Popular Media in Uganda
Popular Media in Uganda

Scott Lively is a Christian clergyman of a peculiarly American stripe. He is white, “born again,” claims to know the mind of God better than most and wields that knowledge with such flair that the Southern Policy Law Center classifies his Massachusetts-based church/media complex, Abiding Truth Ministries, as a hate group. The latter is not unique for zealous, media-savvy right-wing Christian ministries in the U.S., where they form regional grass-roots mobilizing engines for one of the major political parties and, in exchange, regularly seek to exert  an overweening influence on secular matters.

What might make Lively more unique is that he has put his faith into action in such a way, according to a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. in 2012, as to foment crimes against humanity.

In December 2014, three judges of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston unanimously dismissed Lively’s petition to throw out the original complaint filed by a Ugandan gay rights group. It sets the stage for a curious test case, potentially measuring where standard defenses of religious intolerance, notably free speech and deeply held religious belief, become instigation of criminal acts or, in the case of Uganda, legal acts in blatant violation of international human rights law. But the suit is just one contentious consequence of a veritable shitstorm stirred up in the region not just by Lively but also by his spiritual brethren in the U.S.’s community of fervent religious conservatives.

Uganda has become ground zero of the blowback of good intentions gone horribly awry, and malign intentions gone the way anyone might have expected. In late 2013, the Ugandan parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, stipulating life imprisonment for anyone proven to be involved in same-sex relations. The law went null this past summer when a Ugandan court declared it unconstitutional on a procedural technicality, but its proponents have since drafted a new bill that casts an even broader net, calling for seven years of imprisonment for the mere “promotion of homosexuality,” which could be interpreted to mean anyone critiquing the persecution of Ugandans based on their sexuality.

Uganda’s anti-gay witch-hunt had been simmering since 2009, drawing heavy scrutiny from Western nations where same-sex relationships have been steadily normalized. LGBT civil rights have entered a fait accompli phase in the U.S. since its own Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, then a flurry of state-level gay marriage bans in intervening months. Yet, in a dark thread spanning the Atlantic, some of those decrying the American developments the loudest, such as Lively, have played no small role in both the creation of the Ugandan law and fanning the flames of official homophobia throughout much of Africa. While their cause seems lost at home, the U.S.’s stalwart advocates of “traditional marriage” have already sufficiently sown among their African allies the rhetoric and pseudoscience to make official homophobic sanctions like Uganda’s possible.

That has cast an ominous enough pall across Africa on human rights terms. But even worse than that, as the British Medical Journal reported as far back as 2010, it is exacerbating the continent’s ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. And at the root of it is what was once perceived as the most successful regional foreign policy of the U.S.’s most conspicuously right-wing fundamentalist president, George W. Bush.

As reporter Bob Roehr documented in “Homophobia and Africa’s HIV epidemic” in the BMJ’s May 29, 2010, issue, Bush’s effective privatization of AIDS policy to faith-based organizations (FBOs) not only compromised AIDS prevention in Africa, but, through the growing influence of its administrators and their influential evangelist kinsmen, has lent credence to those who would make homophobia into public policy.

“Religion has driven the backlash against gay people in Africa,” Roehr wrote, “most notably evangelical Christian pastors associated with Christian social conservative groups based in the United States.”

In broad view, this can be seen as a cautionary tale as to what happens when an ostensibly secular body gunks up policy that would otherwise be based on science and social efficacy with the eccentricities and caprice of religion. Yet it all began with a seemingly inconsequential but fundamental shift in language stipulating how to get things from Point A to Point B.

Upon President Obama’s visit to the continent this past summer, numerous news outlets noted Bush’s continuing popularity in Africa, largely owing to the legacy of his healthcare policy on the continent, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). With marshalled support from American evangelical groups, Bush in 2003 secured $15 billion for the program. It brought antiretroviral meds to infected Africans on an unprecedented scale. By 2008, its administrators claimed success in bolstering the number of Africans benefiting from antiretroviral meds to 1.2 billion, up from 50,000 four years prior.

PEPFAR proved a rare point of policy consensus between American liberals and conservatives, the latter both in the Congress and in Bush’s political base, Holly Burkhalter wrote in a contemporary account of the policy’s formation, “The Politics of AIDS: Engaging Conservative Activists,” in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs. As of 2002, Burkhalter reported, “U.S. funding for foreign AIDS programs still hovered at less than a fifth of what activists considered an appropriate share of the global burden . . . But the real turning point in American AIDS policy came when conservative Christians made the cause their own.”

The Bush administration set up the plan in a way that played to that base. Catering to their quasi-fanatical distrust of “big government,” it farmed PEPFAR out, putting public funds in the hands of FBOs with broad established networks of affiliates in African nations. To do this, the administration fundamentally altered the criteria of how the Agency for International Development (USAID) selected administrative partnerships, according to a 2007 report by Third World Quarterly, “Agents of Transformation? Donors, Faith-Based Organisations and International Development.”

“Under the old doctrine religious organisations which engaged in discriminatory or sectarian practices were barred from government funding or contracts,” the journal reported. “Under the new ruling, however, USAID cannot discriminate against organisations which combine development or humanitarian activities with ‘inherently religious activities’ such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.”

In spite of the overwhelmingly positive numbers on the treatment side of the HIV/AIDS issue, PEPFAR drew critique from more clinically-inclined NGOs on its preventative policies. The administration attached “moral” strings to on-the-ground outreach, education and healthcare with Africans, correlative to FBOs’ conservative beliefs.

One third of “prevention” spending went towards abstinence programs, while organizations that received PEPFAR funding had to pledge to refuse care to sex workers and could not offer needle exchanges to drug addicts — both critical areas of preventative care, yet seen, in a conservative worldview, as enabling bad behavior.

Abstinence-only programs don’t just carry a dubious history of effectiveness, according to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report published in Reproductive Health Matters, “The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda.” Human Rights Watch found that faith-based sex education programs in Uganda routinely relayed bad information on the efficacy of condoms. They did so specifically because conservative FBOs object to birth control on similar grounds given for its “gag rule” toward sex workers and needle-drug-users: that the blessing of condom use serves to condone recreational, premarital or non-procreative sex.

Before the U.S.’s evangelical-tinged AIDS policy, the nation’s president, Yoweri Museveni, had adopted condom-inclusive policies that had reduced Uganda’s rate of infection from 15 percent of the population in 1991 to close to 6 percent in 2002. But as PEPFAR was implemented, Human Rights Watch tracked “growing indications that condoms will disappear from the country’s HIV/AIDS strategy.”

In October 2004, the Ministry of Health issued a nationwide recall of all free government condoms, allegedly in response to failed quality control tests. The ministry then took the extraordinary step of requiring post-shipment quality control testing on all condoms imported into Uganda, including those that had already been tested. By December 2004, experts were forecasting a national condom shortage. Rather than take steps to address the shortage, however, Uganda’s minister of state for primary health care stated, “As a ministry, we have realized that abstinence and being faithful to one’s partner are the only sure ways to curb AIDS . . .”

 Museveni personally ratcheted up the rhetoric during the period, suggesting “condom distribution encouraged promiscuity among young people.”

Organizations with established footprints in family planning and HIV/AIDS-related healthcare found themselves shut out of PEPFAR if they refused to adopt the Bush “gag rule,” according to Gayle Smith, formerly senior director for African affairs for the U.S. National Security Council during the Clinton Administration. Writing in the December 2004 issue of the Review of African Political Economy, Smith posited the policy “forced the closure of clinics in Kenya, curtailed community outreach programmes in Ethiopia, Zambia and Uganda and forced established family-planning organizations to close or reduce services . . . USAID — once the world’s leading provider of condoms to the developing world — has terminated condom shipments” to a total of 29 countries.

If U.S. taxpayers footed the expansion of FBOs’ footprints in African countries, they also helped broaden those groups’ platform to proselytize positions long espoused in the U.S. debate over same-sex relationships: that homosexuality was “unnatural,” a “lifestyle choice,” inextricable from predatory pedophilia and part of a “gay agenda” to lure citizens away from  “traditional family values.” While many African cultures have traditionally ostracized homosexuals, the BMJ noted, FBOs brought with them an implicit U.S. stamp of approval and a resulting air of legitimacy to well-articulated, if  sophistic, homophobic arguments.

“Although U.S. evangelicals do not impose their views on their African colleagues,” Roehr wrote, “they nurture native homophobia by offering their organizations experience, messages that are already shaped and tested for maximum effect, and the veneer of pseudoscientific research — on cures for homosexuality, for example — to rationalise their beliefs.”

The BMJ secured an interview with Scott Evertz, who served as director of the Office of National AIDS Policy under Bush and was “the only openly gay person appointed by the Bush administration.”

[Evertz] says the administration had a disdain for science, which resulted in homosexuality and injection drug use being divorced from HIV/AIDS. “Vulnerable populations quickly became set off to the side as a result of ideologies that drove opinions about how we would do prevention.”

Mr. Evertz quotes one evangelical spokesman as saying, “AIDS has created an evangelical opportunity for the body of Christ unlike any other in history.”

. . . [Uganda] became a magnet for American evangelical groups. Some of the best known Christian personalities have recently passed through here, often bringing with them anti-homosexuality messages, including the [California megachurch pastor] Rev. Rick Warren, who visited in 2008 and has compared homosexuality to pedophilia.

The rhetoric came to a head in a three-day “seminar” in March 2009 headlined by prominent anti-gay voices from the U.S. “Thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality” — including how to “cure” gay people, the BMJ reported. Among those were Scott Lively. Lively, like other U.S. clergy among attendees, brought a history of demonizing homosexuality and painting the gay rights movement, as he told his audience in Uganda, as “an evil institution whose goal is to defeat marriage-based society.”

Scott Lively addresses an audience on the "gay agenda."
Scott Lively addresses an audience on the “gay agenda.”

Lively, Warren and other American anti-gay “experts” struck a chord with Ugandan MP David Bahati, who would later that year introduce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to the Ugandan parliament. Bahati also served as a local affiliate for The Fellowship (aka The Family), a Washington, D.C., evangelical group whose extensive ties to conservative Christian politicians in the U.S. government have been documented exhaustively by author Jeff Sharlet. The Fellowship sponsors Washington’s annual National Prayer Breakfast, and Bahati coordinates its Ugandan equivalent. Initially his anti-gay bill proposed death sentences for those found guilty of homosexuality. Though that extreme position alarmed many in the international community, the slightly watered-down version nevertheless made it to law last year.

Along the way, the Ugandan LGBT community has been terrorized by anti-gay vigilantes, fanned by national media, which have routinely outed people and worse, publishing their home and work details when available. One of those whose information was disseminated, gay rights activist David Kato, was murdered in his home in January 2011. Driving gay people underground, the BMJ story warned, threatens to exacerbate the continent’s AIDS pandemic by discouraging self-reporting and testing for HIV, thus putting more people at risk.

The patriarchal nature of Ugandan society compounds these already stark risk factors. Closeted homosexual men take wives as rites of passage and to conform. Heterosexual men eschew testing for fear their sexuality might become suspect. And for those already HIV-positive — known to them or not — according to the Human Rights Watch report, “it is still widely believed in Uganda that women have no right to deny their husbands sex.” HRW further elucidated how a national policy of behavioral shaming seems a glib and destructive panacea up against the stark economic realities in countries like Uganda:

. . . AIDS in Uganda is a disease of poverty . . . New HIV cases occur among girls trading sex for school fees, women enduring violent marriages because they lack economic independence, and orphans being pushed into the street and sexually exploited. “I wish those who preach abstinence would come down to the slums and see how people are living,” said one AIDS educator. “These girls live five to a room. There is no supper for them. The man outside says he will get her money and a place to sleep. Now, what is she going to do, abstain?” Others noted that abstinence-only messages had no relevance for people who did not marry, not least lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Ugandans whose very existence is denied by their government. LGBT communities are “erased from all HIV programs,” said one activist. “The Uganda AIDS commission does not want to hear about them.”

Allowing for the lag between policy implementation and measurable impact, Uganda’s HIV/AIDS infection prevalence numbers showed minor initial promise amid the PEPFAR “gag rule” before stalling and creeping upward again. After 2006, the population’s infection rate rebounded, reaching 7.4 percent in 2013, according to numbers from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS). Between 2007 and 2013, the number of people living with HIV increased from 1.2 million to 1.6 million, the organization reported.

Uganda’s revised anti-gay bill was on the verge of becoming law at press time, and Museveni suggested he would sign it as soon as it made it to his desk — but even its implementation won’t provide a full metric of the stark hostile climate it has made for gay people in Uganda, for whom there appears little redress. In 2012, the Ugandan LGBT rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) tried a different route, via the U.S. District Court in Springfield, MA. In conjunction with the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights, SMUG sued Scott Lively under the Alien Tort Statute, which, conditionally, allows foreign citizens to seek legal remedies in U.S. courts for gross violations of treaty law that the nation has signed onto, making it, de facto, federal law.

SMUG and the CCR alleged Lively participated in a coordinated effort with Bahati and other Ugandan officials to deprive Ugandan citizens of human rights — effectively crimes against humanity. The official complaint cited a “decade-long campaign [Lively] has waged, in agreement and coordination with his Ugandan counterparts, to persecute persons on the basis of their gender and/or sexual orientation and gender identity.” As a result of those efforts, the complaint alleged,

the very existence [of LGBT citizens] has been criminalized and their physical safety threatened through a coordinated campaign, which LIVELY has largely initiated, instigated and directed, to strip away basic fundamental rights from people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity and those who advocate on their behalf. LIVELY’S 2009 work in Uganda and his call to arms to fight against an “evil” and “genocidal,” “pedophilic” “gay movement,” which he likened to the Nazis and Rwandan murderers, ignited a cultural panic and atmosphere of terror that radically intensified the climate of hatred in which LIVELY’s goals of persecution could advance. Shortly after LIVELY’S pivotal 2009 work in Uganda, one Member of Parliament expressed, “We must exterminate homosexuals before they exterminate society.”

 In August 2013, the court ruled that grounds had been established for the suit to proceed. Late last year, the three-judge panel of the circuit court validated that decision, rejecting Lively’s motion to dismiss the case. The court ruled that “the argument that Defendant’s actions have constituted mere expression protected under the First Amendment is . . . premature. Accepting the allegations of the complaint, as the court must at this stage, sufficient facts are alleged, with specific names, dates, and actions, to support the claim that Defendant’s behavior crossed well over any protective boundary established by the First Amendment.” The discovery phase of the case commenced in January.

In a more recent interview with Christian news “ministry” TruNews, Lively only doubled down on his longtime stance, suggesting God hates homosexuality more than mass murder. He dismissed the suit as a frivolous attempt to curtail his speech rights in the name of “political correctness.” Without irony, he suggested that “the worst bullies in America today are LGBT activists.”

Some of the religious conservative voices heard in Uganda, such as Warren, have evinced shock that their counsel has been perverted into such draconian law — even Lively expressed some discomfiture at their wording — but it can only be heard as quibbling-after-the-fact. Few can argue that they did not campaign openly and relentlessly to maintain a status quo of institutional repression and second-class citizenship as official U.S. policy. And there is a clear and irrefutable record that, as their cause lost traction in the U.S., they actively exported those notions to wherever they might find seed. All Uganda’s own religious conservatives have done is take second-class citizenship based on medieval notions of “perversion” and orthodoxy to its logical and inexorable conclusion, dehumanization. That, by most empirical evidence, is where all crimes against humanity begin.

Matthew Grimm is a freelance writer and musician living and working in Madison, Wisconsin. To read more of his work for La Cuadra, click here. He can also be reached via his website, grimmreality.net

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About the Author

Matthew Grimm is a freelance journalist, singer-songwriter and frontman for the legendary roots rock band, The Hangdogs. He can't be bought, but if you are not a racist or fascist asshole, he'd be more than happy to drink your beer.