How U.S. evangelicals helped homophobia flourish in Africa


Members of the transgender and LGBTQ community light candles as they pay tribute to victims of hate crimes in Uganda and all over the world, in Kampala, Uganda, on Nov. 23, 2019. IMAGE/SUMY SADRUNI/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-gay sentiment had previously existed on the continent, but white American religious groups have given it a boost.

Uganda’s parliament is set to debate a new anti-gay bill next week, as the country’s president called for a “medical opinion” on the deviancy of homosexuals. The bill, besides criminalizing homosexuality, also criminalizes the “promotion” and “abetting” of homosexuality and follows a January parliamentary investigation into an alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools. It’s no surprise, given how rampant anti-gay sentiment is in the country.

In September, I came across a video that was going viral on Twitter in Uganda. In the video, 26-year-old Elisha Mukisa, who is reported to have been previously imprisoned on defilement charges, speaks for a little over eight minutes detailing how he was lured as a minor into acting in gay porn by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)—a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Kampala working to support and defend LGBTQ+ persons in the country.

The video caught my attention for several reasons. The first was the anti-gay rhetoric it catalyzed in the following days and the corresponding moral panic. In the ensuing conversation on social media, SMUG was defined as a threat to children that parents had to watch out for. One Twitter user, @Ashernamanya, wrote: “Uganda must be for God Almighty not for Bum lickers the Gays. SMUG an NGO is recruiting young children into Homosexuality and acting the gay. They need to be arrested.”

The previous month, the Ugandan government had shut down the organization. The country’s NGO board released a statement after the announcement, claiming that SMUG’s registration was rejected for being “undesirable.” Mukisa alleged in this video that the shutdown was because of evidence he had provided to the NGO board.

The second reason the video kindled my interest was that it added to the growing list of instances of mass media being weaponized in Uganda to propagate the “ex-gay” narrative, in which a person claims to have been “lured” and “recruited” into homosexuality. It was also organized by the Family Life Network’s Stephen Langa, who in March 2009 put together a similar seminar called “Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda.” The language and presentation of luring and recruitment (as though it were a job listing) were not, in fact, novel to my ears, and it is a phenomenon I have seen across African news media.

It has deep links to white evangelical Christianity and is an export of a made-in-the-USA movement and ideology that is polarizing African countries and harming and endangering LGBTQ+ people.

While it looked innovative, it was not the first time such a press conference was creatively planned to spark panic and parade out a person claiming to be ex-gay. It was also not peculiar to Uganda; it is a method that was and continues to be used in both puritanical and evangelical Christianity in countries from Ghana to Kenya and Nigeria.

From the days of European colonialism, when sodomy warranted the death penalty, the church has been the face of the anti-LGBTQ+ movement and has deployed language and framing consistent with present-day ex-gay movements.

The rhetoric relies on a “prodigal son” framing that checks out with the Bible, in which gay people are only valid as long as they turn away from their sexuality. (In the Bible story, the prodigal son’s welcome was contingent on his return in the same way the evangelical church would only welcome gay people on account of their conversion.)

When the pro-conversion therapy Christian group Exodus International put Yvette Cantu Schneider and other ex-gay spokespeople on TV in the 2000s to talk about being formerly gay, it was because of such beliefs. Schneider herself wrote on Instagram that a straight white male leadership team handpicked her. (Exodus International ceased operating in 2013.)

The post reads in part: “They were looking for a spokesperson who had been gay. And I was told, ‘you’re gonna be great because you’re young, you have the Hispanic last name, and you don’t look gay.’”

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