BY Jeff Sharlet
August 23 2010 5:00 AM ET
Last October a rising star in Uganda’s parliament named David Bahati introduced the most chillingly murderous initiative to emerge from the convergence of American homophobia with African religious zeal. Much has been made of the bill’s death penalty provision, but the scope of it remains so misunderstood that in July The Economist inaccurately reported that it had been removed (it hasn’t). Even more dangerously, some American evangelicals linked to the bill’s backers — ideologically and financially — are insisting that the death penalty applies only to pedophile rapists. To put that claim into context, consider the perspective of pastor Moses Solomon Male, leader of the National Coalition Against Homosexuality and Sexual Abuses in Uganda: “Let’s be honest,” he told me. “Pedophilia is really just a euphemism for homosexuality.”
Bahati, author of the bill, was even blunter. With biblical prohibitions against homosexuality as his weapon, he said he’s willing to kill every gay person in Africa. And he has the support to do it: Bahati and his allies are networking through American-organized evangelical groups in the governments of Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Congo to spread their new approach to homosexuality. These groups aren’t outsider activists — they’re insider politicians, members of parliamentary prayer fellowships organized by the Family, the oldest and most influential Christian conservative organization in Washington, D.C. The Family, also known as the Fellowship, doesn’t endorse candidates, doesn’t issue position papers, and didn’t even admit it existed until last year, when its attempts to keep three political sex scandals quiet — those of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, Nevada senator John Ensign, and former Mississippi representative Chip Pickering, all linked to the Family’s “C Street” clubhouse on Capitol Hill — forced it into the open. Family members such as South Carolina senator Jim DeMint and Oklahoma senators Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe wage culture war through rhetoric and bureaucratic maneuvers over domestic gay rights issues. But the African leaders they sponsor outstrip their mentors — nowhere more so than in Uganda.
And now the Ugandan campaign is spreading, drawing on the resources not just of the Family but also an array of American backers, from fringe characters such as activist Scott Lively, author of a book blaming the Holocaust on homosexuality called The Pink Swastika, to a mainstream Las Vegas megachurch, Canyon Ridge, that subsidizes the work of Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, the most vicious leader within the antigay coalition. The coalition’s political wing has found politicians across the continent eager to fight “Western decadence” by joining Sudan, Mauritania, and sections of Nigeria and Somalia in making homosexuality a capital offense. When queer Senegalese fled an antigay crackdown in 2008, neighboring Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh proposed that the refugees be beheaded. Malawi, in southeastern Africa, looked positively liberal in comparison when it sentenced Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a gay couple, to 14 years in prison earlier this year for attempting to marry (the “criminals” were pardoned in response to international pressure). According to “Globalizing the Culture Wars,” a report for Political Research Associates by the Reverend Kapya Kaoma, U.S. activists have even been “ghostwriting African religious leaders’ statements,” using the African leaders as proxies in American cultural battles. If that seems like a long way round for Americans to make their point, consider the benefits: As the face of homophobia, instead of a smirking Pat Robertson, they get an African leader whose other work deals mostly with poverty.
Radical Islam also plays a significant role in the spread of African homophobia, as does the cynicism of leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who learned that he could distract his people from the massive corruption of his regime by stoking their latent homophobia. But it’s American evangelicals, through naïveté in some cases and hate in others, who have done the most damage. That’s partly a reflection of economics: American evangelicals have more money to spend. It’s also linked to another phobia, that of Islam. The 80 million strong Anglican Communion (represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church) is on the verge of schism as right-wing American churches bolt their dioceses for the authority of men such as Nigeria’s recently retired Anglican primate Peter Akinola, who seemed to see his church as in competition with Sharia-law advocates for the most antigay position. There’s a tragic truth beneath such bigotry: In Africa “homosexuality” has become shorthand for the hypocrisy of Europe and America, powers that promote liberal social values even as they allow their corporations to plunder African resources.