Uganda’s Anti-LGBT Bill: Facing Hate and Hegemony

By Michelle Chen Jan 08, 2010

The now-infamous anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda has kicked up a media storm halfway around the world. The bill, which could pave the way for the death penalty, life imprisonment or other severe penalties for homosexuality-related behavior—might otherwise be dismissed by American liberals as a symbol of third world backwardness. Except it reflects the virulent political doctrines sent from a distant shore. The legislation can’t simply be chalked up to uncivilized bigotry in an alien society; its venom flows from the American bastion of democracy and family values. That may be why Obama-endorsed mega-pastor Rick Warren and other Christian fundamentalists are now jerking away from legislation—suddenly embarrassed by the movement they indirectly fueled when rolling out the white man’s burden in the name of Christian virtue. The mainstream media coverage emphasizes the American crusaders’ efforts to disown the bill. But behind the damage control is a complex racial and nationalist political dynamic. In the wake of the condemnation of human rights groups, the bill’s proponents continue pushing their initiative as a gesture of revolt against the dictates of Western countries. Homosexuality is reportedly widely vilified as an evil Western export. Yet the rhetoric behind the bill is the byproduct of an American movement that treats the Global South as a petri dish for warped utopian visions, which perhaps wouldn’t fly in the “developed” world so rife with political correctness. The Times observes that a budding LGBT community has been forced further underground. But this is hardly the first challenge to LGBT-rights activists in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. In 2007, Almah Lavon Rice wrote for Colorlines about the challenges facing grassroots LGBT advocacy in the region:

Nurturing an indigenous LGBT activism may be one way to address charges of cultural inauthenticity. But there is no consensus about what LGBT activism is, says Zethu Matebeni, a lesbian doctoral student in Johannesburg. “We are all from [such] different classes, race groups…that we cannot have one loud and strong voice,” she contends. “Some of us were fighting for the right to marry, and yet many live in rural and traditional areas where marriage ceremonies and traditions can only take place between people of opposite sexes.”

One blogger, GayUganda, strikes back at the imported propaganda yet stands apart from the foreign condemnation, turning the lens back onto the country of origin.

One silver lining I see to this is that there is an ongoing honest examination of the anti-gay rhetoric in America. Because it is where this came from. It is the root of this genocidal bill. And, my poor countrymates believe the ‘threat to the family’ which in America is taken as mere political talk. Yes, it is good that that kind of hate speech is coming under the microscope.

Real resistance in Uganda won’t be handed down by the liberal counterparts to right-wing evangelism (which, after all, share their opponents’ penchant for high-minded ventriloquism). It will bubble up from local civil society. The crackdown on the LGBT community, and the cultural imperialism underwriting it, might be just the catalyst Ugandan activists need to crystallize a movement of defiance. Let’s hope they speak loud enough to break through the deafening culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic.