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Despite Denials, Harsh Anti-LGBTQ+ law in Uganda Appears to Be Based on U.S. Rhetoric and Pseudoscience

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a new Anti-Homosexuality Act into law in May 2023. While LGBTQ+ advocates are now fighting the law in court, Stephen Langa of Uganda’s Family Life Network is planning a “One Million Man March” for this month, using the opportunity to gather signatures in support of the law.

For decades now, the “kill the gays” bill has appeared to have been the endgame of U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ+ groups.

President Museveni and first lady Janet Museveni met with Sharon Slater and members of her organization Family Watch International (FWI) in April. FWI is an Arizona-based anti-LGBTQ+ domestic and international legislative and policy organization. FWI works from within the United Nations and in other countries to peddle regressive anti-LGBTQ+, anti-reproductive rights and abstinence-only education beliefs. FWI appears to be behind one of the biggest anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-comprehensive sex educational convenings in Uganda, which was in April 2023.

On April 4, 2023, Janet Museveni posted a picture with Slater on her X (formerly Twitter) account, calling it an “honor” to meet with the hate group leader and noting they had attended the first African Regional Inter-Parliamentary Conference in Entebbe, Uganda. The focus was global challenges that threaten African families and values.

In the thread, Janet Museveni used language similar to that of some far-right Americans who consider LGBTQ+ people a threat to society, saying she, “discussed...safeguarding African culture and family values” and “expressed ... concern about the imposition of harmful practices like homosexuality.” The first lady also thanked Slater for her work. 

But activists oppose the act. It's “state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia [that] negates us to having to fight for our lives every day in a society that was already not set up for us to thrive, which is unacceptable as it sends a dangerous message that [LGBTQ+] Ugandans are second-class citizen status, undeserving of the most basic of human protections from government,” says Clare Byarugaba, a renowned Ugandan LGBTQ+ rights activist. “It must be repealed by the Constitutional Court immediately.” 

To Byarugaba, Langa’s  One Million Man March – for which a date has not been set – is another in a series of events and petitions seeking to radicalize and inflame anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Uganda. “This march is to further radicalize ordinary citizens to turn against their fellow citizens, and this dangerous campaign further promotes vigilantism, homophobia, transphobia and targeted violence against the [LGBTQ+] community in Uganda.” 

Byarugaba believes U.S. anti-LGBTQ+ groups have played a crucial role in AHA laws.

She cited the involvement of Scott Lively, Abiding Truth Ministries president who calls himself an expert in exposing the "gay agenda," Slater of FWI, Langa of Family Life Network (FLN) and the first lady, who recently organized an African Regional Inter-Parliamentary Conference in Uganda, "focusing on global challenges that threaten African families and values.” 

Slater maintains that the conference was not organized by FWI, but a source involved in the planning of the event, reported by CNN, confirmed FWI was a vital part in the conference planning. LGBTQ+ activists who attended online for their safety told CNN that the conference emphasized “African strategy to fight homosexuality.” An article by Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), reported that Slater met with President Museveni before the conference to present conversion-therapy pseudoscience on the causes of homosexuality and advocate for conversion therapy facilities. Slater blamed abusive fathers, neglect, overprotective mothers, pornography addiction, sexual abuse and bullying as a child as root causes for homosexuality, according to the UBC.

Activists hold placards during their picket against Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill at the Ugandan High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, April 4, 2023. The bill was signed into law in May 2023. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Conversion therapy is an internationally disavowed and discredited practice hinging on the unsubstantiated belief that LGBTQ+ people do not exist and so their identities are the result of mental illness and can be “cured.” Slater asked for provisions to include facilitating conversion-therapy options, the UBC reported. After this meeting, Museveni refused to sign the act into law until parliament reconsidered adding in “rehabilitation” aka conversion therapy, as confirmed in a letter to parliament. The provision outlined in section 4 demands those previously involved in “acts of homosexuality to present themselves to the relevant health or other authorities for purposes of seeking help.” This option is only available for those who are not charged with “aggravated homosexuality.” The definitive version of the law includes “rehabilitation for offenders.” 

Amid backlash of this bill becoming law, Slater has attempted to distance herself and FWI from Uganda. In an FAQ regarding the Uganda bill on the FWI website, the group denies ever lobbying for the 2023 AHA (Anti-Homosexuality Act). Instead, FWI claims Slater’s presence at the conference was solely to promote FWI’s anti-comprehensive sex education agenda. Local activists have confirmed Slater was a keynote speaker at the conference.

Contradictory to Slater’s denials, an article by OpenDemocracy exposed her as an active organizer in a WhatsApp group chat comprised of “more than 150 ultra-conservative campaigners in Uganda.” Topics of the messages ranged from organizing Zoom meetings to advice on wording for external messaging. Hatewatch reached out to Sharon Slater for comment on her involvement in the bill's creation and her push for conversion therapy provisions to be added. She has not responded to our request for comment.

Ugandan First Lady First Lady Janet Museveni tweets about her meeting with Family Watch International's Sharon Slater. (from Twitter/X)

Greg Slater, husband of Sharon Slater and US Intel’s vice president of global regulatory affairs for the international technology giant, has received backlash over this legislation. The executive was named in a petition in July on calling for his dismissal from US Intel. Greg Slater has joined his wife’s work in pushing anti-LGBTQ+ strategy, legislation, and rhetoric around the world. Intel claims to “create world-changing technology that improves the life of every person on the planet.” However, Greg Slater remains employed by Intel and attended the 2023 conference with his wife.

Anti-Homosexuality Acts of 2014 and 2023 

The original “kill the gays” bill, enacted in 2014, placed homosexuality under two categories. One category is aggravated homosexuality, where one of the participants is HIV-positive, a minor, an elderly or disabled person. When the bill was first introduced, the punishment for aggravated homosexuality was death. It was reduced to life in prison. The second category is the offense of promoting homosexuality. This category includes those who "promote" or "recognize" homosexuality, and those who try to engage in it. The punishment is 10 years in prison. The law originally included punitive measures giving first-time offenders 14 years in prison and repeat offenders receiving life in prison. The law also sought to extradite and prosecute Ugandans who broke this law outside of Uganda. The 2014 law was repealed on technical grounds.

Under the 2023 law, anyone convicted of “the offence of homosexuality” can receive life in prison. If convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” individuals can face the death penalty.  Anyone caught engaging in same-sex relations could face 10 years in prison. Another disturbing element of the law lays out punitive measures for the offense of promoting homosexuality, defined as knowingly advertising, publicizing and financing acts of homosexuality. This part of the bill limits speech and press freedoms and extends to those who rent property to homosexuals. Punitive measures are also laid out for failure to report acts of homosexuality. The law also prohibits health care providers from rendering aid to gay people. The new law also contains the extradition of LGBTQ+ refugees to be returned to Uganda for prosecution under the law.

Many LGBTQ+ Ugandans have been forced to flee; however, this law sends clear a message that even if they flee and seek asylum, they would still be targeted and extradited to face prison or death.

Legal Battle and Background on U.S. Anti-LGBTQ+ groups' influence

In December, the Constitutional Court of Uganda held its first hearing on challenges to the Anti-Homosexuality Act presented by human rights activists. Those petitioning against the bill have argued it violates the rights of Ugandans established in their constitution. The Ugandan Constitution is clear on the essential human rights to privacy, freedom from discrimination, freedom of thought and beliefs. This act infringes on Uganda’s commitment to the African charter on Human People’s rights, the Protocol to African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and the Conventions against Torture along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The law clearly violates the rights of LGBTQ+ Ugandans and is made up of anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience exported by Slater and Scott Lively.

Lively, a longtime member of the anti-LGBTQ+ movement in the U.S., has actively pushed anti-LGBTQ+ pseudohistory and pseudoscience in several foreign countries, especially in Uganda.

Pastor Martin Ssempa joined the Ugandan attorney general as a defender of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Ssempa is a longtime anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-reproductive rights activist, has deep ties with anti-LGBTQ+ U.S. groups, Family Watch International and Lively. Ssempa has accused rival pastors of homosexuality while also screening hardcore gay porn in churches and at conferences to whip up hysteria against homosexuality. Ssempa garnered headlines back in 2010 when footage of an abstinence trainings program for teens where he showed gay pornography and vividly described sexual acts.

In 2014, Paul Kalisa of Mbarara University of Science and Technology published an article calling out Ssempa for these trainings and displays of gay pornography he advocated for. Minors were present for those sermons and presentation, where Ssempa would equate homosexuality with pedophilia and reduce it to pornography. FWI cut ties with Ssempa in 2014, (but still listed him as a volunteer until 2015) over his advocacy of the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” FWI supported his actions up to that point, including the abstinence training he did as a volunteer FWI. Despite Slater and FWI claiming to cut ties with Ssempa, they both advocated for conversion-therapy provision in the bill prior to its signing in May.  UNAIDS has  been named friend of the court to provide information on how the new law undercuts efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, by prohibiting health care providers from aiding gay people.

On Dec. 2, Family Life Network Uganda's leader, Stephen Langa announced the planning of a One Million Man March in support of the law. The march was planned for February, running under the theme of “Defending the Family and the Next Generation.”  Advocates told Hatewatch that Langa's role is to help defend the legislation. 

During the press conference where Langa announced the march and the petition, he said signatures would be collected through religious structures, educational institutions, schools, universities, institutions of higher learning, corporations and workplaces, public places such as gas stations, markets and supermarkets, and at the village level through local council leaders. 

Langa demanded Ugandans stand for “the sovereignty of Uganda and to protect, preserve and defend their children from being molested.” Langa’s demands to ignore Western pressure is ironic. Langa has repeatedly alleged Western pro-LGBTQ+ orgs have pushed a “homosexual agenda” while simultaneously partnering with U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ+ leaders and groups for decades while regurgitating long debunked anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience and pseudohistory. 

Langa invited Scott Lively to speak at “Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda” two-day conference in March 2009. Don Schmierer, board member of Exodus International, a now closed ex-gay group in the U.S., and Caleb Brundidge, a “sexual reorientation coach” were the other keynote speakers. Lively is an old-guard U.S. anti-gay activist and founder of both Watchmen on the Walls and Abiding Truth Ministries. Lively co-authored The Pink Swastika, a book alleging a homosexual cabal in Hitler’s inner circle named as responsible for the worst actions of the Nazi regime. The book has been refuted by historians for its Holocaust revisionism and anti-gay conspiracy theory linking LGBTQ+ people’s rights as a pathway to authoritarianism. The book neglected to mention the extreme wave of anti-LGBTQ+ hate that led to the first book burning in Nazi Germany in front of one of first modern LGBTQ+ institutes after its ransacking.

In April 2009, Lively spoke to members of the Ugandan parliament and cabinet proposing the very argument that inspired the first anti-homosexuality act. The first draft was circulated shortly after. Lively was sued over his involvement in the bill in a U.S. federal court by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). The case was dismissed in 2017 but not before the court affirmed Lively’s role in “aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) people in Uganda,” which was characterized as "violations of international law.” The dismissal was because of a lack of authority over Lively’s actions off “American soil.” 

Langa gave a talk at the conference, also using Lively’s book, to include the Nazi regime as part of LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. Langa also used the book Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality by Richard Cohen, a prominent self-proclaimed ex-gay psychotherapist who is unlicensed, in the presentations. Langa repeated Cohen’s argument of the lack of a “gay gene” or gay genetics to state there is no proof homosexuality has basis in human biology, implying homosexuality is a choice. Cohen’s book relied heavily on data and statistics on homosexuality provided by Paul Cameron, the grandfather of modern anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience. 

President Musevani parroted this rhetoric in June 2023 when he used the lack of genetic evidence of homosexuality to call it a “psychological disorientation.” The term has roots in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. “Sexual disorientation,” which is a subsection title of Lively’s Redeeming the Rainbow, defines “LGBT” people as disoriented and in need of conversion therapy. Museveni added, "The problem is that, yes, you are disoriented. You have got a problem to yourself. Now, don't try to recruit others. If you try to recruit people into a disorientation, then we go for you. We punish you," he said. 

Langa, Ssempa and Museveni all insist Western groups have pushed homosexuality in Uganda. Ssempa said in an interview with the Washington Blade that the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ bills across Africa is a rejection of colonialism. But the very language and pseudoscience of this law is adopted from U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ+ groups and figures. The colonialism Ssempa speaks of instituted the Penal Codes that incorporated sodomy laws in Uganda in 1950, 12 years prior to Ugandan independence. If Museveni, Langa and Ssempa are considered the driving forces of this legislation, U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience and ideology have provided the roadmap for its justification. However, more than these distortions are being poured into Africa. U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ+ groups have actively been tampering with African history and culture.

American anti-LGBTQ+ and evangelistic groups have spent more than $50 million since 2007 in Africa, indicated in the 2020 OpenDemocracy report. David Bahati, a Ugandan associate of the Fellowship Foundation, wrote the original “kill the gays” bill in Uganda. The Fellowship Foundation has spent $20 million alone in Uganda, over the past 10 years. 

The Fellowship Foundation, run by Tim Kreutter in Uganda, is also a major player in the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation. The Fellowship Foundation started Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast 25 years ago, and they also run the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, attended the Oct. 9, 2023, prayer breakfast celebrating Ugandan independence to praise the anti-LGBTQ+ law. Walberg cited Bible passages and decried international orgs for condemning the law. Walberg advised Ugandans to stand firm against “other major countries that are trying to get into you and ultimately change you.” His comments are believed to be in response to economic sanctions from the Biden administration along with other sanctions from United Nations groups, and because the World Bank is halting lending to Uganda.

The impact on LGBTQ+ Ugandans

Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ Ugandans suffered a rise extreme human rights violation before and after the passage of the bill.  A Ugandan organization known as Strategic Response Team is self-described as “a consortium of five entities operating in Uganda that actively documents and coordinates community response and referral mechanisms to providers of safe shelter, legal, safety and protection services to LGBTIQ+ persons across Uganda.”

The group released a report in September on the human rights violations toward LGBTQ+ Ugandans since the law passed. Titled Lives at Risk, the report found 180 cases of evictions, displacement and banishment of LGBTIQ+ people from January to August 2023. It also detailed 176 cases of torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, along with 18 verified accounts of forced anal exams by police. The report documents 306 cases of human rights violations around privacy, association, discrimination, dignity and housing, and uncovered that mob-aided arrests have become commonplace as moral panic and violence continue to rise in the wake of AHA enactment. Six people have been charged under the law, including the once ex-gay supporter of this law, Elisha Mukisa.  

On Jan. 3, Steven Kabuye, an LGBTQ+ Ugandan activist and executive director of Coloured Voices for Truth, was assaulted. Kabuye had recently returned to Uganda after going into exile in March 2023 amid death threats. While recovering after being stabbed in the hand and stomach, Kabuye told NBC News that AHA was to blame for the “climate of intolerance” that has been made much worse by “politicians who are using the LGBTQ+ community as a scapegoat to move people away from what is really happening in the country.”  Kabuye is not the only voice who is calling attention to deeper issues in Uganda.  Arthur Kayima, a queer Ugandan human rights activist who condemned the law, spoke to the scapegoating of LGBTQ+ Ugandans. In a quote published by Pink News, Kayima said, "Rather than focusing on the real issues Uganda is facing – poverty, poor infrastructure, the economy, domestic violence – Museveni would rather cause distraction by attacking our fundamental right to exist.” Kayima added, “I am afraid for my community. How many of us will be jailed, or beaten, or further chased into the shadows of society as a result of this legislation? How many will die?”

Andrea Gillespie of the Human Rights Campaign contributed to this report.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Stephen Langa's role in the legislation. This version of the story also clarifies the penalties under the 2023 law. 

Photo illustration by SPLC (L-R Scott Lively, Stephen Langa of Uganda’s Family Life Network, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet Museveni, Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, Pastor Martin Ssempa)

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