When David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda’s Parliament in 2009, the Western world descended upon the country in a frenzy, attempting to understand Uganda’s intolerance of gay people. Under this bill, which was eventually passed in 2014, those found guilty of engaging in same-sex relationships faced the death penalty. Western media became saturated with short-sighted accounts that perpetuated stereotypes of African people as uncivilized, backward, and helpless. These reports neglected to mention the influence of Western evangelicals and political maneuvers by power-hungry politicians, and as a result, the Western public received a rather myopic picture of criminalized homosexuality in Uganda. In actuality, the widespread homophobia in Uganda is a complex labyrinth of historical remnants, foreign influences, socioeconomic obstacles, and political manipulations that form a rather dangerous environment for homosexuals.

Is Homosexuality Un-African? 

One need not look too hard for evidence refuting African leaders’ claims that homosexuality is antithetical to traditional African culture and that attacks on gay relationships are tantamount to upholding traditional values. Numerous studies of various precolonial African groups have shown that homosexual relationships were traditionally practiced in Africa. These studies include Marc Epprecht’s 2008 study of the San people in Guruve, Zimbabwe, E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s 1970 study of the Azande in Central Africa, and John Faupel’s 1962 study of the Ugandan kingdom of Buganda, to name a few. These studies show that while nonconforming sexualities may have been frowned upon, they were not criminalized until Western imperialism spread to the African continent and introduced state sanctioned homophobia in the form of religious laws. Furthermore, colonialists represented African sexuality in “natural” heterosexual terms, in line with their perceptions of Africans as primitive people, thus building an image of Africa as a heterosexual continent. For instance, the nineteenth century British explorer Sir Richard Burton wrote that the “Negro race is mostly untainted by sodomy.” This has led African leaders to idealize heterosexuality as the African tradition, while politicians, scholars, pastors, and laypeople alike propagate the idea that homosexuality is a Western construct imposed upon African populations.

As these views become entrenched in Ugandan society, government leaders are able to justify violations of sexual rights by appealing to local beliefs. When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird confronted Ugandan Speaker Rebecca Kadaga about Uganda’s treatment of sexual rights, she claimed that Uganda had the right to make their own laws to protect traditional and cultural values, then promised to pass the anti-LGBTQ bill as a gift to Ugandans. Her reaction is indicative of how the idea that homosexuality is “un-African” is caught in a cycle of self-reinforcement in the minds of Ugandans.

These claims are further expanded to include the argument that the sexual minority is recruiting children into homosexuality. Again, this contention has been propagated without substantiating evidence. Yet this is the premise on which Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who actually acknowledges the historical existence of homosexuality in Africa, curbs sexual rights. Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo also threatened to ban nearly 40 organizations from recruiting children into homosexuality in 2012. Much like the “un-African” rationale, the child recruitment argument justifies anti-homosexuality laws with the pretense of moral protection. Both rationalizations are derived from factual inaccuracies, but are reshaping Uganda’s sexual culture in a troubling and discriminatory manner.

 Homophobia as a Political Tool 

These blatantly illogical assertions regarding homosexuality’s place in African society can only be understood in light of Uganda’s political and socioeconomic atmosphere. Following the collapse of colonial empires, repressive post-independence African governments latched onto anti-homosexuality laws as ammunition in a battle for power. By eradicating the legitimacy of same-sex relations, the elite exerts control over Uganda’s cultural identity, and thus the public becomes dependent upon authority figures for a communal sense of self. Amidst myriad social and political difficulties, Ugandan leaders who have extended their time in power past mandated term limits encourage people to focus on the immorality of homosexuality, especially while seeking re-election. Not surprisingly, Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill first emerged a year before Uganda’s presidential elections.

The systematic targeting and prosecution of minority groups is not a new phenomenon, and is a tactic commonly used by governments in times of political and social turmoil to distract the public from other issues plaguing society. Nazi Germany’s way of oppressing homosexuals is a notorious example, as might be the rise of xenophobia in Western countries in times of economic distress. Uganda is no exception—it has been listed by the United Nations as one of the least developed countries in the world and faces a wide range of socioeconomic difficulties, including unprecedented rates of unemployment and low wages in conjunction with relatively high taxes and high costs of living. In addition, Africa’s population has been growing rapidly, mostly in areas of extreme poverty. Persecution of sexual minorities can give the illusion of progress in times of social unrest and economic stagnation, which may explain its popularity as a campaign technique among top Ugandan political officials.

Persecution of sexual minorities can give the illusion of progress in times of social unrest and economic stagnation, which may explain its popularity as a campaign technique among top Ugandan political officials.

Moreover, the international community’s attempts to address the issue of LGBT rights across the globe are seen as a form of Western imperialism. This stems from the notion that homosexuality is a Western construct imposed upon Africans. Thus, denouncing gay rights is a way for African leaders to claim a degree of power over the Western world, and homophobia has become a symbol of resistance against Western influence. As a result, those who identify with or support a sexual minority are accused of acting as a channel of imperialism. Under this interpretation, Ugandan citizens are forced to choose between supporting African independence and promoting LGBT rights. This moral conflict presents a major obstacle in the fight for LGBT rights in Uganda, which must first resolve the tension between global claims of sexual rights as human rights and local claims of homosexuality as a threat to Uganda’s traditional cultural identity.

Globalization and Sexual Activism

Foreign influences, particularly from right-wing American evangelicals, have also profoundly impacted African politics. For instance, the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced against the backdrop of a conference funded by the Family Life Network, a fundamentalist religious non-governmental organization (NGO). This organization was responsible for collecting 50,000 signatures on a petition calling on the government to protect children from being recruited into homosexuality. Reverent Kapya Kaoma sums up the influence of US conservatives in his 2009 report entitled “Globalizing the Culture War: US Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia,” in which he notes that “the demographic center of Christianity is shifting from the global North to the global South.” The efforts of US conservatives to maintain and expand the criminalization of sexual minorities can be seen as an extension of the initial colonial endeavors that introduced the concept of victimizing homophobia—a concept that has become widespread in Africa today.

Ugandan citizens are forced to choose between supporting African independence and promoting LGBT rights.

Western nations have also maintained their influence through the provision of foreign assistance, prompted by Uganda’s socioeconomic obstacles. However, aid is a double-edged sword in the context of sexual politics. Conservative Christian groups have remarkably extensive reach in the African continent due to the Bible schools, universities, churches, television networks, and various other organizations that they sponsor, which all serve as conduits for messages that support their ideologies. Philanthropic efforts are coupled with attempts to mold African values to align with those of Christian conservatives. Rhetoric disseminated through these channels is particularly convincing because it is delivered in a tone of benevolence and religious authority.  

Furthermore, Africans’ perception of sex and religion makes them particularly susceptible to the ideologies spread by US conservatives. In African culture, religion permeates nearly every aspect of life, and thus heavily influences perspectives in many areas. Religion plays a key role in shaping everyone’s perception of same-sex relations, so it is not surprising that the anti-LGBT movement in Africa has potent Christian overtones. Furthermore, Africa’s demographic growth has been coupled with a corresponding increase in the population of African Christians. Particularly notable is the influence of the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Christian conservative think tank on African Christianity that has been a source of scholarly debate. The IRD has promoted “psychologism”, the notion that homosexuality is a curable mental ailment, despite its removal from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association. African leaders then incorporated this concept into local attitudes and theologies.

One also must not underestimate the impact of Christian Right radio and television networks, such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Daystar, and the Christian Broadcasting Network, which have been pervading African households. Unlike in the United States, where these programs are contested by more progressive broadcasts, the majority of African viewers only have access to this one-sided depiction of homosexuality. This lack of complete information greatly contributes to the high rates of homophobia in Uganda, where up to 96 percent of the population opposes same sex relationships.

Even so, globalization has allowed pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT groups alike to connect with and receive funding from their foreign counterparts. For instance, African sexual minorities are able to partner with well-organized groups in the United States that combat the persecution of gay people. Thus, global claims that gay rights are human rights have come into conflict with local beliefs that homosexuality is morally wrong and violates traditional African culture.

Looking Forward

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Nairobi has designated those fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation as a group that requires special protection, placing them on an expedited track to qualifying for refugee status. The numbers of LGBT Ugandans fleeing to Kenya are steadily increasing as they hear stories from friends who have traveled the same path. The special treatment they receive is creating yet another pull factor that entices people to flee to Kenya. However, this comes at the expense of thousands of other people in refugee camps awaiting the same process, causing friction between LGBT refugees and other residents in the camps. Thus, this is neither a sustainable nor an efficient means of handling the situation.

Fortunately, there is reason to be hopeful regarding the prospect of progress in Uganda’s pro-LGBT movement. For one, Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill brought a formerly taboo subject to the forefront of political discourse and greatly raised awareness around the issue of sexual rights. However, recognition and comprehension of the multitude of factors at play in the Ugandan anti-homosexuality movement is only the first step to effectively addressing the issue. There is an unavoidable link between provision of developmental aid and political agendas. Therefore, it is crucial to get more non-religious NGOs to provide assistance in Uganda. The potential for media to influence attitudes regarding sexuality also must not be minimized. If conservative Christian shows can ignite homophobic sentiments, then comparatively liberal and progressive programs can similarly foster acceptance and encourage the absorption of pro-LGBT sentiments into African culture. Although the Ugandan government is unlikely to pursue such objectives anytime soon, if international forces can shift the balance of globalization’s effects on Uganda’s sexual politics in favor of those fighting for sexual rights, homophobia will no longer be able to thrive.