The Uganda Conspiracy Theory
On January 27, amid gathering protests in Egypt, President Obama issued a passionate statement. Not about Hosni Mubarak—that would not come until the next evening. But about David Kato, a gay Ugandan murdered the day before. "The United States mourns his murder," the President said, "and we recommit ourselves to David's work." Kato's murder was also promptly condemned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was featured in two full-length articles in The New York Times in as many days.
Since early 2008, the American government, media, and human rights groups have undertaken a coordinated effort to name, shame, and punish attacks on the human rights of homosexual persons, with an overwhelming focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Human Rights Watch has published ten major reports on anti-gay discrimination in this period, with special attention to Africa. The U.S. government has publicly criticized some African countries for even considering laws that criminalize homosexuality. It announced just last month that it is halting a $350 million aid program to Malawi at least partly because of its laws discouraging homosexuality.
But if any single African country has attracted American ire, it is Uganda. Is this because of a spate of anti-gay attacks? When a tiny college newspaper organized an egregious hate campaign last October against prominent gay activists, including Kato, a Ugandan court issued a permanent injunction against the publication. And David Kato's death is among only a handful of documented instances in which homosexuals have been killed in Uganda in recent years, with police now claiming that Kato was murdered by an acquaintance for reasons unrelated to homophobia. Despite Rachel Maddow's running commentary on Uganda—under the headline "Uganda Be Kidding Me!"—more Ugandans consider homosexual behavior morally acceptable or neutral—almost one in five—than people in any other major African country, including sexually tolerant South Africa, according to a 2010 Pew Forum survey.
Instead, Uganda has attracted human rights activism because of a single legislative stunt by a single low-level politician named David Bahati, a member of the country's authoritarian ruling party and an Anglican. In 2009, Bahati proposed an anti-homosexuality bill so draconian that it would make "serial" homosexual practice a capital crime and punish pro-gay advocacy with a seven-year jail sentence.
But the legislation has received widespread attention not primarily because of its draconian provisions, whose very harshness has repelled virtually all of Uganda's major political and religious leaders—including the President, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and a parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out as unconstitutional, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Instead, a major reason for the attention focused on the bill is that many believe it is the fruit of American evangelical homophobia.
In the telling of journalist Jeff Sharlet, it's the American fundamentalist gospel that turned supine Ugandans into raving homophobes. American "fundamentalists," "evangelicals," and advocates of "theocracy"—terms Sharlet uses more or less interchangeably—see Uganda as a crucial theo-political "laboratory." (Why Uganda is the crown jewel in their global conspiracy Sharlet does not say.) He further suggests that American "fundamentalists" such as Rick Warren harbor a genocidal "motive" because they aim at the "eradication of homosexuality" and so countenance the murder of open homosexuals such as David Kato. In fact, though Sharlet has maligned Warren's condemnation of the Bahati bill as "muted," he has condemned the bill as "unjust, extreme, and un-Christian."