Source of Homophobia in Uganda

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. 

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8 Responses to Source of Homophobia in Uganda

  1. I appreciate your distinction between the perspectives of western human rights defenders and Ugandans who frame the issue in terms of western imperialism (similar to many other issues). As Mr. Moody mentioned, this is such a tough issue given the broad public support you mentioned. How do reconcile the promotion of representative democracy (you can’t argue that the law does not reflect the will of the people) and the cultural relativity of human rights? Still, if this were purely a moral issue among Ugandans (and the notions of imperialism of Western values were removed), I wonder if public support would be as high.

    Also, I don’t know if you have seen, but there are some reports that Museveni’s daughter has come out as a lesbian on Ugandan radio. The sources reporting this aren’t very credible, but if it is true, it will be an interesting development.

  2. It seems to me that if notions of imperialism were removed then the bill may not have been signed by Museveni. I hate to admit it but I almost feel that the highly publicized protests from President Obama made Museveni feel as though his hand were a bit forced. Being labeled a “puppet of the west” is about the worst that can be placed upon politicians in that part of the world. The bill has been around for awhile, but was not signed until recently and I know it was not until recently that life in prison was substituted for a death penalty, so that may also have had something to do with it being signed.

    I hadn’t heard about his daughter, it appears a few smaller outlets are reporting that she was on a radio station that was shut off a few hours later. Would definitely be an interesting development, I hope some larger media outlets are looking into it.

  3. amandacatalina says:

    This is an interesting development. On the one hand, it’s a pretty strong statement that 96% of the country believes in the bill. So in a sense the passing of that bill would be a step in the direction of representative democracy. On the other hand, it obviously goes against norms of tolerance and the rights of freedom from discrimination. It’s also really interesting that homosexuality is being blamed for the country’s economic, social, and political issues. Do you think most of the support is because of this ‘blame game’ misinformation?

  4. mconley2014 says:

    Really interesting post! I think another problem with Western involvement in this issue is that gay rights is contentious even in developed countries. How can we point fingers at Uganda and shake our heads when LGBT citizens are still marginalized even in the US? Granted, homophobia here is not quite as blatant as in Uganda, but it would seem hypocritical for developed nations to impose sanctions or any other punishments on Uganda when members of our own country persecute homosexuals. Some US states still had laws against sodomy well into the 2000s. Is that not a violation of human rights? In the case of Uganda, I can understand their feathers being ruffled by an attack from a country that only recently began attempting to protect the rights of their own LGBT individuals. Because of that, I agree with Aaron’s point that the West may have actually pushed this bill forward instead of holding it back.

    (Disclaimer: I am very pro-LGBT rights. I in no way support the bill that was passed in Uganda. I was simply demonstrating that its hypocritical of the West, especially the US, to argue against this bill given their own LGBT situations. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.)

  5. I think it’s important to separate the 96% of the population that believes homosexuality has no place in society from the percent of the population that supports the bill. I think it would be safe to deduce that a good majority of the population supports the bill, but the two measurements are not exactly the same. I would be curious to see how many people actually believe life in prison for homosexuals is the correct way to deal with the issue. And yes, we do appear hypocritical when criticizing Uganda for its anti-gay bill when Arizona is doing its best to pass harsh laws itself. Ugandans retweeted all sorts of stories regarding the Arizona legislation in an effort to highlight what they felt was hypocrisy.

  6. kenneycj says:

    Great post and comments! I wonder what the appropriate alternative response from Western governments would have been to actually ameliorate this issue? I think given the Obama Administration’s pro-LGBT rights stance, they had to say and do something or else risk looking hypocritical themselves. Another post had talked about the sanctions as well via the withdrawal of aid, which I think also works to make the situation worse, especially as this withdrawal of aid impacts Ugandan citizens most. It is interesting, and sad, that even within the US, these human rights issues are not universally accepted even in terms of legislation, as shown in the Arizona case. It obviously really throws into question our ability to criticize another nation for their own legislative choices.

  7. cjforster says:

    An interesting discussion here. I think Margaret is right to highlight the importance of how Western governments, including the United States, negotiate their own experiences with LGBT laws. In particular, it is worth reflecting on the fact that so often in the United States it is the Judiciary who stand up for LGBT rights, rather than elected politicians. In particular one could look at the Supreme Court ruling in June last year and subsequent rulings in state courts about same-sex marriage, discrimination and equal benefits.

    Particularly interesting, as Aaron noted, is the role of the U.S. government in this case. It seems clear that the role of the U.S. Government in this case was a significant factor in the passage of the bill. It will be interesting to see how the State Department reflects on its actions in this case when dealing with other cases of anti-LGBT legislation in the future. The United States Government allowed itself to become publicly entangled in a debate that should have largely been domestic driven (unusual given the closeness of the US-Uganda relationship) and allowed its role to escalate from normal channels to the U.S. Cabinet level. Phone calls by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in advance of the vote to Ugandan administration officials and President Obama’s statement threatening consequences if the law was passed, seemed only to fan the flames and aid proponents of the bill.

  8. I have to respectfully disagree with the argument that it is hypocritical for the U.S. to criticize anti-LGBT laws such as the one in Uganda. Sure, it seems hypocritical on the surface, but it is the federal government of the U.S., and in particular the executive, that is making the criticisms, not individual states like Arizona or Kansas. That’s an important distinction. If the hypocrisy argument were raised whenever US state and federal policy differed on an issue also raised in the foreign policy arena, we’d have a very complicated foreign policy indeed. Consider marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington state and the continued support of the Merida Initiative in Mexico.

    One could argue that US foreign policy is hypocritical because it does not yet actively advocate for gay marriage abroad, even after the US struck down DOMA. But I think most human rights advocates recognize the difference in importance between positive rights (such as freedom to marry) and negative rights (freedom from life imprisonment).

    I’ve also heard the argument from quite a few people in the past regarding the hypocrisy of supporting LGBT rights abroad when sodomy laws are/were on the books in some U.S. states. The landmark 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas struck down the sodomy law in Texas, thus invalidating sodomy laws in 13 other states and legalizing same-sex acts across the U.S. At some point, I have to ask myself, does a certain amount of time have to pass between domestic reforms before we can fairly (and un-hypocritically) uphold human rights norms abroad? If so, how long?

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