Uganda has been making headlines in recent weeks with its controversial anti-gay bill. Much has been said about the implications of the bill and what it means for foreign aid in the country. Despite the outrage sparked in many western countries, support for the bill in Uganda is strong, as roughly 96% of the country believes that society should not accept homosexuality. So where does this homophobia come from?
Anti-gay laws in Africa are not necessarily new to the continent. During the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century British society was dominated by strict Victorian era conservative social codes, which included strict penalties for homosexuality. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch entitled This Alien Legacy concluded that over half of the remaining anti-sodomy laws in the world were holdovers from British Imperialism. Uganda, being Churchill’s “Pearl of Africa” was very much a part of the British colonial period and has many holdovers from that period, including both the national language (English) and anti-gay laws. In his public statement, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni claimed he was simply allowing this heritage to continue.
But colonialism ended years ago. So why is homophobia still so prevalent? The rising influence of evangelical Christians in Uganda over the past few years is well documented and the subject of a recently acclaimed documentary God Loves Uganda. Africans have for many years practiced a rather conservative brand of Christianity, and in recent years radical evangelicals—whose views of “curing” homosexuality and homosexuality being the underlying cause of the Holocaust have been mostly discredited here in the United States—found an audience willing to listen in Uganda. A month prior to the first appearance of Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill in April of 2009 a three-day conference, conducted by evangelical Scott Lively—self proclaimed “expert” on homosexuality and the “gay agenda”—was held where both he and other speakers warned of the “evil gay agenda” and its mission to recruit children and dismantle the traditional family. Since this conference, the continuing message from the evangelicals has been that homosexuality is among the greatest threats to Africa and the sole source for all their social, economic, and political troubles.
Unfortunately, the reaction by Western governments to the anti-gay bill is only going to play into the hands of the evangelical’s message to Ugandans, for they have successfully painted themselves as allies to Africa in their fight against neocolonial liberalism operating under the guise of gay rights. The issuing of sanctions by western nations is likely to give anti-gay rights activist further “proof” of this new form of colonialism, and there are fewer things Africans dislike more than western governments dictating what they should and should not do. The unfortunate reality is that western governments and the Ugandans do not see eye to eye on what the crux of this battle is; western governments and media see this as a fundamental issue of human rights, whereas Ugandans will view this as western governments imposing their will and telling them how they should live their lives.