Can gay rights activists trust Museveni to “Handle It?”

For the last two years since the introduction of the anti-homosexuality bill, I have argued that the anti-gay movement in Uganda is bigger than the individuals gay activists have singled out as the crusaders of the anti-gay agenda in Uganda. By fighting frivolous figures such as David Bahati, gay activists have gone out of sight of the underlying motives behind the bill and the intentions it seeks to satisfy. One such intention is Christian fundamentalism which is unmistakeably at the heart of the anti-gay agenda.

Following leaked diplomatic cables citing the role of Uganda First Lady Janet Museveni in sustaining the anti-homosexuality bill, it is worthwhile paying attention to the breadth of what drives this bill.

The Sunday Monitor reports that a leaked cable between Senior Presidential Adviser John Nagenda and a US embassy political officer mentions Mrs. Museveni having special interest in the Kill the Gays bill. Nagenda is quoted to have described Mrs. Museveni as ‘a very extreme woman.” Not surprising. Mrs. Museveni is known to have strong ties to US evangelicals and the Pentecostal movement in Uganda. She is also known for moral-lecturing at national youth conferences where she speaks of the dangers of the secular world and urges the youth to embrace “spiritual growth.” Her legacy of making a difference in the lives of Ugandan children is a virtue of her well-meaning intentions to give them a worthwhile future. She has also supported national campaigns to encourage abstinence among the youth. All her good intentions observed, it is important to put the legacy of the First Lady into perspective if tracing the long trajectory of the Christian Right will make sense of the the motives that drive anti-gay campaigners to frenzy over a bill that is out-rightly unconstitutional, descriptively redundant, and regrettably diversionary.

The globalization of the Christian Right is emerging at a time when most Ugandans, including highly placed politicians, are looking to religious leaders for answers to problems facing the country. The objective of protecting the African traditional family as mentioned in the preamble of the bill digs deep into the conservative agenda that the legislation seeks to promote.

The growing movement of evangelicals in Africa has ushered in a new era of Eurocentric thoughts and beliefs on family, sex, and marriage. Same-sex relationships are condemned because “they are not in line with God’s purpose for procreation,” an idea that the evangelical tradition shares with traditional African culture except for different reasons. While African culture espouses sex for procreation as a way of continuing family lineage, the evangelical tradition espouses procreation on the basis that non-child bearing sexual relationships are against God’s intention for marriage.

As American evangelicals bring their theology of “sexual uprightness” to Africa they meet a people who are not only threatened by the promotion of human rights (which in Africa could pass as the “return” of colonialism) but are strongly attached to continuation of family lineage through child bearing. On a continent where people are still threatened by human rights, adverse anti-gay sentiments are becoming more visible and it is almost difficult to eliminate them because of the theology through which they are propagated.

The arguments against separation of church and state have birthed a sexual revolution that has led to the rise of anti-gay movements in Africa. It is a major cultural shift between African tradition and its “live and let live” stance on non-heterosexual relationships and western-bred evangelical theology which places procreation at the center of human sexual relationships.

Most Christian fundamentalists believe that states would not function well unless they sought guidance from a higher power. From Francis Schaeffer to Janet Museveni, the long trajectory of the Christian Right is proof that the “gays are a threat to state power” mindset has always informed their politics and theology.

 President Museveni has assured donors that he has the anti-homosexuality bill under control. His adviser Nagenda even urged diplomats to not to publicize the bill as this would spark off more anti-gay sentiments in the country. However, based on the weight of advocacy that has been done by human rights activists to ensure that a bill which could have become law two years ago is still lurking in parliament and has been opposed by cabinet, we cannot keep silent and put our trust in the words of a leader of state who appears as an ally at donor tables but speaks so violently of LGBT rights whenever he wants to use it as a strategy to remain popular especially among religious groups.

Hopefully, President Museveni will step up his promise to “handle” the bill.  We will not allow the future of LGBT rights and human rights in general to be determined by the First Lady and her evangelical cohorts.



Off the map: LGBT rights and the global campaign for “Green” Advocacy

In a country where clerics use the pulpit for anti-gay slur, anti-corruption homilies, and political campaigns on behalf of their preferred politicians, advocacy on the relationship between environmental justice and human rights is neither a priority for most civil society groups nor a point of concern for most faith-based groups  in Uganda. Usually, we talk of protecting the environment and we miss the fact that environmental justice and human rights are co-dependent. Whereas most human rights activists would agree to the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression and human rights abuses, LGBT activists are yet to join the global campaign for what is evidently one of biggest human rights challenges of our time. Are we chanting on the side of “LGBT rights are human rights” more than we are on the side of  “Human rights are LGBT rights?”

While struggling to find an explanation to why most sexual minorities in Uganda (this includes LGBTs and sex workers), some of the world’s most endangered populations, live in slums – usually in the suburbs of big towns and cities, it was not until much later that I came to a conviction that this happens for two reasons. First, because of communal living most often characterized by rural life wherein it’s a neighbor’s business to know if a neighbor’s daughter is married and to whom, we are experiencing an exodus of LGBTs persons from the countryside to big cities. Second, most LGBTs, even those in the middle-class, face multiple-tier discrimination while seeking employment.

Reacting to Rolling Stone’s outings in 2011, Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha reported that several members of the community lost employment due to the “name and shame” absurdity of the tabloid which, until a high court ruling in Kasha Jacqueline et al Vs The Rolling Stone (Uganda), continued to haunt LGBT persons.

Both explanations for why most members of our community are either homeless or inhabit some of the country’s worst slums, imply that LGBT persons are victims of poor and life-threatening housing conditions. For many members of our community, the most affordable housing they can find is in slum areas which are characterized by poor garbage collection systems (if any), poor sanitation, lack of safe water and most commonly found in flooded areas. Rampant use of environmentally unfriendly substances such as nicotine and marijuana among LGBT and sex worker communities as caused by increasing homophobia is crucial to the campaign for environmental justice. As such, our community is part of the big environmental justice debate which largely weighs in on why the world’s oppressed usually turn out to be the world’s poorest and the world’s environmentally oppressed thus lending credence to my observation that LGBT rights are off the map of the global campaign for environmental justice.

In most human rights debates, it is common parlance for activists to miss the fact that the rights of sexual minorities are fundamentally indispensable as far as environmental justice is concerned. Even within mainstream human rights NGOs, it’s not uncommon for human rights advocates to simply gloss over issues of environmental justice or even completely ignore them as the responsibility of the state-managed National Environmental Management Authority. The lack of recognition for human rights and the environment, as maintained by our civil society is, in my opinion, developmentally bankrupt. And of course this bankruptcy also takes flight from traditional hierarchical and patriarchal dispositions of society, the mainstay of oppression against non-hetero and non-gender compliant human sexualities. Out of a seemingly somewhat stretched observation but one that is consistent with feminist and  human rights principles, environmental injustice is in many ways a function of homophobia as it is of all forms of injustices committed against humanity.

It is therefore almost impossible for recognition of LGBT rights as human rights to be fully achieved if we ignore the relationship between the human and the environment.

In the book Hope’s Edge, Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe offer a useful approach to making inter-linkages between women oppression and ecological oppression. Lappe and Lappe narrate that the women of the Green Belt movement led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mathaai, felt liberated from societal chains which confined them to being housewives. One woman notes that before the Green Belt, they (the women of the Green Belt), “belonged to their husbands.” “There were hardly any trees,” she says. “Now they are my trees.” The question is, how much of addressing the effect of homophobia on the environment a question of addressing the relationship between environmental injustice on LGBT rights?

If the Green Belt’s feminist sense of awareness for ecojustice and radical response to the crisis can be borrowed by sexual minority advocacy groups and if each of those groups committed to establishing an environmental project as their resources permit, the world will be ecologically transformed. Similarly, as the world moves forward with “Green advocacy,” we need to address the environmental needs of LGBT communities as well as what we can do to equip LGBT communities with resources they need to manage the ecological challenge of our time.

Understanding the interconnectedness of environmental degradation and human oppression is crucial to understanding what our role as LGBT advocates of this generation should be in ensuring that the environment is safe from oppressive human practices leading Earth to near destruction. The rights and freedoms of LGBT persons and the struggle for environmental justice are co-dependent human rights issues. For there can be no peace among the peoples without peace with the Earth.

Journey to wholeness

We were told to carry tissue and that “if you are the emotional type, you might need it.” This was an admonition from Dean Miriam Gelfer which I refused to take seriously. If you know me well enough you may have noticed that it takes me a while to thaw. If I were ice, I would melt at 40 degrees Fahrenheit plus. I had completely underestimated the emotions of the day.

With commencement ceremony starting at 2 o’clock , I encountered a nervous breakdown and completely lost appetite for anything.The night before, I had failed to attend commencement prayers at chapel. When my roommate asked why I missed in action I said, “I am not feeling well today.” A picture text message with a bouquet of flowers and these words from my significant other: “I love you. Congrats…God is never a liar…you made it…I’m so proud of you” pummeled me out of bed.

Then it dawned on me that I was supposed to feel the way I felt. I realized that for the first time, I was about to wear a graduation gown having graduated from Makerere University in absentia. When I graduated from Makerere for my undergrad, my guardian was busy not wanting anything to do with “an unrepentant self-confessed lesbian rebel” who had wasted his hard-earned resources by “joining homosexual degenerates.” My story is, briefly, that during  my second year at Makerere I met a group of lesbians at a local bar after which I became a founding member of the first lesbian organization in Uganda which is also arguably the first organization of the LGBT movement in the country. At 21, any parent/guardian would be terrified for their daughter pronouncing herself a lesbian activist.

May 17, 2012 felt special because I knew I had dismantled the negative expectations of my family and guardian. Above all else, I know I wouldn’t have made it if I had not done my masters at an institution that has brought the best out of me. I tell people that Episcopal Divinity School is a special place. Not only because the school has a rich tradition on radical social justice activism including anti-racism work, women’s rights, and LGBT rights but also because it’s an institution where voices get unleashed. This aspect of the school’s pedagogy is so grounded that we have a course that specifically helps students develop their voice.

A place like EDS gives you space within which to make that happen because you don’t only come here for academic rigor; you are constantly prepared to become a leader who witnesses inclusiveness, love and justice in the world. At this institution, my long-harbored conservative views on particular issues have been nudged. As an activist, I have been surprised to learn that I had not embraced the ethos of inclusive activism as my assumption held. In fact, I have learned that I have been oppressive to myself and others in extremely shocking ways. Learning to question my own privilege has been, and is, part of my journey to wholeness.

As I leave EDS, I remember the words of my mentor, Kapya Kaoma, a few days before I considered applying to the masters in theological studies program. “The LGBT movement in Africa needs professionals,” he said. ” You need to be able to speak out for yourselves instead of relying on allies to do it for you,” he continued.” The women’s movement in Africa did not begin to create change until women went back to school and got themselves educated to become professors, doctors, lawyers, feminist theologians….” As Kapya rumbled about the importance of education, I wondered how a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in Africa who is homeless, hungry, unemployed, abused, HIV positive can prioritize education let alone find opportunities for education when his/her own existence is threatened on a daily basis.

It was then that I learned that the cycle of oppression cannot be broken until people know what the oppressor does not want them to know. For all the oppression of LGBT persons in Africa, the objective of the oppressor is to stop them from getting the privilege of knowledge. The number one rule of oppression is: Keep everything people need to know about their liberation secret so they will continue seeing their oppression as their own fault. Rule number two: Keep people busy living for survival so they will not think of  living for anything else but daily survival. Rule number three: Keep them destructed, busy being “freedom fighters” such that they will not see themselves as human beings who have a life larger than that.

Kapya intimated to me on graduation day that he sat in a meeting recently where he advocated for the importance of empowering African LGBTs with education and someone responded, “That is not our priority for LGBT rights in Africa.” Whoever made this statement said exactly what the homophobe politicians and clergy in Africa want to hear.  As an alumni of EDS, Kapya knew that this institution would give me a similar experience it had given him before moving on to do his doctorate at Boston University. More else, he helped me understand the interdisciplinary study of theology and how it perfectly fits into my activism. He still teases, “How many Bibles have you read?” What he implies is, “You didn’t come to divinity school to “read bibles.” You came here to understand the politics, motivations, and language of the Religious Right so you are empowered to counter their negative theology on LGBT rights.” That is exactly what my two-year non-ordination program at EDS has been.

My research has specifically focused on studying the Christian Right and its influence on sexual rights in Africa. From the prison system to environmental justice and international conflict resolution, I selected classes that would provide me a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness and intersectionality of human rights issues. The interdisciplinary nature of my program has earned me the Alison Cheek Prize in Feminist Liberation Theologies “presented to a graduating student for activism and scholarship that reflect commitment to ending racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and all forms of oppression in the Church and the wider society.” In compliment to the Masters of Arts in Theological Studies I have earned the Certificate in Religion and Conflict Resolution that is awarded by the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of ten university divinity schools and schools of theology in the Greater Boston area.

Endings and beginnings…

The next one year will be time to make preparation for further graduate study, continue my work with the movement, and to begin writing my first book which I like to describe as less of a book and more of a storytelling project.

The Spirituality of Healing

Until I confronted my fears and began sharing my life story, it was difficult to find healing. Growing up in a conservative evangelical household did not give me room for self-acceptance and self-expression. I grew up with a fantasy of meeting someone who would tell me that God loves me just the way I am. And yet, even if this remained mere fantasy, I never came to an understanding of why I felt “different.” As my mates spent their teenage years discovering their bodies, I was caught up in self-loathing and being anti-social. It was finding people who neither judged me nor looked down on me as less of a human being that helped me find myself again. I found community and it was in this community that I first had my experience of healing and what it means to belong.

In a society where homosexuality provokes bigotry, finding spiritual and physical healing is the most difficult pursuit for LGBT communities. Because of the harsh conditions of oppression that many non-heterosexual identifying people have to endure, healing can be difficult to achieve. The good news is- it is not impossible. There is healing in the collective power of community.

As I visit more countries, I am beginning to understand that homophobia­­- just like all forms of oppression- is cross-cultural. While I have been witness to stories of lesbian “corrective” rape in Africa, LBGTs in the United States too do not always have it easy- they struggle to deal with homophobia and are sidelined by certain national policies. Even if our advocacy issues differ (it is same-sex marriage in the U.S and a matter of life and death in Africa), we are all caught up in a mutuality of oppression that can only be challenged by the power of collective activism.

If oppression is cross-cultural, and if it takes collective effort to fight it, then healing shares the same pattern. Many oppressed communities have found courage to wage resistance against oppression because there is power in numbers. At least this is true for LGBT communities in my country. Acknowledging the fact that the LGBT movement in Uganda was born out of people socializing in places like bars, it is a tradition that has continued to this day. Many of us who became homeless when our families ostracized us and our religious places of worship turned into houses of hate; we found self-love and healing from living as community.

In a society where we are denied the right of existence, we have constructed alternative ways of healing. Through organizing regular community gatherings and now, the latest being a group of queer musicians and fine artists who are redefining their lives through art, we have turned our predicament into undying hope. I still wonder how we are able to laugh in the midst of tribulation. Then, I am reminded that healing does not always happen only when systems of oppression are brought down. Healing is not given by the oppressor. Healing happens when the oppressed choose to change their circumstances by redefining and making their lives meaningful.

In his ministry, Jesus showed us that there can be healing of oppressed bodies even when the status quo does not permit it. Jesus healed bodies on Sabbath; he overturned the tables of money-changers and expressed his anger at the hypocrisy of Jewish-Roman merchants for turning his “Father’s house” to a den of thieves; he healed people in the most unlikely places. My reading of Mark 11-15-19 is that Jesus was not just defending his father’s house; he was furious at rich people who were amassing wealth at the expense of the poor. Whatever Jesus’s preferential option for the poor was, his ministry was fundamentally about healing. And, the spirituality of healing is essentially what the mission of today’s Church should be.

In the past several weeks of deeply thinking about what it means to have the “spirituality of healing,” I have been introduced to the interconnectedness of the body, the earth, and the spirit. Whether it is eating food that adds value to our bodies or finding a relationship with nature through photography, healing can only be achieved if we understand community as having relationship with ourselves, with nature, and with the spirit.

LGBT Struggles for Human Dignity and Equal Rights in Uganda

LGBT Struggles for Human Dignity and Equal Rights in Uganda

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples. 

The influence of the Christian Right on LGBT rights continues to spread beyond the United States. It is productive to examine the nature and impact of this influence on the African continent. As a Ugandan lesbian who grew up in an evangelical Christian household, I think it is productive to examine the role and activities of external actors like the Christian Right in the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda. United States evangelicals are one of the challenges faced by African LGBT movements as they struggle for human dignity and social justice.

Both anti-gay activists and LGBT activists across Africa are fighting on two fronts, both a domestic and a foreign battle. For American evangelicals such as Scott Lively, Africa is a battle ground to export his brand of anti-gay theology, even as it is being challenged in his own country. For African politicians and clergy heightened attacks on gay people have become an opportunity to gain votes. For African LGBT activists it has required us to adopt a Eurocentric advocacy toolkit which, ironically, is spawning a backlash against us in our own countries. And, on the other hand, for LGBT people in Uganda the anti-gay advocacy of the Christian Right is fuelling overt violence and even death.

In March 2009, Scott Lively as well as Don Schmierer of Exodus Internationals, and Caleb Lee Brundidge of International Healing Foundation, traveled to Uganda to speak at a seminar called Exposing the Homosexual Agenda. Remember, Uganda is a country where homosexuality is already illegal. Videos of Lively at the seminar capture him telling his Ugandan audience – a mix of police officers, members of Parliament, students, parents, pastors and their congregations – that, homosexuals were responsible for the Nazi holocaust and they recruit children into homosexuality. “Nobody has been able to stop [homosexuals] so far,” he agitates. “I’m hoping Uganda can!”

The Christian Right’s influence in Ugandan politics does not appear out of a vacuum. Christian evangelical missions to Africa date back hundreds of years to European slavery and colonization. Here I look at the evolution of contemporary Christian evangelism and the continuing legacy of interventionism in Africa, which brought Lively to Uganda.

On January 1, 1980, American Presbyterian minister Francis Schaeffer became the first evangelical preacher to stir political activism among Christian evangelicals when he delivered a speech, A Christian Manifesto, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. A strong advocate against the separation of church and state, Schaeffer’s teachings on “true Christian living” and opposing humanism spawned a sexual revolution. He’s widely cited as the person who birthed anti-abortion movements among evangelicals. Perhaps less known is the role Schaeffer’s philosophy has played in a global anti-gay movement that has added a new dimension to discourse on sex and sexuality among African Christian-majority societies.

When Christian fundamentalists were debating federally funded abortion clinics and the abolition of mandatory prayer in public schools, Schaffer’s concern was also the propulsion of a humanistic strain in public education. His interventions followed the common trajectory of the Christian Right’s protection-of-our-children rhetoric. Schaeffer advocated what he called ‘true Christian living.’ In a nutshell, he preached that humanist secularism was the dominant threat to human existence and had only been made possible by the silence of Christians. Further – and this is where Uganda enters the picture – Schaeffer advocated “reaching the lost both at home and abroad.” The mission of saving ‘the lost’ must not stop at American borders, he told his followers; the mission is a universal one.

While Uganda has seen the growth of an evangelical movement since the mid-1970s, Shaffer’s Manifesto added a new dimension to postcolonial African struggles, including navigating Eurocentric thoughts and evangelical beliefs on sex, sexuality, and marriage. Marriage, according to many evangelical preachers, is to be understood as an institution of human service to God. Linked to this conception is a model of ‘the family’ based on a hierarchical and individualistic paradigm, one runs counter to the values of traditional African conceptions of family grounded on communal life.

The export of evangelical beliefs from the United States to Africa included the condemnation of same-sex relationships because “they are not in line with God’s purpose for procreation.” The latter belief is shared by evangelical tradition and many Africans, but for different reasons. Ugandans espouse a ‘sex for procreation’ view as a way of continuing family lineage: one cannot become an ancestor without offspring. On a community level, a person who dies without a child is believed to become an ‘alien spirit.’ In contrast, evangelicals advocate procreation because they believe a non-child bearing sexual relationship is contrary to God’s intent for marriage.

The fear associated with barren ‘alien spirits’ stigmatized all childless people, whether the childlessness was caused by barrenness or heterosexuals or homosexuals who choose not to have children. Same-sex relationships in Africa predate colonial times, but it is only now that LGBTs are claiming their independence from cultural ties which requires them to have children or to remain silent. This cultural disruption partly informs why homosexuality or its so-called ‘promotion’ is perceived as un-African.

Homosexuality is not alien to Africa. Rather, what is alien to Africa is the discourse and human rights terminology being used by more visible African LGBT movements. The LGBT movement in Uganda has adopted an agenda that defines LGBT rights as human rights precisely to counter an American-inspired movement against us. The visibility of LGBT activism partly informs the success of the anti-gay movement – but also vice versa.

In 2010, a year after the anti-gay seminar in which Lively and Caleb Lee Brundidge lectured Ugandans on the ‘gay agenda,’ American evangelist and founder of The Call Ministries, Lou Engel, held a prayer crusade in Uganda where he called on the nation to repent for “the sin of homosexuality.” Engel echoed Schaeffer’s of anxieties about humanism’s “takeover of public schools” and “loss of religious freedom.”

In his Manifesto, Schaeffer had also advocated “compassion for those caught in the problem [homosexuality].” Schaeffer’s “compassion” for homosexuals was echoed in Lively’s introduction at the conference in Kampala. And that same rhetoric of compassion for homosexuals has spawned “gay-change therapy” clinics in Ugandan churches, such as the one run by anti-gay campaigner Martin Ssempa, who claims he is helping homosexuals become straight.

In predominantly Christian countries like Uganda, the church, in collaboration with the state, is less concerned with the abolition of prayer in public schools than with the “promotion of homosexuality in schools.” The seed of the idea that Lively had planted earlier – that the threat to children comes from particular secular sections of the population – had caught politicians in Africa like a cold. Uganda Member of Parliament David Bahati and President Yoweri Museveni have both expressed fears about a ‘secret plot’ of Ugandan homosexuals and their American allies to promote homosexuality in schools. At youth conferences presided over by Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, she addressed the dangers of the secular world and urged youth to disavow the “curse of homosexuality” and to embrace “spiritual growth.”

Christian evangelicals also advocate that the state is God’s ministry. Successful leadership thus depends on the involvement of the church in policy making so that governments do not abrogate the authority of God. As a predominantly religious country, Ugandan political leaders use churches and mosques as their campaigning grounds. As well, part of their political platforms has included the promise of restoring the nation’s waning moral sanity. The fight against homosexuality has given them new material to ensure their election or re-election, as well as to justify Uganda’s turn to militarization, as in the case of ongoing raids on LGBT organizations and activists.

Kapya Kaoma, the author of Globalizing of the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives. African Churches, and Homophobia, has written that conservative American Christians are building “Christian colonies” in Africa. He examines recent developments in Africa where the introduction of anti-gay bills can be linked directly to the presence and advocacy of United States evangelicals in those African countries. What is happening to LGBT people in Uganda corroborates Kaoma’s analysis of the relationship of the Christian Right to the persecution of LGBT Ugandans.

Some critics of the Christian Right argue that these neocolonialist tendencies are not entirely destructive, as some United States evangelicals also fund health and education projects on the Africa continent. But this globalization of the gospel, I would argue, does not always effect positive social change. In fact, in Uganda, it has spawned sexual violence. Two years after Lively introduced the idea that homosexuals are a threat to peace and stability in Uganda, an anti-gay bill was tabled in Parliament by MP David Bahati. On January 26, 2011 David Kato, one of the founders of Uganda’s LGBT movement, was murdered after a local newspaper had featured his face with the headline “Hang Them! They Are Coming after Our Children.” Since Kato’s death, persecution of LGBT persons in Uganda continues to escalate. And this persecution does not stop at Ugandan borders. Campaigns to introduce similar anti-gay bills are springing up in several other African countries.

The anti-gay religiosity in Africa has also provided an opportunity for African LGBT movements to make significant social justice strides in a short time. I believe such movements need to be bottom-up approaches that emphasize proactive strategies to address the immediate threats against us. This bottom-up approach must learn from other liberation struggles in Africa. African feminists, for example, have built a gender justice movement based on their histories, struggles and lived experiences as African women. They understand that their liberation depends on them shaping their own destinies, which includes recognizing education as one of the most powerful weapons against oppression. Africa has been able to produce many feminist scholars, theologians, writers, and women leaders because liberation movements were mindful that, as Stephen Bantu Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

In order to counter the forces against our liberation, African LGBT movements need to ground our narratives of liberation in African-centered experiences. We need to speak out against oppression wherever and however it manifests itself. If African LGBT activists remain silent when donors threaten to cut aid to anti-gay African countries, our silence will only confirm the mantra that homosexuality is imposed on Africa by the West.

Our future as African LGBT movements also depends on our Western allies showing solidarity by following our lead. In the struggle for human dignity and rights, Africans voices must lead the way. We need our own local movements of LGBT thinkers – academically trained and politically savvy activists – whose voices can be carried into the institutions that currently oppress us. We also need the positive stories of resistance by our social movements to be recognized and celebrated.

The emergence of African pro-LGBT movements for social justice in countries like Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and of African human rights activists creating safe spaces and positive change in extremely hostile environments, is a success story. We need our allies in Western LGBT movements standing with us, and helping us to resist the oppressive impact of African and western religious movements that advocate denying us our human dignity, rights and full citizenship.

One year later…What have we learned from the murder of David Kato?

LGBT activists and allies are attending the David Kato Kisule (DKK) Memorial in Kampala, one year since LGBT activist and leader David Kato was murdered in his home. Kato’s friends and family, including his mother, are attending the event organized by the Uganda National LGBT Security Task Force and Sexual Minorities Uganda. I just heard from one activist on the ground:

The memorial started an hour ago. Hymns, scripture reading,  prayers, and eulogies are being heard. The mood is sombre; mixture of celebrating life, remembering him and he is surely missed.

The DKK Memorial as we named it, is an event expected to be an outpouring of mixed emotions in remembrance and celebration of a man whose activism shone a light through our movement; a man whose death and the circumstances surrounding it still hurt and arouse anger; a man I respect; my father- as he always related with me.

I feel dispirited and almost failed to write this post.

One year after the murder of David Kato, I have many unanswered questions. I ask to what extent the Rolling Stone magazine  played a role. Was the publication of names, pictures, and addresses of Ugandans known or suspected to be gay an end to means orchestrated by his killers?

The Rolling Stone, at the time of David Kato’s  murder, was a little known bi-weekly publication “selling about 3000 copies that you had to spend time on the streets of Kampala to find a copy.” In fact, it was international media that introduced most Ugandans to the magazine and its editor Giles Muhame. “It was not even widely available outside Kampala” as one journalist observed. Knowing this, it seems more logical to argue that the Rolling Stone could have had little to do with inciting people to “Hang” a gay activist. I would like to argue that Rolling Stone’s publication of names and pictures of those known and suspected to be gay was a series of an already hatched plan to murder David Kato.

Celebrating David Kato

The death of David Kato has galvanized a breed of new activism and synergies in the Ugandan LGBT community. On my recent visit to Uganda, I met and interacted with a number of young activists and organizations whose joining the movement was a response to the death of this great activist. The movement has certainly grown bigger and stronger thanks to ongoing organizing by the Uganda Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. It is encouraging to know that what began as a make-shift entity to respond to the Anti-Homosexuality bill has not only become proactive in action but more grounded in a multi-dimensional sexual rights advocacy. Members of the coalition feel that it is time to move Beyond the Anti-Homosexuality bill and build a movement of sexual rights activists who will influence policy and change repressive laws that hinder the freedom of sexual minorities.

The coalition is also working to achieve wider recognition in Uganda as a group of scholars, lawyers, politicians, and social justice activists. It is in the interest of the coalition to make the Ugandan LGBT movement recognized at home. So far, the struggle for LGBT rights in Uganda is more recognized abroad than it is at home. Total change will only be realized when Ugandans recognize and respect the rights of LGBT persons. We certainly need more African voices on board.

The general situation of LGBT persons in terms of security and awareness of rights has improved. What is often read and heard in international media is not what is on the ground. It is not what I saw on my recent visit. LGBT persons in Uganda are not in hiding. When people like Secretary Hilary Clinton speak out against human rights violations in Africa, they send a strong message to our governments that persecution of LGBT persons is a human rights violation. This comes with some degree of protection from the state because our governments know that the world is watching. I spoke with some activists who feel protected by the state (the Police) than ever before. Even if there’s still a lot of work to be done by government, it is important to acknowledge that today, LGBT activists can engage the police. According to a report from the Hate No More campaign launched in 2o11 by Freedom and Roam Uganda, activists have held meetings with the police and some police official have shown interest in being educated and engaged on LGBT issues.

The situation of LGBT persons in Uganda is getting better. Not worse. It is important that international allies, donors, and partners know that their support and resources are making a difference.

I am having a difficult time telling foreign journalists and bloggers that the situation of LGBT persons in Uganda is getting better. As a group of activists, we recently visited a Ugandan LGBT community living in the ghettos of a Kampala suburb called Bwaise.

LGBT activists arriving to meet with the LGBTI community in Bwaise- one of Kampala's slum areas.

Here, they have managed to organize themselves against homophobia by getting involved in community development projects and have been accepted by would-have-been homophobic heterosexuals. This LGBT ghetto community also asked me to write a story on how the BCC through their 2011 documentary on Uganda titled “The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?” and journalist Scott Mills “used” them and promised them help but forgot about them even if “the documentary made a lot of money around the world.” In their own words, this community is disappointed that foreign journalists such as Scott Mills should travel to Uganda and prey on the plight of Ugandan LGBT persons and do nothing to give back to their communities. By failing to acknowledge the progress we have made as movement (albeit still ongoing tough struggles) and continuing to label Uganda as “the world’s worst place to be gay” and ignoring the positive stories we are witnessing, we are destroying the very lives we want to save.

A friend and journalist working for the New Vision recently wrote a story on the plight of a blind widowed HIV+ mother with 4 children in the rural areas of Western Uganda. ( Nassar didn’t just tell the story. He asked people to help. Since the publication of the story, the New Vision has raised millions of shillings from Ugandans and abroad toward building a house for this family, treatment, and school fees. This is what bold journalism is all about. This is what journalists like Scott Mills should be doing when they come to Uganda. Let me also add that as a movement, we are fed up of being used as pawns by Western journalists who use our stories for their own selfish interests.

Bold journalism means that journalists should be able to translate stories they write into tangible results. What does it cost for the BCC to raise money for condoms and lubricants for the gay men Mills interviewed? Regardless of Western support, we need to have awareness of imperialist tendencies (what I call subtle racism) that is sometimes tied to the “help” we get.

I am convinced that the international community is genuinely interested in our freedom and that some journalists want to tell our stories in a way that raises our voices for liberation. However, I feel that NOW is the time to engage local media and potential allies on the African continent. The acceptance of African LGBT movements by Africans should be our priority. The international community has played its role. The stage has been set. It is time to translate this support into meaning change at home.

I was speaking at a conference at Union Theological Seminary in NYC when an American journalist walked up to me and said her editor doesn’t want to publish stories that portray the “getting better” situation for LGBT persons in Uganda. For the past three years since the introduction of the Bahati bill we have talked about how bad things are. Can we now begin to celebrate the progress we are making?

A colleague recently commented on my facebook update on the negative impact that international media has on African LGBT movements. He said:

Frankly it would have helped if our people on the ground had responded to the travesty of a documentary that Scott Mills produced. The silence from our end was as deafening as it was a tacit endorsement of Mill’s nonsense.

Nothing can be further from the truth. It is the tendency to believe that every ally has good intentions and not being able to question. It is important that African LGBT activists understand the intentional and unintentional harm that international media is doing to African LGBT movements and to condemn it whenever and wherever it happens.

In self-criticism, I know that most African LGBTs are not bold enough to condemn the kind of “Mill’s nonsense” that my colleague echoed. We have allowed the West to dictate our politics and write our narratives that we are losing our identity. I know that the arguments I make here are not popular; they don’t attract sympathy because they portray African LGBT persons as competent and independent when people expect them to be stupid.

After all is said, the best thing about the issues I raise here is that African LGBTs  know what they want and it’s time to claim it.

On religious pluralism in Uganda

I just read this story from the New Vision website about Ugandan Pastor Umar Mulinde being attacked in an incident that is believed to be another ugly attack on religious pluralism in Uganda.

“As I turned away from the attacker, another man poured the liquid on my back and ran away shouting ‘Allah Akbar (God is great).”

Pastor Mulinde said he caught a glimpse of the attackers but could not disclose the details as this would jeopardize investigations. He blamed the attack to some people who are opposed to his conversion from the Islamic faith to Christianity.

“I have got threats for a very long time, but didn’t take them serious until now,” he said.

Mulinde was raised in a staunch Muslim family and his father served as the local Imam. He was a sheikh before getting converted to Christianity.

Mulinde said the attack occurred shortly after his church had concluded a seven-day crusade at in which over 300 people gave their lives to the Lord.

I have spent a number of years observing the compassion and cruelty of religion. Finding middle ground has been difficult. As someone who was raised with an unquestionable reading of  scripture I have learned to free myself from reading the “Word of God” as the unadulterated “Word of God.”

The Self : I grew up in Mengo, a small town in Kampala known for its large community of Somali Muslim immigrants. There are as many mosques as Balokole (Pentecostal) churches in this town. My family’s Church, Trinity Christian Fellowship, was one of them except that it was a home fellowship where everything happened inside our house. I attended a number of  Balokole crusades in my childhood. After all, it was the norm and mom was an evangelist. For years I watched Imams and pastors tussle it out in a barrage of arguments and counter arguments on whose Book or whose prophet is God-sent. I was blessed to grow up in an environment of Christian extremism and to remain sane as to have an independent and liberal mind.

The problem of the Absolute: My theology has always been simple. God (whoever your god is) cannot be defended and does not need to be defended. The whole idea of being God (god) is that you can speak for yourself. Otherwise what is the point in worshiping a super natural being who is helpless? I have always believed that as so-called Christians, (the phrase so-called herein used to portray how much I despise our self-righteous attitude as Christians) it is not our job to defend God. The attack on Pastor Mulinde is unfortunate but it points to a more complicated problem among Pentecostal Churches than among Muslim fundamentalists. It is also a profound attack on the preaching of the gospel.

The US: Uganda is  a country of diverse religions and faiths. Despite the fact that Pentecostal Christians in Uganda received official recognition by the government only two years ago after being in existence for about four decades, everyone should be free to exercise their religious or faith freedom. When I was growing up, the Uganda Television broadcasting company (the only TV station in Uganda at that time) had strict instructions from government not to broadcast Balokole programs. The Idi Amin administration had launched a violent attack on Pentecostalism that to be a Mulokole in Uganda was a very shameful thing. It was even worse that the Balokole faith preached the prosperity gospel which meant that most of its followers were impoverished, uneducated, and miserable people. The number of Balokole who were well-off was too insignificant to attract respect. The Museveni administration is behind the freedom that the Pentecostal Church enjoys today. Beside his unconfirmed Pentecostalism and his wife’s confirmed Pentecostalism, President Museveni overturned the oppressive NGO laws that bound Pentecostal Churches to being registered as Non-Governmental Organizations. Recently, the President declared Pentecostals as an officially recognized Faith and granted them the same religious freedom as enjoyed by Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, and Anglicans.

The Now: Looking at how far Pentecostals in Uganda have come, it is surprising that their pastors should hold open door crusades and preach the gospel to potential converts while being blasphemous to Muslims and Prophet Mohammed. For a country that has been through too many bloodshed wars, religious war is the last thing Ugandans need. My plea to government is that these crusades that become a violent attack on divergent religious views be abolished especially if pastors and Imams are using them as a platform to vent their hate. I am a Christian. I have no business with Prophet Mohammed but that does not give me any right to condemn my Muslim friends for not following Jesus.

Pentecostal pastors such as Mulinde need to begin respecting religious traditions that are not their own. The attack on pastors and the blackmail that we so often read about is not a result of some hate campaign against Pentecostalism. Rather it the consequence of pastors    using hate speech to front the Pentecostal faith as the absolute faith tradition that every Ugandan should follow. If we are going to promote religious pluralism in our country, we also need to advocate for an end to religious blasphemy that is promoted by Christians themselves.

Clinton’s Human Rights Day speech on global LGBT rights: My thoughts

I am happy that Secretary Clinton mentions the need to train LGBT activists and staff of their organizations as a way of empowering them for the struggle. We need to raise a generation of activist thinkers and professionals ‘who can speak the language of the oppressor.’ From the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement, nothing gave voice to their struggles as empowerment for education did. My professor, Ed Rodman, has once remarked that, ‘Had slave masters known better, they wouldn’t have taught slaves how to speak English.’ Rodman believes that learning how to speak the master’s language empowered slaves to rise against their oppressor.

Our oppressors don’t expect us to have knowledge and/or to use it to our advantage. They don’t expect us to think or reason. By caging us in a life of discrimination and fear, they know that they will control us so we are left powerless to fight back. Our allies on the other hand speak on our behalf because they are taken seriously because their academic credentials! They write our research and tell our stories not because we cannot do what they do but because they have knowledge we don’t have. I respectfully acknowledge the contribution of allies to our movements but the only way I see Clinton’s speech bringing the change we need is when LGBT persons will become the experts of their own movement and an authority on issues affecting them.

Allies such as Sylvia Tamale, Jeff Sharlett, and Kapya Kaoma among several others are able to make a significant contribution to LGBT movements because they command authority and respect because of their professional achievements. A friend of mine, and a great admirer of Dr. Tamale, often jokes that, ‘Even when Tamale makes a point that does not make sense it makes sense to people because of the respect she commands.’

Well my friend, I don’t know about that but what I want to argue here is that if we are going to raise a generation the Martin Luther Kings, Hilary Clintons, Sylvia Tamales, Jeff Sharletts, and Kapya Kaomas of this world, we need to make it possible for LGBT activists to further their education in their fields of interest. An LGBT activist with a law degree or a PhD in a room of the likes of Martin Ssempa makes a huge difference.

We know the story. We activists are received with great honor overseas. It’s a different story in our home countries. We sit in conference rooms and people sniff and jeer at us because even when we make good arguments, people question our credentials. I believe that for people to disagree with your opinions but still be able to respect you is a powerful thing. We need mutual respect- even in our differences. Nelson Mandela was able to begin conversations with his Afrikaner oppressors because first, he learned how to ‘speak their language’ and two, he won their respect. We are not going to build our movements if the only respect we command is from our allies overseas. Our own people need to begin taking us seriously and we have to break the myth that if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, then you’re destined for failure.

I have read Secretary Clinton’s speech. I have seen great potential in her remarks- she may not even realize the weight of her contribution. I have projected the future and I have seen how far this speech is going to take us. She had done her part. We need to do ours. Let us all identify what we can do in line with her remarks and let’s get it done.