Gay Uganda and the Broken Body of Christ

Reading time 16 min.

There is a scene in the comedy, ‘In and Out’, in which Joan Cusack, playing a bride left at the altar by her gay groom, cries at a bar on the shoulder of a man she finds attractive but who, alas, turns out to be gay, too. The camera cuts to the bar entrance where we see her, now doubly jilted, throw the door open, take a deep breath, and yell, “Is EVERYBODY GAY?!”

The same comic paranoia inhabits the Ugandan Parliament and the Evangelical, Anglican, and Catholic Christians around the world who see hordes of gay barbarians at the gate.

It is no secret that Uganda’s Parliament is now entertaining the notorious “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” The bill would criminalize the mere act of being lesbian or gay, among other things. Its proposals, though Swiftian in their lunacy, are far from modest. It promises life imprisonment, for example, for engaging in “the offence of homosexuality,” which the bill describes in prurient detail:

“A person commits the offence of homosexuality if — (a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption; (b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate the sexual organ of a person of the same sex; (c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.” Those who “contract a marriage with another person of the same sex” also commit the “offence.”

Given the bill’s hostility to homosexuality, one would think that the legislators who initiated it would have better things to do than titillate themselves with the intricacies of gay sex.

Especially intriguing is their apparent ability to discern, as if by magic, when one person touches another with the “intention of committing homosexuality.”

When will Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga tell us what first-person experiences and inclinations enable her to do so?

Does David Bahati, who introduced the bill, have gaydar?

(Ndlr: “Gaydar” refers to the instinctive, radar-like ability of some gay persons to know who is and is not gay at a glance.)

Do they protest too much?

But the bill is too sinister to merit mockery alone. It would condemn to death those who commit the crime of so-called “aggravated homosexuality” in one or more of the following circumstances:

“the — (a) person against whom the offense is committed is below the age of 18 years; (b) offender is a person living with HIV; (c) offender is a parent or guardian of the person against whom the offense is committed; (d) offender is a person in authority over the person against whom the offense is committed; (e) victim of the offence is a person with a disability; (f) offender is a serial offender, or (g) offender applies, administers or causes to be used by any man or woman any drug, matter or thing with intent to stupefy or overpower him or her so as to thereby enable any person to have unlawful carnal connection with any person of the same sex.”

No word yet from the fair-minded Ugandan Parliament on its much anticipated companion piece of legislation, the “Anti-Heterosexuality Bill.”

Don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, Steven Lewis, former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has singled out the bill’s criminalization of HIV-positive gay men for particular scrutiny. He claims it would undermine Uganda’s once successful efforts at HIV/AIDS prevention. “What is put at terrible risk here,” he writes, “is the entire apparatus of AIDS treatment, prevention and care.”

Lewis argues that the bill would turn back the clock on Uganda’s efforts to reduce HIV prevalence and improve AIDS education and prevention:

“It’s profoundly ironic that the country that’s seen as emblematic of success in fighting the pandemic is now contemplating such a decisive step backwards. The effect of this legislation will inevitably be to demonize homosexuality even further, to intensify stigma, to drive gay men and women underground, to terrify them in their everyday lives, to diminish dramatically the prospect of counseling and testing to establish HIV status, to make it virtually impossible to reach homosexuals with the knowledge and education and condoms that prevent the spread of AIDS.”

Human Rights Watch claims that the bill would draw attention and resources away from measures that truly reduce HIV transmission, such as “protection against discrimination, reduced stigma, greater access to testing, and treatment.”

Funny how caring for people might be more helpful than killing them.

But quite apart from the bill’s potential impact on public health are the legal and medical conundrums that would render it virtually unenforceable.

“It is difficult, if not impossible,” according to Human Rights Watch, “to establish in court who between two partners was infected first or who caused transmission, limiting the feasibility of prosecution.” The bill would encourage a witch hunt based on unsubstantiated accusations, and against women in particular, “who, as a result of pregnancy-related medical care, form the majority of those who know their HIV status, thus exposing them to the risk of criminal prosecution.”

A witch hunt, you say?

It wouldn’t be the first time.

In 2006, the Ugandan tabloid newspaper ‘Red Pepper’ outed forty-five allegedly gay and bisexual Ugandan men. At least five were reportedly arrested. Another was attacked. A student was thrown out of his home by his parents. He fled to a friend’s house where the two were subsequently arrested. Such things happened before the bill. Imagine what could follow its passage into law. Overnight, accusations of homosexuality would become a ready way to settle scores.

The bill also proposes fines and imprisonment for as long as between three and seven years for those who produce or disseminate gay, lesbian, or bisexual pornography, who “abet,” “fund,” “sponsor,” or “promote” homosexuality, or who fail to report knowledge of such activities to the authorities within twenty-four hours of learning about them.

Despite these Stalinist pretensions of a network of informants ready to betray relatives, friends, patients, parishioners, neighbors, and students to the sex police, the bill sounds strangely American.

Its stated goals are to “(a) provide for marriage in Uganda as that contracted between a man and a women; (b) prohibit and penalize homosexual behavior and related practices in Uganda as they constitute a threat to the traditional family; (c) prohibit ratification of any international treaties, conventions, protocols, agreements and declarations which are contrary or inconsistent with the provisions of this Act; [and] (d) prohibit the licensing of organizations which promote homosexuality.”

The phrases used above, “marriage . . . contracted between a man and a woman” and “traditional family,” are virtually identical to those used by anti-gay politicians in the US: “marriage as a union of a man and a women,” “traditional marriage,” and “traditional family values.”

In truth, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill does less to uphold the “cherished culture of the people of Uganda,” as it claims, than to replicate a universal trend in pettiness.

Last month, for instance, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, DC threatened to discontinue its local charitable services if the City passed a resolution mandating same-gender partner benefits to employees of agencies that receive City funding, including Catholic Charities, the Church’s charitable arm. The Church cried foul, alleging an infringement of its religious prerogative to disregard same-gender partnerships. But the resolution never mandated that the Church hire lesbian or gay staff, only that it pay benefits to partners of lesbian and gay employees, whom the Church could just as easily fire. But this would make the Church’s wickedness public rather than private, contradicting the compassionate appearance it so assiduously cultivates.

Finally, on December 15, after the City extended benefits to partners of same-sex couples, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl announced that Catholic Charities would nonetheless continue its operations. The Church had lied to hold the poor hostage in the service of its own bigotry. Hardly grounds for casting the first stone.

Why, one wonders, did Jesus have a Samaritan—a person no less despised than gay people by today’s Church—rescue a mugged man from a ditch? Only to tell him, “You can’t come to my soup kitchen?!”

But back to Africa. Zambian Episcopal priest, the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, was correct when he charged that proponents of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill have “exported” the “US culture wars . . . to Africa.”

Yet again.

Recall the controversy between the US Episcopalian Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion over the election of the first gay Episcopal bishop, Eugene Robinson, in 2003.

In Tallahassee, Florida, where I live, disagreements over Robinson’s confirmation split St. John’s Episcopal Church in two. Robinson’s opponents started a new church, St. Peter’s, as part of a movement called the “Anglican Church in North America.” The movement began in 2000 when Episcopal churches in the US and Canada protested Robinson’s confirmation by joining overseas dioceses in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South America, and notably, Uganda, the archdiocese that St. Peter’s joined.

Uganda’s Archbishop, the Rt. Rev. Henry Luke Orombi, welcomed St. Peter’s with open arms. Is it any coincidence that Ugandan legislators commended Orombi for his opposition to homosexuality when they introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on April 29, 2009?

And still, St. Peter’s describes itself on its website as a “warm and welcoming parish.” Unless perhaps you are gay and live in Uganda—or anywhere else for that matter.

And the controversy is not going away any time soon. Earlier this month, the Episcopal Church elected its first lesbian bishop, the Rev. Mary Glasspool, as one of the first two women auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles.

And back in Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill has sparked principled opposition. Okello Lucima, a Ugandan political economist, has rebutted the bill’s fundamental assumptions on his blog, the Northern Uganda Messenger Post:

“Homosexuality is not a crime. Those who practice it do not harm anyone, when it is done between or among consenting adults. Violating minors or gaining carnal knowledge of minors is defilement and rape. Equally, having sex with adults against their will, regardless of their sex or gender, is rape and criminal. It does not matter whether the perpetrator and victim are heterosexuals or homosexuals; defilement or rape is defilement or rape; it is criminal and punishable. But no crime, even . . . rape, should be punishable by death among human communities living in the 21st century.”

For Okello, the only thing “aggravated” in this bill appears to be the drafters’ homophobia.

For the blogger GayUganda, such homophobia has neo-colonial overtones:

“Christians in the US . . . I am not going to blame you for what, ironically, seems to be a direct result of your cultural wars. I don’t understand them. But, I do understand your anger at the god playing and influence peddling of some fellow Americans . . . They seek to impose their own ideals of life in a country that is far removed from their own. Simply because they can, and they have their plan, and have the money. And my leaders are gullible.”

Compare such commentary with the remarks of Catholic Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg before the fall 2009 synod of African Catholic bishops:

“[Africa’s traditional cultural values] are threatened by the new global ethic which aggressively seeks to persuade African governments and communities to accept new and different meanings of the concepts of family, marriage and human sexuality . . . Africa faces a second wave of colonization, both subtle and ruthless at the same time.”

If Tlhagale is right, then Anglican and Catholic bishops on both sides of the Atlantic are riding the wave, accusing others of following foreign agendas when they readily adopt the reactionary ideas of US fundamentalists who judge African life so cheap as to support a bill that proposes the executions of gay, HIV-positive Ugandans.

The most striking example of such foreign meddling involves the so-called “Christian” group The Family to which many influential American Christian politicians belong. It has been directly involved in the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s development.

According to Jeff Sharlet, author of ‘The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power’, “David Bahati, the man behind this [Anti-Homosexuality Bill], is . . . deeply involved in The Family’s work in Uganda.” The “ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni’s kind of right-hand man . . . [James] Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family’s National Prayer Breakfast . . . these guys are not so much under the influence of The Family. They are, in Uganda, The Family.”

Ironically, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, described by its proponents as a step toward African religious and cultural independence, is nothing of the sort. It is instead an opportunistic response to American missionary imperialism.

But how, I wonder, can self-proclaimed Christians so piously embrace contempt for lesbians and gays in good conscience?

There are, of course, Biblical passages that supposedly condemn homosexual acts. I lack the space to discuss them here. I leave it to readers to consult the writings of Daniel Helminiak, John McNeil, Robin Scroggs, and others who argue that Biblical authors had no more sagacious, accurate, or reliable an understanding of homosexuality than they did of slavery, gender, open heart surgery, or telephones.

But the Anti-Homosexuality Bill also involves more venal, political concerns.

In 2006, journalist Anna Louie Sussman traced a shift in Uganda’s AIDS prevention policies to US President George W. Bush’s AIDS initiative known as PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In response to PEPFAR’s conservative emphasis on abstinence and fidelity as AIDS prevention strategies, Uganda emphasized these approaches at the expense of condom distribution, with deleterious consequences. Sussman writes:

“During the 1990s, Uganda operated a comprehensive HIV-prevention program, known as ABC, for ‘Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms’, credited with lowering HIV rates to 6 percent of the population in 2002 from 15 percent in 1992.

“Beginning in 2001, however, Museveni’s HIV strategy veered sharply. He dropped the ‘C’ for condoms and pared the approach back to ‘Abstain and Be faithful’. A . . . survey by the Ugandan Ministry of Health found the known HIV infection rate edging higher; 9 percent of the female population is infected, and 7 percent of males.”

Sussman also cites renowned Ugandan AIDS activist Beatrice Were as concluding that Museveni altered his previous AIDS policy to assure a continued stream of US funding. According to Were, Museveni was “selling himself completely, putting money before the lives of his citizens.”

If the statistics Sussman cites show anything, it is that Museveni’s new approach did not work. Journalist Arthur Baguma recently confirmed this trend. In East Africa, he writes, “Uganda has the second highest HIV prevalence rate among adults aged 15-48,” at 6.4%, behind Kenya and ahead of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. And Uganda has “the highest HIV prevalence among men who have sex with . . . men in sub-Saharan Africa.”

What are Uganda’s poor politicians to do in the face of such failure?

Blame someone else.

From Mugabe to Jammeh, Museveni to Nujoma, African presidents have scapegoated gay, bisexual, and transgendered people for immorality, duplicity, and reckless behavior when no better sources of all these ills can be found than in these presidents.

To wit, Stephen Lewis has warned that if President Museveni and others fail to torpedo the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it could threaten future PEPFAR funding for Uganda. Under President Obama, abstinence and fidelity education to the exclusion of condom distribution are no longer in vogue, and the new administration “is firmly on record for the protection of gay and lesbian rights.” But will politicians do what is best for Uganda?

Even if they don’t, others already are. Thanks to international criticism and the brave dissidence of those Ugandans protesting the bill, a silver lining is beginning to emerge within this cloud of contestation. The same persons who once stood staunchly for intolerance against lesbians and gays are now condemning the bill.

Self-described “former homosexuals,” Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas, the respective president and executive vice president of Exodus International, a US-based Christian group that claims to turn gay people straight, have written to President and Mrs. Museveni asking them to oppose the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. So has Pastor Rick Warren, the preacher who delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration and who once welcomed outspoken anti-gay Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa to his church and to a conference on AIDS.

Then, in early December, the Vatican’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations issued this statement:

“The Holy See continues to oppose all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons, such as the use of the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.”

And this Christmas Eve, Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala condemned the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as “at odds with the core values of the Christian faith.”

But, to my mind, these criticisms, as welcome as they are, are too little, too late. Reports indicate that the Ugandan Parliament may drop the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” but the rest of the bill may soon become law.

On Dec. 22, Pastor Martin Ssempa organized demonstrations in Kampala in favor of the bill. Demonstrators presented Deputy Speaker of Parliament Kadaga with a petition of 50,000 signatures for the bill. And Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo defended the bill as an expression of Ugandan sovereignty. Never mind that this clique of self-appointed homosexuality experts has no qualms about imposing their North American-inspired agenda on fellow Ugandans. So much for self-determination.

The moral of the story, I feel, is this: Decades of anti-gay advocacy by the bill’s Johnny-come-lately critics have led to what is the logical if most extreme potential outcome of their homophobia: a systematic attempt to fine, imprison, and in some cases exterminate gay people.

I can only conclude that Christians who stigmatize lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered people as moral miscreants are complicit in attempts to do violence to them. There is no more middle ground for those “well-meaning” Christians who cannot “stomach” what lesbians, gays, and bisexuals “do.” No longer can anyone “who has ears to hear” doubt that the old truism applied to queer people, that of “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” is anything but invidious hypocrisy.

Jesus said he came to “bring a sword.” That sword has cleaved the Church in two, between those whose vitriol will sooner or later spill over into brutality unless vigorously opposed through every peaceful means possible and those who stand against such apostasy.

“Whatever you do to the least of these,” Jesus said, “you do unto me.” By whose calculations are HIV-positive African gay men not the least of these? For whom are any transgendered, bisexual, lesbian, or gay persons in Uganda not the least of these, especially in the climate of terror in which they now find themselves? And by whose account is their harassment a Christian virtue?

Those who support the Anti-Homosexuality Bill must certainly be assaulting the suffering body of Christ in the persons of those they would condemn, punish, and execute. As I understand Christian theology, God became human to prevent such violence.

Which leads me to ask, which “God” inspires this bill?

Not Yahweh, who spoke to Elijah in a whisper and foretold through Isaiah that a messiah would be rejected and scorned like so many of those now living with HIV and AIDS.

Not Christ, who taught mercy and compassion for the rejected, wounded, and abandoned.


It is Baal.

And Mammon.

May new prophets arise in Uganda and beyond to smash these idols asunder.

Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda  The Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2009 by MP David Bahati seeks to impose the death penalty on gay men who are HIV-positive for “aggravated homosexuality”. In Uganda today, homosexuality is already a crime punishable by a prison life term. This proposed law would not only condemn HIV positive gay men and "repeat offenders" to death, it would also jail for three years anyone who knows a gay man but refuses to report them to the authorities. In addition to that, anyone who defends gay rights in public will be sentenced to seven years in prison.
Joseph Hellweg
Joseph Hellweg is Asst. Prof. of Religion at Florida State Univeristy. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale. He has done research with initiated hunters (dozos) and on HIV and AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire from 1993-1997 and in 2002. In 2008-2009, he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, Guinea, where he taught social science research methods. He will complete his fellowship at the University of Bamako. He speaks French and Mandenkan and eats fonio with okra sauce whenever possible.
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