Fanned by Western evangelicals, homophobia has spread across the African continent voraciously in recent years, including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the point that the European Union’s highest court last week ruled that fear of imprisonment for homosexuality in African countries is grounds for asylum in the EU.
Ninety-six percent of Ugandans say homosexuality is “unacceptable,” making it the second-least tolerant country in the world for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT).
Uganda began receiving international media attention around gay rights in October 2009, when it introduced the so-called “Kill the Gays Bill”—a piece of legislation inspired by American Scott Lively, evangelical anti-gay activist and author of a book claiming “homosexuals [are] the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities.” The legislation calls for the death penalty as punishment for “aggravated homosexuality.”
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Still, much of the attention surrounding homophobic social movements has gone to Russia as the 2014 Winter Olympics near. But Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams is spotlighting the influence of evangelicals on LGBT communities of Uganda and the African continent in his new documentary "God Loves Uganda."
The film follows the rise of American evangelical influence in Uganda as an "un-African" importation of homophobia that is proving detrimental to the development of the country.
Featuring International House of Prayer leader Lou Engle, the late Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato and a number of young missionaries, the film illustrates the urgency with which homophobia has been fomented by American evangelical churches fearing their influence has “been lost” at home.
Uganda, a country members of the International House of Prayer affectionately refer to as “The Pearl of Africa,” was targeted by Christian missionaries following the 1979 fall of dictator Idi Amin, which created a power vacuum in what may be the youngest country in the world — an estimated 50 percent of the population is under the age of 15.
GlobalPost spoke with Williams about the current state of LGBT rights in Uganda, what role American evangelicals are playing and how it all fits into larger global trends. Below is a condensed transcript of that conversation.
GLOBALPOST: Tell me a little bit about how your film has so far been received. There have been some articles regarding LGBT rights in Uganda, where activists have been quoted saying that the conditions depicted in the Western media have largely been exaggerated. Have you encountered any reactions of this sort?
ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: I think that a lot of defensive people from the fundamentalist evangelical world will respond one of two ways. They’ll say “oh, no one’s killing gay people,” but that’s totally not true, and I think that the problem with Uganda for the LGBT community is that it’s a mostly rural population, and a lot of the violence happens in the rural communities where it’s impossible to document… but it happens everyday.
I was just on a radio show in San Francisco called Out in the Bay, and the host had sent me an interview he’d done with a Ugandan who had been severely beaten and run out of his community and had gotten asylum here in the US. This is a pretty common thing—and not just Uganda, but across the continent. I just did a tour of Africa with the film and luckily, because Uganda’s gotten so much media attention and so much support from the international community, the activists in Uganda are now a model for a well-organized activist machine that is being supported.
And so they’re doing this in a way that is groundbreaking for the continent. But in countries like Nigeria, for instance, where this anti-homosexuality bill just passed and is waiting for the president to sign, it is a really, really sad state for the LGBT community. Just having been there to screen the film, it was heartbreaking to see how terrified and scary it is because they have this bill that has been passed by their parliament, that no one is really talking about in the Western media, and it’s about to be signed and they don’t know what to do. They’re not as organized, or as well supported in the international human rights community. They're sort of forgotten about and that’s the case in a lot of places in Zambia and a lot of places around the continent.
GP: Looking at the state of anti-homosexual movements globally, we see this kind of activity throughout Africa, we’re seeing it in Latin America and we’re seeing it mostly in Russia—because of the attention surrounding the Olympics. You’ve just kind of touched on how Uganda fits into the larger issues on the continent, but how do you see it compared to, or within the context of the larger global issue? What are some of the comparable, or starkly different elements at play?
RRW: I think the Ugandan politicians and pastors, and even some of the American missionaries, they see Uganda as an example of a country that has boldly, as many of the people in my film told me, taken a stance against homosexuality.
So, Uganda is this example, this country that’s doing great things, and it’s being used as a model of homophobia for the rest of the world. Uganda is being cited—for instance by Scott Lively who takes credit and is being sued here in federal court for inciting violence against the LGBT community. He also takes credit for the work he’s done in Russia, and the former Soviet Republic. And he’s done a 50-city tour of Russia, and on his website you can see an open letter to Putin, praising him for the great work he’s doing in the worldwide fight against homosexuality. I hear Lively just applied to go back to Russia to do a victory lap, to say, “you’re doing a great job” and to inspire them to keep fighting homosexuality.
They are ecstatic that they’re achieving what they could never achieve, what they are losing, in America. They are achieving it in the global South—in Latin America, and in Africa and in Russia and the Soviet Republics. So you have this massive movement that is actually much bigger than what we’re seeing in America. It’s amazing. As marriage equality passes state by state, and with the recent Supreme Court ruling victory, we’re sort of focused inward. But looking outward, in the rest of the world there is basically this explosion of homophobia while we’re—classic America—we’re all focused on ourselves.
GP: Anybody watching the film can gather how you feel about the evangelical movement and the missionaries. But what role, exactly, do you think evangelicals are playing in global homophobia, or homophobia in Uganda? Do you see it as a sort of driving force which incites homophobia, or rather, is it a movement which, at some levels knowingly and at others seemingly ignorantly, is simply taking advantage of communities that already have very deep, longer-standing issues with homophobia?
RRW: No one is saying that homophobia did not exist in Africa or Russia or the global South. Of course there’s homophobia. But people in Uganda, where I spent time, have tended to, in the past, just look the other way. It was not accepted, but people sort of put up with it, so to speak. But what’s happened with this evangelical fervor—because evangelicals have for some reason decided to focus on homosexuality at length—is that as the movement is growing worldwide, faster than Islam, this form of evangelism which is called the “dominionism”—in which new evangelicals have the right to rule the world and have the right to rule believers and non-believers, and dominate all facets of society—has a goal to cleanse the earth of their version of sin in order to usher in the second coming. It’s all about the end times and end-times philosophy.
GP: So in the film there is one line that struck me as a huge moment in understanding how the situation has been unfolding so violently. David Kato said “when America preaches hate, they forget that they are preaching to people in a place that take the law into their own hands.” How did this line strike you? How did you respond to this point about how the outside world views these engagements, or how people from more powerful nations can be ignorant of the implications of their language and actions in less ‘stable’ places?
RRW: Well that was an eye-opening thing for me too because that was from an interview when I first got to Uganda. I was there for a research trip to explore what I wanted to do, I wasn’t there to shoot, and the first person to meet me at the hotel was Kato. He arrived with three other activists and he basically said “the film that really needs to be told here is about the damage that fundamentalist evangelicals are doing in my country, and I’m going to explain to you why.”
He spelled out exactly how the Scott Lively thing worked, and exactly the way it worked with American evangelicals in his country, and exactly why this was a problem—their preaching about gays wanting to recruit their children and how marriage was only between a man and a woman—and how this was playing out both in how Ugandans were interpreting it culturally and also how it was playing out with HIV/AIDS policy. He even drew diagrams for me. And it was like “boom!” It was eye-opening.
And at that moment I knew what kind of film I was going to make. I thought, I’m going to see if I can infiltrate this community, if I can connect with this community and see if I can follow them, because now I wanted to see the ground game. Because when you take the plane to Uganda it’s filled with American missionaries. Uganda is the number one destination for American missionaries. In the airport you see groups of missionaries praying, and I thought “wow, this is incredible. They’re just flooding into this country!”
GP: Now that David Kato is gone, have you thought about releasing an extended cut of that footage in some way?
RRW: It’s a great interview and if I had any time at all or any energy, maybe, but I’ve been on the road for eight months with this film since the Sundance Film Festival in January. But a recent development as of the last week was I was on Al Jazeera with the former vice president of Uganda, Dr. Gilbert Bukenya, and he is a current member of parliament as head of the Buganda Kingdom, which is the largest kingdom in Uganda.
After the debate he said, “I’ve seen 'God Loves Uganda' and American evangelical Christians come to our country and they brainwash us and they spread this message about the LGBTI community that is detrimental to our culture and our people, and we as Africans need to stand against this.”
And I was shocked that night. He was in DC and I was in New York and I flew to DC for our premiere that night in DC and there was also a panel, and one of the people in the audience was Dr. Bukenya’s daughter who is very active in his political career and Bukenya is running for president in 2016 so he could be the next president of Uganda.
And his daughter was moved to tears after the film and she and one of his team members came up to me and said, “this film is really important. And it is important for us as Ugandans to see. It opened my eyes so much, and it opened my father's eyes. Is is possible that you can meet with my father?"
He has been really anti-gay, he’s made lots of public statements and he said, "until an African political leader says that this film is truthfully depicting what is going on in the continent, in my country, until we say this, there’s not going to be a debate or discussion of any seriousness.”
And he said, “I am willing to do that and I am willing to do that through you and this film. It’s time that as an African leader—I’m not going to be able to convince people my own age, but I can reach out to the young people. We have to respect the human rights of all people including LGBT and I’m willing, as a potential presidential candidate and a member of parliament, to call for the decriminalization of homosexuality—not just to end the [death penalty] bill.”
And then he said “are you ready for an interview?” And I didn’t have a camera! So we published the statement through Al Jazeera, and we posted something on our Facebook page and he’s going to give me a written statement.
I’m going to get a Ugandan crew to film a statement and we’re going to build a campaign, and he wants to work with us. And I asked, “aren’t you afraid for yourself politically, because this is so unpopular?” And he said, “don’t worry about me. You worry about what you’re doing, don’t worry about me because I can handle Uganda. Africans have to change. It needs to start from us.”