Rosalind P. Petchesky*
In her urgent call to action concerning “the wind of state homophobia [that] has swept over the African continent”—particularly its most “draconian” manifestation in Uganda’s anti-homophobia Bill—Cesnabmihilo Aken’ova remarks, “One cannot but wonder where the new bill is coming from.” In addressing this question, we need to pay attention to external as well as internal forces. Not surprisingly, we find lurking behind homophobic panics and public morality crusades, in Africa as elsewhere, a complicated mix of neocolonial, economic, and domestic policing agendas.
First, it is well known that Uganda became the poster child of the Bush administration, which “praised Uganda’s family-values policies and steered millions of dollars into abstinence programs” through PEPFAR (Gettleman). Right-wing evangelical Christians in the United States, who played a key role in shaping the Bush government’s HIV-AIDS and sexual and reproductive health policies, may have met a receptive climate in Uganda. There, as Maddow (2009) and Gettleman (2010) pointed out, they were probably thrilled to find “proposed virginity scholarships, songs about Jesus playing in the airport, ‘Uganda is Blessed’ bumper stickers on Parliament office doors and a suggestion by the president’s wife that a virginity census could be a way to fight AIDS.” Yet one has to ask, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was PEPFAR’s favoritism toward Uganda conditioned on not only an acceptance of abstinence-only policies and the systematic suppression of condoms, as described by Jodi Jacobson in the SPW seminar in Toronto in 2006, but also a longstanding clandestine love affair between local politicians and US-based evangelical preachers? And does this erotic attraction have deep roots in European colonialism?
Whatever the origins of this neocolonial relationship (a classic re-enactment of intercourse between missionaries and native elites), it is certain that a squadron of American evangelical Christians, claiming to be able to “cure” homosexuality and defeat the danger to African children and families it purportedly represents, came to Kampala in March of 2009, the year before David Bahati introduced his anti-gay bill in Parliament. There, these so-called “experts on homosexuality” gave a series of talks to civil society groups, including teachers, politicians, and police officers, and consulted directly with the legislators who drafted the bill. (Maddow, 2009; Gettleman, 2010). While the American ministers later disavowed responsibility for the earlier version of the bill, particularly its (now withdrawn) death penalty, there is little doubt of their direct involvement in the bill’s inspiration and genesis. Indeed, one may ask whether, not homosexuality, but rather homophobia is the “immoral Western import.”
Beyond the evangelical influence, we need to look at the role of both the US government and the Museveni regime in this outrageous scenario. For its part, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama White House condemned the bill as “a very serious potential violation of human rights” and no doubt played an important role in getting the death penalty language removed, (Allen, 2009). Yet at no time did the US government ever consider economic sanctions or withholding financial assistance from Uganda, and thereby threatening its trade relations with an important East African ally (particularly given its economic and geopolitical rivalry with China in the region). As in the story of Brazil’s withdrawal of its famous resolution on sexual orientation in the Human Rights Council, foreign trade was hiding behind the scenes here.
As for Museveni, who also voiced some weak and very belated reservations about the bill—in response to pressures from the US and Swedish governments and human rights groups—let us recall that the Ugandan president himself has helped to instigate homophobic sentiment in the country. Local newspapers quoted him saying in an address to a public youth forum: “I hear European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa.” (Allen, 2009). Here too, one might surmise a variety of motives at play. If, as a number of observers have noted Museveni is determined to keep control over foreign policy, and particularly trade relations with China, firmly in his own hands, what better distraction than to tie up the Parliament in months of debate over an incendiary anti-homosexuality/save-the-African-family bill? Moreover, Museveni may have domestic political distractions in mind as well.
In a brilliant testimony, Sylvia Tamale (2009) of Makerere University argues that “the re-criminalisation of homosexuality is meant to distract the attention of Ugandans from the real issues that harm us” and truly threaten African families—above all, the economic crisis, lack of jobs, food insecurity, and rampant domestic violence and child sexual abuse. On a broader historical level, Tamale also points out the false assumptions of the bill’s drafters concerning homosexuality in Africa. She reminds people that “homosexuality was not introduced to Africa from Europe” but rather “Europe imported legalized homophobia to Africa,” through colonial anti-sodomy laws. As Aken’ova urges, we must “turn the tide” of the homophobic wave sweeping Africa (and many other regions as well). Doing so surely requires challenging the lies and setting the historical record straight.
– Allen, M. “U.S. Assails Uganda Plan to Toughen Antigay Law,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 18, 2009 (accessed from email@example.com)
– Gettleman, J. “Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push,” The New York Times, Jan. 4, 2010
– Maddow, R. “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Dec. 2, 4 & 7, 2009 (www.youtube.com)
* Member of the SPW’s Steering Committee and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.