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SDGLN exclusive: Uganda remains a lightning rod over gay rights

(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series on “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality,” a consultation about finding ways to decriminalize homosexuality across the world and to bring equality and dignity to LGBT people. Editor in Chief Ken Williams was on the planning committee headed by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego and was a participant in the consultation, and he is sharing with SDGLN’s readers what he learned during the meetings.)

NEW YORK – What’s really going on in Uganda?

The notorious “Kill The Gays” bill is still floating around Parliament despite almost universal condemnation over the draconian attempts to criminalize homosexuality and punish anyone who comes to the aid of LGBT people.

Investigative reporters and faith leaders warn that Uganda is the “line in the sand” over the criminalization of homosexuality, a movement propagated and financially supported by the Religious Right in America.

LGBT activists, however, tell of small victories on the ground and the desperate need for cash to keep up their grassroots efforts to change hearts and minds.

Last week, during the “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality” consultation at Union Theological Seminary, almost 100 prominent leaders representing a wide diversity of faith and secular communities attended a case study that focused on Uganda.

Bruce Knotts, executive director of the United Nations Office for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, introduced the session. He provided a brief history of the gathering, the third such meeting since Human Rights Watch alerted progressive and liberal clergy in America in spring 2009 to do something about the “Kill The Gays” bill in Uganda.

Knotts was not shy in condemning efforts by the Religious Right to promote the criminalization of homosexuality across the globe. He accused conservative faith leaders of employing “Nazi-like tactics” to push the “Kill The Gays” bill in Uganda, which has been copied by other countries.
He told of how the proposed Uganda legislation, also known as the Bahati Bill, would be far-reaching and would affect even landlords, who would face long prison sentences if they rented to LGBT people.

“This bill was created in the U.S. by so-called Christians,” Knotts said. “Parents would be forced to report their gay children or be tortured and imprisoned.”

Knotts ripped into anti-gay activist Scott Lively for perpetuating the myth that the Nazis were gay, noting that it was the gays and the Jews, along with many other groups opposed to the Third Reich, who were being shipped off to concentration camps and most often to their deaths.

As a former diplomat and foreign service officer, Knotts has served in Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Greece, India and Pakistan. He is also former chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights. He has first-hand knowledge of LGBT issues in Africa and Asia.

Knotts said he believes that most Africans are offended by the invasion of privacy that is being perpetuated by the meddling of western Evangelicals and fundamentalists who want to dictate the moral standards of nation’s far from America.

He noted that the “U.S. Constitution was written over 200 years ago in English and that we can’t still say what it means because it is constantly being interpreted … so how do we approach Scripture (which is ancient by comparison) with humble uncertainty?”

Knotts said Scripture throughout history had been used to justify slavery and to oppress women, but today we reject those passages. He said future generations will also reject homophobia.

Returning to his original theme, Knott posed the question: “Is there a new Nazi-like system growing in the U.S.? After reading Jeff Sharlet’s book (‘The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power’), I grew more concerned.”

Keynote speaker Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet’s groundbreaking work on The Family and its homophobic agenda exposed its far-reaching influence not only in American politics but on a global scale.

Sharlet traced the roots of The Family back to the 1930s when its disciples fought FDR’s New Deal and its founder, Abraham Vereide, praised Hitler’s “youth work” and lauded the tactics of strongmen who ruled with an iron glove. The message today remains the same: “Jesus plus nothing” (the title of his first magazine piece on The Family).

During his speech, which had the titillating title of “Missionary Positions: The Sex Tourists of American Fundamentalism,” Sharlet talked about how American missionaries are coming to Uganda and elsewhere in Africa to teach the natives about sex between a man and a woman. He blasted people like Lou Engle and The Call, often called a “fringe figure,” Sharlet said, but “he’s not that marginal” because politicians like Michelle Bachmann and for Sen. Sam Brownback (now the governor of Kansas) cozy up to Engle.

Sharlet said Engle went to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to rally the troops in support of the “Kill The Gays” bill, but noted that attendance was sparse. “It was for the videos,” he said. “It is really about the regulation of sexuality in America.”

The Family has taken its lumps in recent years. It seems to have survived the C Street sex scandal, and nearly every politician in Washington still attends The Family’s National Prayer Breakfast every year despite its ties to homophobic legislation in Africa.

“Since the early ‘70s, The Family has been the most influential fundamentalist group in Washington,” Sharlet said. “Their influence has expanded globally. … The Family has been involved in Uganda for decades.”

Sharlet said David Bahati, the anti-gay member of Parliament who introduced the “Kill The Gays” bill, is aligned with The Family and the group brought him to the U.S. to study.

Another frequent visitor to Uganda and Africa is conservative Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), and Sharlet said the senator has “adopted” more than a dozen African countries as his “children.” Inhofe is immortalized for his first Senate campaign based on “God, Gays and Guns.” The homophobic Inhofe preaches the message of The Family that there is “too much wicked sex in the U.S. and that he admires Uganda’s purity.”

Sharlet exposed the myth that Rick Warren, an Evangelical megachurch pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is progressive despite having given the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. He said Warren runs to Africa where he claims he can say things he can’t say back home because they are politically incorrect. “The fight (or social wars) are lost in the U.S. but there is hope in Africa,” Warren reportedly said.

He concluded by sharing a story on Bahati, who said “let’s find common ground.” Sharlet said Bahati’s offer was pure rhetoric.

“Now is not the time for finding common ground,” Sharlet concluded. “A master and a slave sit on common ground.”

Panel discussion

Bruce Knotts moderated the panel discussion featuring Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican from Uganda; the Rev. Mark Kiyimba, founding minister of the Kampala Central Unitarian Church; Val Kalende, a postgraduate student at Episcopal Divinity School who is an activist from Uganda; and Dr. Scott Long, visiting fellow in the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

Bishop Christopher, who heads St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala, spoke of his work as a straight ally in ministering to LGBT people in Uganda.

Through fundraising in the west aided by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, president of the San Diego-based St. Paul's Foundation for International Reconciliation, as well as receiving a grant from the Elton John Foundation, St. Paul’s center in Kampala has been able to provide HIV/AIDS counseling and other LGBT services in a country that is trying to criminalize homosexuality.

“We need to decriminalization of LGBT all over the world,” the bishop said.

Bishop Christopher said there was a need to teach people about human sexuality … that it’s not only heterosexuality. “Many people who oppose homosexuality don’t know human sexuality,” he said.

Speaker after speaker over the two days of the consultation idolized the work of Bishop Christopher, whose life was put in danger when an anti-gay tabloid called Rolling Stone published his photo on the cover of its edition that advocated the hanging of LGBT people in Uganda.

The Rev. Kiyimba noted that the bishop had confirmed him into the Anglican Church when he was 14. Kiyimba is now a Unitarian.

Kiyimba talked about the difficult work of changing hearts and minds of Ugandans, most of whom attend churches that preach against homosexuality. He said LGBT Ugandans face abuse, discrimination and denial of rights.

Still, Kiyimba offers up hope for Uganda, noting that churches such as his preach tolerance and acceptance of all people.

“We all share ground on this planet,” he said. “At the same time, we are one people.”

Kalende, the lesbian activist, rattled off the many ways “the state is witch-hunting LGBT people.” She cited the tragic murder of fellow activist David Kato, a slaying that shocked the world. Just this month, Kampala’s only gay bar closed, leaving LGBT people without a public gathering place.

“The stories you hear (in the press) are LGBT people thrown in jail, blackmail and people arrested (on bogus charges,” Kalende said. “What you aren’t hearing is the good things that are happening. We are NOT in hiding!”

Kalende said there is a sizable group of young, passionate activists who are fighting the battle on the ground. “The Rolling Stone court case was won,” she said, giving an example.

“Tell the stories that celebrate us,” she urged the media.

Like many activists from Africa, Kalende pleaded for funding to continue work at the grassroots level. “Funding is a challenge,” she said. “We cannot fight the well-funded fundamentalists who are funding hate. “

Dr. Long spoke on the international response to the Uganda story and what can be done about decriminalizing homosexuality.

Long credited activists on the ground in Uganda for helping to keep the “Kill The Gays” bill from passage. He also praised those activists from framing the story as human rights, not just gay rights, because the abuses are widespread.

“I honor those heroes who stood up … and spoke out for what’s right,” Long said.