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Are Western evangelists responsible for Uganda's homophobia?

Evangelical preacher

Could spreading the gospel that gay people are normal and productive members of society be possible in Uganda? crossnews.am under a Creative Commons Licence

They came in brandishing the bible and promising hellfire to the man who walked around the neighbourhood in a dress and high heels singing and dancing and making the children happy for a change.

The entrance of Western evangelism into Uganda was fervent but seemed quite benign. Getting drunk with the Holy Spirit, claiming all the riches of the world and giving a twist to God’s name – Gawd! Who would have thought that a ludicrous campaign would turn into a full-blown witch-hunt of those who dissent?

Today, thanks to the evangelists, Uganda is one of the countries with the harshest anti-gay laws in the world, following President Yoweri Museveni’s agreement to the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February.

Human rights activists have challenged the law for being unconstitutional and a violation of Uganda’s obligations under international human rights agreements.

As kids, we were fascinated by savedees (as evangelicals are known here). We would sneak out of the house while our nanny thought we were having an afternoon nap and go to watch them through the holes of the papyrus-ribbed structures they used as churches in the early days. We enjoyed joining in with the music and dance as much as we loved watching the man with the dress and the high heels perform.

Even then, the evangelists preached hate beyond what our young minds could fathom. They advised parents to cut their children’s African hair, saying it was too untidy and ungodly for Sunday School. They told members of the congregation to throw out their wine bottles and leave churches that still played music from evil African drums. Then they went on the national stage, offering Members of Parliament money if only they could find a way to deal with homosexuals once and for all.

The weeks following the signing of the anti-gay law were a nightmare for gay Ugandans. The law and threats threw them into confusion and shook their resilience like never before. Yet the HIV/AIDS advocacy efforts continued, gay rights organizations voiced their condemnation and gay Ugandans still went to work and school and lived among us. They might have gone about their lives with a slight stoop, a heavy heart or a confused facial expression, but life went on, one day at a time.

There was only one question that they could not answer: what did they plan to do now that the law had been passed? Fleeing to countries that offered asylum was certainly an option. They might go to Scotland, they said – or the US or Canada. But then many of them have never set foot outside their villages or cities. Some belong to the third of the population that can neither read nor write. ‘What would I do in Scotland?’ they asked.

The Constitutional challenge to this hate is being handled by some of the best lawyers in the country and, critics say, is likely to be successful. Uganda has a non-discrimination clause in its Constitution and the courts have twice upheld homosexual people’s right to privacy, life and freedom from inhuman degrading treatment.

On the day the challenge was filed, gay people and their supporters openly addressed a press conference and vowed to fight the injustices (including arrests, harassment and illegal evictions) that citizens and government have meted on them.

Buoyed by this new hope – a chance to have the law declare them innocent so their country can stop hounding them – the gay community is slowly picking up the pieces and rising to fight yet another battle.

Still, it would be naive to think that Uganda’s homophobia, sowed systematically by determined evangelists, will disappear with a Constitutional Court decision. The institutionalized harassment began the moment the bill was tabled and people called upon the state to ‘hang them’.

It took a lot of effort to convince parliament that perhaps life imprisonment is a more befitting punishment. Spreading the gospel that gay people are now acceptable, normal and productive members of society will be even harder but, I dare say, not impossible. My two-year-old daughter may never see the man in the high heels and lipstick dance. But maybe, if the Ugandan judges resist the allure of cheap popularity, her children will.

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