In Solidarity? An Open Letter to Pan-African Activists, the Black Left and Human Rights Activists in the U.S.
by Joan P. Gibbs
Homophobia is on the rise in Africa, in significant part due to donations provided by US-based conservative evangelical organizations. US organizations intending to support the LGBT rights struggle in Africa need to reflect carefully on a number of important factors.
In Solidarity? An Open Letter to Pan-African Activists, the Black Left and Human Rights Activists in the U.S.
by Joan P. Gibbs
This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.
“Although I am concerned about ‘social,’ ‘cultural imperialism’ and fuelling a backlash against African LGBT persons, doing nothing is simply not an option for me.”
Revolutionary Greetings Sisters and Brothers,
I write as a long-time activist in the Black and LGBT movements as well as the anti-war, and solidarity movements in the United States, to inform you, if you are not already aware, of the emerging campaigns within the US-based LGBT movement in opposition to the persecution of LGBT people in Africa, to urge you to pay attention to these campaigns and, when and where feasible, lend your support to them. In writing, I am not unmindful of the fact that we have more than enough work to do here on other issues facing our people such as the forced migration of Black people from Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and other historically Black communities, the disproportionately high rates of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, homelessness and incarceration among our people.
The Ugandan parliament’s passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on December 20, 2013, signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, following the early January surreptitious signing into law of the Same-Sex Marriage Law by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, and the subsequent reports of the harassment, arrests, violence against individuals known, suspected or perceived to be LGBT in Nigeria, in particular, but elsewhere as well, have inspired both a greater interest in the situation of African LGBTI persons and an array of, in some instance problematic, actions and proposals by US based LGBT organizations and activists.
After putting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on hold purportedly pending advice from U.S. scientists as to whether homosexuality is caused by nature or nurture, Museveni, on February 24, 2014, signed the bill into law at a press conference at his official residence at Entebbe, before an audience comprised of other government officials, journalists, Ugandan scientists and others. In an interview with CNN after the signing, Museveni when asked if he personally disliked homosexuals said: “They are disgusting. What sort of people are they?” “I never knew what they were doing until I was told recently,” he added. “It's terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that …[LGBT persons were ] born abnormal but now the proof is not there.” Museveni also has a message for Obama and other critics of the law: they, he said, should “respect African societies and their values. Let us manage our society; if we are wrong we will find out by ourselves…”
“Presidents Jonathan and Museveni, as well as other African leaders, are scape-goating LGBT people to rally public support for their remaining in power.”
President Obama and members of his administration had condemned both the Nigerian law and Ugandan bill. In a recent statement on the then Ugandan bill, Obama stated: “I am deeply disappointed that Uganda will shortly enact legislation that would criminalize homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, once law, will be more than affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda. It will be a step backward for all Ugandans and reflect poorly on Uganda’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people.” In closing, Obama stated that “enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.” Obama has also issued a memo ordering US diplomats to advance the rights of LGBT persons, and announced that the fight against LGBT discrimination will be a central point of his administration’s foreign policy, and that transgressing nations could be denied US aid.
In my opinion, Presidents Jonathan and Museveni, as well as other African leaders, are scape-goating LGBT people to rally public support for their remaining in power by deflecting attention from the real, serious economic and social problems that they face. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement have ruled Uganda since 1986. From 1986 to 1996, when multi-party elections where reinstituted, the NRM ran Uganda as a one-party state. In the years since, Museveni has won presidential elections in 2001, 2006 and 2011. Speculation exists that Museveni is grooming is son, Muhoozi Kaineruga, to succeed him.
The action proposals suggested by US-based LGBT organizations and activists range from letter writing and petition campaigns to calls for global days of actions and boycotts, to assisting African LGBTI persons seeking to migrate with obtaining asylum, to the reduction or elimination of US aid, and calling up the debts, to the imposition of sanctions, to recalling ambassadors to the severing of US ties with countries that criminalize homosexuality.
In addition, it has been suggested that US LGBT activists target the US-based anti-LGBT evangelical organizations such as The Abiding Truth Ministries, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Alliance Defending Freedom that have been travelling to Africa as well as advocating for and supporting the enactment of or strengthening of existing anti-LGBT laws. As Reverend Kopya Kaoma noted in “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia,” a study published in 2009 by Political Research Associates that is available for free on-line: “Traditionally evangelical African churches have been biblically and doctrinally orthodox but progressive on such social issues as national liberation and poverty, making them natural partners of the politically liberal western churches. However, their religious orthodoxy provides the U.S. right with an opportunity. Africans resonate with the denunciations of homosexuality as postcolonial plot: their homophobia is as much an expression of resistance to the West as a statement about human sexuality.” Because of this, Kaoma continued, “[c]onservative U.S. evangelicals … [have played] a strong role in promoting homophobia in Africa by spreading their views and underwriting the widespread conservative educational, social services, and financial infrastructure. Right-wing groups have enticed African leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations – which require documentation of how money is spent – and instead accept funds from conservatives. This money usually goes to individual bishops without accountability or oversight for how it is used.” In other words, right-wing US organizations, who were previously isolated in Africa because of their role in propping up colonial regimes, have successfully reinvented themselves as allies against the purported importation of LGBT rights from the West.
“Africans resonate with the denunciations of homosexuality as postcolonial plot.”
In short, homophobia has risen in Africa in significant part of the donations provided by US-based conservative evangelical organizations. This is particularly so in Uganda. Both Museveni and his wife are reportedly evangelicals, and worship at church run by Robert Kayanja. “Whatever you see here,” Kayanja tells Robert Ross Williams in his recent documentary, God Loves Uganda, as they sit in a well-endowed church built mostly with money donated by US based evangelicals organizations, “is the fruit of American labor.” Kayanja is reportedly one of the richest men in Uganda.
Based in Springfield, Massachusetts, the mission of The Abiding Truth Ministries, according to its website is “[t]o promote and defend the Biblical view of the family through . . .education…[and] training.” To this end, its President Scott Lively, since at least 2002, has been travelling the world promoting the enactment or strengthening of anti-LGBTI laws. In 2009, Lively, along with several other US evangelicals, with the assistance of a Ugandan organizer, led a three day conference in Kampala entitled a “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda,” that was reportedly attended by thousands of Ugandans, including government officials, religious leaders and law enforcement people. Approximately one month after the conference, the original Anti-Homosexual Law, dubbed the “Kill the Gays bill” because of its inclusion of the death penalty, was introduced in the Ugandan parliament by David Bahati, who had attended the conference.
However, in an interview with the New York Times, Bahati stated that he got the idea for the bill from members of the Fellowship, a secretive powerful Arlington, Virginia based group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast and owns the C Street house where several members of Congress live. Founded in 1935, the Fellowship has been described as one of the most politically connected ministries in the US with extraordinary influence over US foreign relations. Reportedly, for example, the Fellowship was instrumental to the redirection of millions of dollars in US aid to Uganda from sex education to abstinence programs, thereby causing an evangelical revival, which included condom burnings.
Lively is presently being sued in Massachusetts federal court for crimes against humanity by Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG), represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, because of his inciting, aiding and abetting the prosecution of LGBT Ugandans. Although Lively has labeled the lawsuit “frivolous” and dismissed the notion that a white American could be responsible for anything that in Uganda is “racist,” in August 2013, the judge in the case denied Lively’s motion to dismiss, stating that the plaintiffs had provided “detailed factual allegations supporting the claim” that Lively “bears individual liability for aiding and abetting the commission of crimes against humanity.” Lively is being represented by Liberty Counsel, a group affiliated with the Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell.
“The LGBT movement is not monolithic as it includes organizations and activists whose political, social and economic views range across the political spectrum, from left to right.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, describing itself as “a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanity of life, and marriage and the family,” has an annual budget of $30 million, a staff of 44 lawyers and 2,200 allied lawyers, and claims that it works in 31 countries. Founded by Pat Robinson as a counter to the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Center for Law and Justice reportedly has an annual budget of nearly $18 million and affiliated offices in Israel, Russia, Kenya, France, Pakistan, South Korea and Zimbabwe that, among other efforts, combat LGBT rights.
Similar to the Black movement, the LGBT movement is not monolithic as it includes organizations and activists whose political, social and economic views range across the political spectrum, from left to right. Or in other words, broadly speaking, the political beliefs of LGBT people in the US range from those who seek assimilation into US society as it is, albeit with the amendment of existing federal laws or enactment of new federal civil rights laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, identity or gender in employment, housing and public accommodations, to those who seek to reject the existing US status quo and to dismantle it. Consequently, there are disagreements as to what, if anything, should be done in response to the persecution of African LGBTI persons.
Broadly speaking, two positions exist with permutations in between. On the one hand there are those who say that LGBT activists should be guided by African LGBT organizations, and only respond to specific requests for support or assistance by them. On the other, invoking the specter of “social” or “cultural imperialism” and the possibility of fuelling a backlash against African LGBT, some LGBT activists say that the LGBT activists in the US should essentially “mind our own business” as there is still much work to be done in the US. Needless to say, similar to Black people, most LGBT people are not involved in the LGBT movement, aware of, concerned about or working on this particular issue.
Moreover, the loudest and most visible LGBT voices are usually white, and whether lesbian, gay male, bisexual or transgender, middle, if not upper class. Typically, these voices are located within or connected to well-funded LGBT or non-LGBT non-governmental organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign or Human Rights Watch, NGOs that have historically, in my opinion, at best paid scant attention to struggles for racial justice in the US or in the academy. None of this should be surprising in light of the US histories of African enslavement, Jim Crow, their continuing legacies, and the fact that the US is a capitalist society where the voices as well as the needs of working class and poor people generally go unheard, and un-responded, oftentimes by even some of those purporting to working in their interest.
While I generally agree that solidarity activists in the US should follow the lead of organizations working on the ground, one of the many lessons that I learned from working in solidarity movements is that solidarity activists must independently, individually and collectively, study the histories of the countries and movements that we work in solidarity with in order to be able to critically evaluate, and discuss proposed calls to actions. In other words, solidarity activists need to thoroughly understand the programs, strategies, tactics of the movements or organization that they are working solidarity with, and when and if necessary be prepared to challenge organizations working on the ground. This may be even more important today than in past in light of the advances in technology, particularly the advent and popularity of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and the relative ease in constructing websites and blogs, which have made if oftentimes difficult, if not possible, to identify or determine who the legitimate organizations and activists are.
“The loudest and most visible LGBT voices are usually white, and whether lesbian, gay male, bisexual or transgender, middle, if not upper class.”
Although I am concerned about “social,” “cultural imperialism” and fuelling a backlash against African LGBT persons, doing nothing is simply not an option for me. The prosecution of African LGBT persons is growing in Africa, and seems to be spreading to countries in which same sex acts are not criminalized. In the Ivory Coast, where same sex relationships are not illegal, for example, in late January 2014, after several days of anti-gay protests, a mob of reportedly nearly 200 people stormed the offices of the country’s most prominent LGBT rights organization, Alternative Cote d’Ivori, in Abidjan, ransacking and pelting it with stones. Signs left on the wall proclaimed “Stop the Homos” and “Pedes get out.” In an interview with Aljazerra, the executive director of Alternative Cote d’Ivori , Claver Toure stated: “Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken.” Toure also stated that a private security guard was taken to the hospital after sustaining wounds to his face.
That said, I am troubled by some of the calls for actions, particularly those related to the U.S. diplomatic relations with and aid to the Africa countries. These proposals, in my opinion are at best premature and at worst unwise. Prior to the enactment of the Same-Sex Marriage Law in Nigeria and the Anti-Homosexuality Law in Uganda same sex acts were already unlawful in both Nigeria and Uganda pursuant to laws enacted during the colonial period. Of Africa’s fifty-five countries, same sex acts are criminal in thirty-eight. The seventeen countries in which they are not are: Burkina Faso, Benin, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda and South Africa. Should the US cut or reduce the aid or sever its relationships with Nigeria and Liberia but not other countries in Africa, and elsewhere, that criminalize homosexuality with similar or even more punitive laws? Cutting or reducing aid, calling up debts, and the imposition of sanctions on countries in Africa, in my opinion, that criminalize homosexuality would do more harm than good as the chief impact of these actions would be on African working class and poor people, and not rulers of these countries.
“Of Africa’s fifty-five countries, same sex acts are criminal in thirty-eight.”
Moreover, it is unlikely, in my opinion, that Obama will follow through on his threats with respect to Nigeria and Liberia. Both Nigeria and Uganda are allies of the U.S. Nigeria is one of the US’s most important trading partners. Reportedly the US purchases seventy per cent of Nigeria’s oil. Nigeria is also a major recipient of US aid, annually receiving in recent years over $600 million.
Uganda is an important ally of the U.S. in the so-called “war on terrorism.” During his first term in office, Obama sent more than 100 troops to Uganda purportedly to hunt down the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in and around Uganda. Uganda has also played an important role in the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia. In 2013, the US reportedly provided Uganda with over $300 million in aid.
In short, building a US movement in solidarity with African LGBTI people is a difficult task as it requires nuanced, planned interventions that are sensitive to the differing histories and cultures that exist among African countries. Because of this, the knowledge, experiences, and voices of those of us who have been and are involved in solidarity movements, particularly around Africa, are sorely needed in the emerging campaigns against the persecution of African LGBTI persons. In particular, LGBTI activists in the US could greatly benefit from our experiences in developing educational programs, call to actions, and effective strategies and tactics to implement them. With this in mind, I urge you to study this issue, hold discussions of it within your organizations and with other comrades, friends and family members, and when and where feasible lend your support to actions challenging the persecution, of LGBTI activists in Africa. In so doing, you will be contributing not only to fight for LGBT rights in Africa but in the US as well. Our failure to intervene in the emerging campaigns in opposition to the persecution of African LGBT persons, in my opinion, could have deleterious effect on the on-going struggles in Africa for genuine, as opposed to flag, independence as well as the struggle for racial justice in the United States. I look forward to receiving your responses.
You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or private message me on Facebook.
In Solidarity and Struggle,
Joan P. Gibbs is a long-time activist, attorney and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York where she is the General Counsel for the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, and the Project Director of CLSJ’s Immigration Law Program which provides free legal counseling and representation to immigrants seeking to adjust their status, become naturalized, or secure some other immigrations related legal service.