April 2024 Church & State Magazine - April 2024

Exporting extremism: Backed by U.S. Christian Nationalist groups, African nations are enacting a wave of oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws

  David Rosen

Protesting extremism: Activists oppose Uganda’s harsh law at D.C. embassy (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Africa dates from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, reflecting colonial British penal codes that punished actions “against the order of nature” code for homosexual acts with up to 14 years in prison.

Flash forward more than 100 years and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment on the continent remains powerful. A recent study by Afrobarometer, a Ghana-based non-partisan survey research network, found that 70% of Africans would dislike having a gay person as a neighbor. In most of Africa 33 out of 55 countries homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. In 2023, five countries Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Niger and Tanzania took steps to tighten their anti-gay laws. Similar measures are being actively promoted in Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia.

“A lot of the anti-LGBT bills and laws that you’ll see are basically implemented due to penal codes that date from the colonial era,” Emerson Hodges, research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told Church & State. “This smoke screen that they are trying to protect African values, while, yes, there is much anti-LGBT public sentiment, but it can be traced back to colonial penal codes. That lie allows a campaign of ‘punching down’ by these groups to implement and reinforce, Western homophobia and transphobia in countries that have been I don’t know how to put it historically colonized and exploited.”

In Uganda, same-sex activity can be punished with imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty. Under a bill signed by President Yoweri Museveni in June 2023, simply engaging in same-sex relations can result in life imprisonment. “Aggravated homosexuality,” defined in the law as having same-sex relations with a minor or a person who is disabled/unconscious, merits the death penalty. “Promoting” homosexuality is punishable by 20 years in prison. (Opponents say this provision of the law is dangerously vague.)

Museveni has called homosexuality a “deviation from normal” and prodded lawmakers to resist objections from Western nations, labeling their concerns “imperialist,” reported Reuters.

The law drew the ire of American politicians across the political spectrum from President Joe Biden to the conservative U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The latter, hardly a friend to LGBTQ+ rights in America, tweeted, “This Uganda law is horrific & wrong. Any law criminalizing homosexuality or imposing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ is grotesque & an abomination. ALL civilized nations should join together in condemning this human rights abuse.”

Uganda’s anti-gay law has American roots. Political Research Associates reported that it was drafted with the assistance of conservative groups, including the American Center for Law and Justice and European Centre for Law and Justice, both run by Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney to Donald Trump and a longtime Christian Nationalist activist.

A key factor in the increasing and widespread persecution on non-heterosexual people throughout Africa has been the financial underwriting provided by U.S. organizations. It is estimated that more than 20 U.S. Christian Nationalist groups are actively subsidizing campaigns against LGBTQ+ people as well as opposing access to safe abortions, contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education.

The British-based openDemocracy estimates that these groups have spent at least $54 million in their campaigns in Africa since 2007. Prominent among them is the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive U.S. group best known for sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast (NPB).

The Fellowship Foundation (also known as The Family), poured $20 million into Uganda alone between 2008 and 2018, openDemocracy reported.

It dubs the organization “a secretive US religious group” whose associate, David Bahati, wrote Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.  Yet in America, the Fellowship Foundation poses as an innocuous promoter of “civil religion.” It hosted the NPB until 2023, an event every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has attended. For the last 25 years, the Fellowship hosted Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast and, in 2022, Museveni spoke.

However, as NPR reported, “the breakfast has also been a source of controversy full of shadowy fundraising, behind-the-scenes lobbying and even infiltration by a Russian spy.” The antics led members of Congress to take the NPB out of The Family’s control, although many members of the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation still have deep ties to the organization. (See “Unhealthy Breakfast,” March 2024 Church & State.)

Other U.S. organizations that have funded anti-LGBTQ+ and other conservative campaigns in Africa include Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: $7.6 million; Human Life International: $4.1 million; Bethany Christian Services: $3.3 million; Focus on the Family: $1.9 million; and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: $1.1 million.

Much of the anti-LGBTQ+ activity in Africa can be traced to Scott Lively, an attorney and author of an inflammatory 1995 screed titled The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party. Long a fixture on the far right, Lively in the 1990s was assistant director of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a branch of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. In 1997, Lively founded Abiding Truth Ministries, which promoted efforts like “Take Back The Schools Campaign” that sought to “eject the ‘gay’ movement from California schools.”

SPLC reports Lively “worked constantly to put draconian and far-reaching anti-LGBT measures on the [Oregon] ballot. The most notorious of those was Ballot Measure 9 (1992).” The Human Rights Campaign notes the measure “barred the state government from offering any ‘special rights’ to gays or ‘promoting’ homosexuality. It also required public schools to treat ‘homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism’ as ‘abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.’” (Oregon voters defeated it, 56%-44%.)

Lively went to Uganda in 2002 to speak against pornography, denouncing what he called “the globalists who use the sexual revolution and the Planned Parenthood Federation and the global homosexual movement” to accumulate power and control population. He insisted that these forces were backed by the financier George Soros and were “infiltrating” Uganda, including “introducing pornography” to the country.

“Homosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never be publicly promoted,” Lively declared in 2007. “The easiest way to discourage gay pride parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.”

In March 2009, Lively joined Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer as speakers at a Kampala anti-LGBTQ+ conference organized by the Family Life Network, “Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda.” Brundidge was a self-described former gay man who led “healing seminars,” and Schmierer was a board member of Exodus International, whose mission was “mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality.”

Lively gave a five-hour presentation that was broadcast on local television. He claimed that gay people were aggressively recruiting Uganda’s children and argued that human rights protections shouldn’t be extended to these “predatory figures.” He denounced gay men in no uncertain terms, asserting, “They’re sociopaths. There’s no mercy at all. There’s no nurturing. There’s no caring about anybody else. This is the kind of person that it takes to run a gas chamber. Or to do a mass murder. The Rwandan stuff probably involved these guys.”

Lively got even more extreme in his denunciations of LGBTQ+ people in a 2017 post: “Ultimately, the ‘gay’ agenda is simply a sub-plot of the larger Satanic agenda and now that LGBTQ goals appear nearly fully realized, the hidden hands behind them (both human and demonic) are coming into view.”

He added, “We are witnessing the end-game before our very eyes but few recognize what they are seeing. What is next in the LGBTQ agenda is transhumanism, the redefinition of humanness and emergence of human/animal/machine chimeral forms.”

Lively concluded, “Satan is fashioning a final comprehensive counterfeit alternative to the creation over which Man finally assumes that he has accessed the Tree of Life and is persuaded that he is God, destroying himself and ‘goodness’ itself in the process.”

Human rights advocates say Lively’s work left an impact.

“If you look at the groups that are doing this anti-LGBTQ work in Africa, you’re looking at ‘old-guard’ groups Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, World Congress of Families,” points out SPLC’s Hodges. “They’re very much old guard; they are part of an extensive battle to keep sodomy laws in the U.S. and prevent gay marriage.

“If you look at the old-guard groups, they are clearly using old-school rhetoric,” Hodges adds.  “Scott Lively’s rhetoric is still alive and well, especially as a talking point.”

Hodges said gay-rights advocates in Uganda found that Stephen Langa, head of a national anti-LGBTQ+ group called Uganda’s Family Life Network, relied on anti-gay documents studded with arguments from U.S. Christian Nationalists.

“I’ve been doing this research since 2015,” he said, “and a lot of the rhetoric in the documents is ripped straight from Scott Lively’s work, even from lesser-known works like Redeeming the Rainbow. It’s just wholesale lifted from anti-LGBT groups in the U.S.’s ideology.”

Lively was not alone in his efforts to influence African countries, and in particular Uganda, regarding the campaigns against sexual minorities.  Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International (aka Exodus Global Alliance), also spoke at the March 2009 anti-pornography conference.

Exodus was founded in 1976 and promoted what was dubbed “ex-gay” conversion. It argued that conversion-therapy programs, based on religious and counseling methods, could make gay individuals straight. The strategy was embraced by leading anti-gay spokesmen, including Archbishop Henry Orombi, chair of the Africa Host Committee of the 2010 Lausanne Congress; pastor Martin Ssempa; and Bahati, the sponsor of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.

Although it’s often overlooked, before current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson (R-La.) launched his political career, he was a lawyer advising Exodus International. According to CNN, he “partnered with the groups to put on an annual anti-gay event aimed at teens.”

In 2009, the Uganda-based Family Life Network, led by Langa, embraced conversion therapy, insisting that the organization would welcome gay people once they had undergone such conversion.

Conversion therapy, though, has been discredited. In 2013, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus, posted a public apology for the “pain and hurt” his organization caused by promoting the approach. He shut down the organization, admitting that “conversion therapy” did not work and had been condemned by leading medical groups.

“I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” Chambers said. “I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”

After Exodus collapsed, many within the organization regrouped as the Restored Hope Ministries. (“Pray Away,” a 2021 documentary by Kristine Stolakis, examines the fall of Exodus.)

Other conservative groups active in Africa include Bethany Christian Services, which was founded in 1944 and is one of the largest Protestant adoption and foster care agencies in the U.S. It operates in Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa. Bethany has long opposed placing children with LGBTQ+ adoptive parents but in 2021 announced that it would begin providing services to U.S. same-sex parents.

According to one source, Bethany has close ties to the family of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Between 2001 and 2015, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, run by DeVos and her husband, gave $343,000 to Bethany. In addition, between 2012 and 2015, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, run by Betsy DeVos’s father-in-law, the billionaire founder of Amway Richard DeVos, and his wife Helen, gave Bethany $750,000.

Another group with close ties to anti-LGBTQ+ movements in Uganda and Nigeria is Family Watch International. It was founded in 1999 as Global Helping to Advance Women (Global HAWC) by longtime anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-choice activist Sharon Slater, a Mormon. According to The Guardian, the group backed Uganda’s anti-gay laws, but the organization denies this on its website, insisting, “Family Watch has never supported any efforts in Africa to promote anti-homosexual bills.” Yet the group has been a strong supporter of conversion therapy and opposes comprehensive sex education for programs for young people.

But, as Hodges points out, “Family Watch International plays downs its role in the anti-gay legislation, including the death penalty for someone revealed to have had homosexual relations.

“There’s a hypocritical, a sort of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ that’s like: These groups want to be proud for what they are doing, they want to be named and recognized for what they are doing by powerful figures in these foreign countries but don’t really want the backlash for being the reason why people are being violently attacked.”

Hodges warns that Christian Nationalist groups in Africa are pursuing a strategy that’s borrowed from their American playbook.

“You are also seeing the rise of a ‘new guard’ that’s not going after all LGBTQ people as a whole but are taking a divide-and-conquer approach and singling out, for example, trans youth,” Hodges said. “They are trying to split off sectors of the community.”

David Rosen is the author of six nonfiction books, as well as numerous scholarly studies, popular pieces and book reviews on media-tech, politics, sexuality and American life. For more information, visit www.DavidRosenWrites.com

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