that he wasnt some kind of rube out there, back-bencher. That he was a guy who had international connections and had done this bill, he believed - and I should emphasize that, that he believed - in concert with the goals of his American allies.

GROSS: So when you met with David Bahati, the Member of Parliament who introduced the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda, what were his explanations about why homosexuality is such a threat, so dangerous as to warrant the death penalty?

Prof. SHARLET: Well, this is - I mean this is fascinating and I think this is where we really need clarification, because homosexuality doesnt really mean the same thing in Uganda as it does here. They dont see homosexuality as something native to Uganda. They see it as something imposed from the West, it becomes a symbol for Western interference, for neocolonialism, and...

GROSS: So, wait. Wait. So they see homosexuality as an expression of neocolonialism, something that came from the West?

Prof. SHARLET: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly, they see - I mean and this is again, talk... Bahati, for instance, is obsessed with the Netherlands. And he said the Netherlands is funneling homosexuality into Uganda. And he says, of course, Americans are doing the same.

And what this actually is really kind of in response to - is sort of deeply ironic. You go back to the early part of the decade when the Bush administration created this massive fund for fighting AIDS around the world -PEPFAR. And a lot of PEPFAR money went to Uganda, which actually ended up developing, for a while, a very successful anti-AIDS program.

And the AIDS workers said okay, we need to talk to the homosexual community. And it was the Ugandan government officials said, oh, no problem; we dont have one. And of course, you know, these international health workers said, no, we really need to talk to these people and these bridges got built.

And I spoke to a homosexual activist - gay activist in Uganda - who said, you know, that was really the sort of this political moment for us. And that seeing that, you know, we could be recognized by the international community. We had human rights, that this was a part of it. We could organize.

And so both some of the gay activists, and some of the anti-gay crusaders, point to that moment in the early part of the decade, as one of the real catalysts for this battle.

GROSS: Now, David Bahati - the Member of Parliament who introduced the anti-gay bill in Uganda - also has religious reasons for opposing homosexuality. Didnt he tell you that it was demonic, a modern form of witchcraft?

Prof. SHARLET: Yeah, everything he does is for religious reasons. He was raised the kind of sort of nominal Anglican, had a Born Again experience, came to the United States to study at something called the Leadership Institute in Arlington - which is a conservative group - and got involve with The Family Research Council; he was very impressed by their work, and then got involved with The Family and that was his real connection.

And what he explained to me, he says, look, homosexuality, in itself, is very bad. He says it is terrible. But he says, ultimately - and this is something he felt that he learned from the Americans. He says ultimately, it's a symbol for the wrong kind of government. A government that allows homosexuality is a government led by people. In other words, we pass laws and we say homosexuality is legal.

He says we need to have God-led government. And United States may have strayed too far away from that but Uganda, thats still possible. So eradicating homosexuality from Uganda is just really part of this larger vision for what both he and his American allies a God-led government, although they might differ on what that would look like.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His article, "Straight Man's Burden: The American Roots of Uganda's Anti-Gay Persecution," is in the September issue of "Harper's." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, author of the bestseller "The Family," about the secretive American fundamentalist group known as The Family or The Fellowship. Sharlet's article in the September edition of "Harper's" is about David Bahati, a leader of the Ugandan's parliament's branch of The Fellowship.

Bahati introduced Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill.

So one of the reasons why you went to Uganda was to try to understand what, if any, influence conservative Christians in the U.S. had on the writing of the anti-homosexual bill in Uganda. Specifically you wanted to know if members of the conservative Christian group, The Family, had influence.

So what did Bahati tell you about input from the U.S.?

Prof. SHARLET: On the one hand, Bahati says: No, there's no input from the United States; this is entirely Ugandan effort. On the other hand, he said we did it through our Fellowship group, our Family group in parliament. And I said, oh, so there's a connection between this American-supported group and the bill. And he says, I dont know what you mean about connection; there's no connection - the bill is The Fellowship. This is what we do.

So I discovered, you know, thinking that there was sort of a more distant chain of relationship, that there was actually this very direct relationship - even though a lot of the Americans strongly oppose the bill. This wasnt what they had in mind and they are emphatic, and I think they're right to say, look, you know, we haven't killed any gay people in Uganda. This isn't what we had in mind. You know, 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 understanding of Biblical law. And that this is what was to be done and that this was what their American benefactors wanted them to do. Because you had people like Senator Jim Inhofe, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Rick Warren - all visiting Bahati's Fellowship group in parliament, and all talking about what a God-led government would look like.

GROSS: So you actually, at David Bahati's invitation, went to his home, had a meal with him and his family. What was it like to be at his home? He knows how much you oppose the anti-homosexuality bill that he introduced in Uganda. He knows that you, more than anyone else, has been writing about it and investigating it. So what was it like to be in his home?

Prof. SHARLET: It was very frightening. You know, the first time I met him we met in a very, very upscale hotel. And to give you a sense of the wealth of this place, you know, we spent I think about $100 on lunch in a country where that could take months and months - you could live on that, practically.

And we would meet again and again in this hotel. And soon, he was saying I want to talk to you more. And every time I spoke to someone who he thought was giving away what he called unnecessary truths, he would call me up and request a meeting. And finally, on a Saturday night of my visit there he say - we're meeting in the hotel - he says, you know, you have to come to my home tomorrow.

And I was a little nervous about that and I said, in fact, Im leaving on Monday. He says, perfect, just in time. So with a Ugandan journalist who sort of helped me get around, we went out to his house which is way high up in the hills outside Uganda. And this journalist who had said, look, you know, the worst that ever happens here if you're a journalist, you get thrown in prison for a day or two - it's not that big a deal.

He says this, he was a little worried about. But we went. And here's this beautiful home. You could see Lake Victoria. There was a rainbow over Lake Victoria. His two little boys are playing in the yard. And it's a compound. There's barbed wire all around it. There's a guardhouse. There's big steel doors.

But once you're in you're in this sort of David Bahati peaceable kingdom. And he was incredibly gracious and shared this lunch, and just sort of calmly spoke more bluntly than he had before, about what he wanted to do.

And what he wanted to do was kill every last gay person. And this came up because he said, well, the death penalty may come out of it but, you know, democracy will bring it back, will do this. And I challenged him. I said, David, by your standards this bill isnt biblical, because you believe that the Bible calls for killing gay people - and he said this many times...

GROSS: This is Leviticus.

Prof. SHARLET: Leviticus, he cites Leviticus. And he kind of miss cites Leviticus, as saying that it calls for the execution of all gay people. And he sighs and he says - and I said, well, your bill doesnt go that far. And he sighs and he says: It's not a perfect world but this is what democracy is.

So we go step by step. And it was a very chilling moment, 'cause we're sitting there with this man who is talking about his plans for genocide, and has demonstrated over the period of my relationship with him that he's not some back bender. That this is a real rising star in the movement - and that was something 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.

GROSS: Just to clarify. He doesnt really have plans for genocide. He doesnt have plans to execute all gays. In his heart of hearts, he might feel that homosexuality is worthy of death, but he's not proposing that. He's not planning on proposing that. He's not preparing for genocide.

Prof. SHARLET: When you speak to his allies, they're pretty clear that this is a project to eradicate homosexuality from Uganda, and they hope it will become a model for all of Africa. They're not saying this is like a reform. They say we can do this; we are at the crux.

And they have these - you know, while I was there, an American Pastor, Lou Angle - leads a big Christian right group called The Call, came in and said this is ground zero of the Great War with homosexuality. And so they're fired up by this rhetoric and they think they can do it.

But you're right. The real threat is of genocide - and when I spoke to Ugandans, they, you know, they were aware of this, too - the real threat of genocide is not so much killing all the gay people in Uganda - because their homophobia is deep, in a lot of ways, they can't see homosexuality.

So I would travel around sometimes, in these circles, with gay activists. And we'd speak to anti-gay crusaders who are very certain that they could spot a gay person anywhere. They, you know, they missed the guy standing right in front of them - this activist I was with.

But the real danger of genocide is Uganda is a very sort of loosely knit together country of a lot of different ethnic groups. It's right next door to Rwanda, which, of course, did experience genocide. Uganda has experienced terribly killing. First under Idi Amin, and then the war that brought the current dictator to power, killed hundreds of thousands.

It's always sort of simmering just on the edge of ethnic conflict. In 2009, there was a huge riot and four radio stations were taken off the air for incitement to genocide. The real danger is if one ethnic group or another - for political purposes - gets charged with being overly accommodating to homosexuality or too connected to the West.

And the horrible irony is, whats holding that at bay, is the dictator, who is holding this country together. And if for one reason or another, he leaves and you did face a prospect of civil war, I think there would be the real temptation to demagogues like David Bahati, other politicians who are his allies, to use that rhetoric to pursue political gain that could lead to massive killing.

GROSS: After David Bahati invited you to his home, served you a meal with his family, he also told you that if you returned to Uganda he'd have you arrested for promoting homosexuality. Did he mean that?

Prof. SHARLET: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Here's this - I almost hesitate to say this - I rather liked David Bahati. Not to say that his heart is good or anything like that. Bahati is a funny guy. He laughs a lot; it's kind of a giggle that sometimes is sort of terrifying, but nonetheless, you're engaged in this conversation.

And I found myself having this much more straightforward conversation with him than I do with many of the American Christian conservatives who have been, sort of, in the orbit of this issue.

And he said, yeah, of course Ill have you arrested. And, you know, he sort of made that clear to the Ugandan journalist I was with, too. And at the same time, he was saying, I'd like to come to the United States; can you help me organize a lecture tour? So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHARLET: You know, it was a little bit we're in this moment of civility and everything was very, very civil. And, you know, I think thats the horrifying thing when you encounter people like this whose hatred is so deep. And I think a lot of times people have a misconception of what thats going to look like. And when, you know, when someone like Bahati comes out, they think he's going to have horns. You know, horns and a tail and he's going to be this devil. He's going to look like what Bahati thinks gay people look like.

And instead, along comes this very polished man. He's studied in the United States. He's studied in Wales. His education was partly paid for by this Norwegian foundation. He's this very sophisticate, thoughtful guy. You can be almost lulled into forgetting that there's enormous fury thats within him and thats whats driving him. And that he has been able to, unfortunately, convey to a lot of the Ugandan public.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His article about Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill is in the September issue of "Harper's."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, author of the bestseller "The Family," and the forthcoming book "C-Street." Sharlet's article in the September issue of "Harper's," is about Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill and the man who introduced it, David Bahati.

Do you think that the anti-gay bill in Uganda is being watched by other African countries?

Prof. SHARLET: Oh, yeah. The anti-gay bill in Uganda is definitely being watched by other African countries. There's about seven nations in the world that have death penalty for homosexuality. Most of them are in Africa; it's very rarely enforced. And now, here is this country that has long been held up by the West as a beacon of democracy, pursuing the most aggressive version of this.

David Bahati says he's been invited by members of the Zambian government to come and give a presentation on this. Theyve had copies of the bill requested by different governments. We've seen a real up tick in the political uses of homophobia. And I do emphasize that the political use of homophobia - we dont want to make that mistake of saying Africans are somehow more hateful than anybody else.

It's a political moment right now, where a lot of government in Africa are seeing that they can deflect the public from the really serious issues that they face, by drumming up this sort of fear of an alien contagion that builds on this traditional taboo.

GROSS: So a committee that was formed by President Museveni recommended that this bill be withdrawn by parliament - that they dont have the power to insist on that.

So do you think this bill is eventually going to be passed in its current form or in another form?

Prof. SHARLET: The only thing holding it back, right now, is Museveni, who is afraid of losing support from Western donors. If there was a vote on it tomorrow, it would pass almost unanimously. To vote against it would be political suicide in Uganda.

But that said, Museveni is holding it back. He's trying to kind of play both sides. On the one hand, says we got to go slow on this; may be this isnt the right way. And then he'll go and give a public talk about the gay menace. His wife, who is also very powerful, the first lady, has also talked about sort of purging Uganda.

So right now, they're really holding it very much in a holding pattern. It's threat. It's a politically useful weapon. You know, as if it they're walking around with a bomb with a very long fuse. But the fuse has been lit.

Whether or not this bill passes or its pieces of it are worked into other elements of Ugandan law, thats yet to be seen. The witch hunt is on.

But there is some hope because, frankly, the sort of international outcry did have an effect. Not only in scaring Museveni, but in waking up a lot of Ugandan Christians. And I should say, devout Pentecostal and evangelical Ugandan Christians, who at least turn against - turned the death penalty because of this.

And also building support for Ugandan gay activists, who suddenly have a visibility. And, you know, gay groups all over the world want to say, look, you are on the firing line there: How can we help. So it's not a done deal.

The violence has already started and it will probably get worse. It could get much worse. But there is some hope.

GROSS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jeff Sharlet's article, "Straight Man's Burden," is published in the September issue of "Harper's." You'll find a link to an excerpt of the article on our Web site, Sharlet is the author of the bestseller "The Family." His follow-up book, "C-Street" will be published in September.

Im Terry Gross.

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