U.S. Anti-Gay Activists Under Fire for Role in Uganda

Did gay-bashing American evangelicals contribute to legislation in Africa that would jail homosexuals for life?

Conspiracy theorist Scott Lively co-founded the virulently anti-gay group Watchmen on the Walls and wrote the book The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, a pseudo-history falsely claiming that “militant male homosexuals” helped mastermind the World War II Holocaust.

Lively is also one of several Americans with ties to the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009, which gay rights activists have dubbed the “kill the gays” bill. These Americans, who have promoted the largely discredited view that gays can choose to become straight, are now trying to distance themselves from the proposed legislation.

Although laws against homosexuality (“unnatural acts”) have been on the books for decades in Uganda, the proposed legislation would make penalties even harsher. Among its provisions: People who have homosexual sex more than once, or who have gay sex with minors, could receive a death sentence. So could HIV-positive individuals who have consensual homosexual sex. Anyone who fails to immediately report that someone they know is homosexual could be sent to prison.

The bill has provoked a worldwide outcry; its diverse critics include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and conservative Christian psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, who has blogged extensively about it on his website. During a Jan. 22 congressional hearing convened by the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, critics warned that the bill could promote more violence against gays in Africa and hurt efforts to combat HIV and AIDS. In addition, over 90 U.S. lawmakers sent letters to President Barack Obama and Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni calling the bill “the most extreme and hateful attempt by an African country to criminalize their LGBT community.”

America’s clout in the debate comes in part from the millions in foreign aid it provides each year to Uganda, a country where gays already face assaults, harassments and criminal charges if they’re outed. As of press time, however, Ugandan lawmaker David Bahati was refusing to drop the proposed legislation, even though President Museveni said he believed the death penalty provision went too far. The country’s lawmakers were expected to debate the bill in February or March.

The bill was introduced one month after a trio of American evangelical Christians including Lively arrived in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in March 2009 to hold a massive, three-day seminar titled “Exposing the Truth Behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda.” Jeffrey Gettleman described the event in The New York Times: “For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts in homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ‘the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’”

Gay rights activists say the seminar helped foster a climate of heightened anti-gay sentiment that allowed the proposed legislation to gain support. In addition, the Ugandan organizers of the seminar were involved in writing the bill, The Times reported. For his part, Lively has said he did speak about the bill with Ugandan lawmakers.

In addition to The Pink Swastika, Lively wrote 7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child and The Poisoned Stream: “Gay” Influence in Human History, which posits “a dark and powerful homosexual presence” during “the Spanish Inquisition, the French ‘Reign of Terror,’ the era of South African apartheid, and the two centuries of American Slavery.” Lively runs Abiding Truth Ministries, a Springfield, Mass.-based anti-gay organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-gay hate group. Lively also has been deeply involved with Watchmen on the Walls, an international extremist anti-gay movement that has a following among Russian-speaking evangelicals from the former Soviet Union. During a 2007 Watchmen on the Walls conference in Novosibirsk, Russia, Lively downplayed the killing of Satendar Singh, a 26-year-old immigrant from Fiji, in California. Singh, who’d been partying with friends in a Sacramento park, was attacked by a group of Slavic men who perceived him as gay.

The other two American speakers at the Ugandan seminar were Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge, both stalwarts of the “ex-gay” movement that claims homosexuals can alter their sexual orientation. Schmierer is a board member for Exodus International, a worldwide umbrella group covering hundreds of ex-gay ministries, who warns parents in his guide to preventing homosexuality to watch out for boys who show “extreme macho behavior,” are “frail, deformed, deaf” or “avoid fights/physical altercations.”

Brundidge, a self-described former gay man, is a sexual reorientation coach for International Healing Foundation, which purports to help people shed their unwanted same-sex attractions. The group’s founder is Richard Cohen, who says he is a former homosexual who converted to heterosexuality. Cohen, now a married father of three, demonstrated his healing touch therapy on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” and also discussed it on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” The therapy involves men striving to overcome their homosexual desires by cradling other men in their arms. On CNN, he also demonstrated “bioenergetics”: beating on chairs with tennis rackets and screaming, “Mom, Mom, why did you do this to me?” Cohen’s television appearances were public relations disasters for the ex-gay movement.

Yet Ugandans are relying on his work. Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC program last December showed a video clip of a lead proponent of the Ugandan bill holding up Cohen’s book, Coming Out Straight, and summing up some of its conclusions as proof that the legislation is necessary. That book includes a number of bogus defamatory statistics about gays that Cohen attributed to Paul Cameron, an anti-gay zealot who has published an array of pseudo-scientific studies about homosexuality over the years. Cameron has been booted out of the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association. After being prodded by Maddow, Cohen said he would delete those statistics before the next edition of his book is printed and emphatically denied favoring the Ugandan bill.

Also drawing criticism was megachurch pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren, who has past associations with Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, an ardent supporter of the bill. Warren initially avoided any direct condemnation of the proposed Uganda law. In December, however, he wrote a letter to pastors in Uganda denouncing the proposed law as “unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals.”

Since the barrage of negative publicity, the three Americans who spoke at last year’s conference have also criticized the harshness of the bill. “That’s horrible, absolutely horrible,” Schmierer told The Times. “Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.”