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COMMENTARY: An eyewitness to homophobia, from Uganda to the UN

Editor’s note: Albert Ogle writes: “This week, I travelled from Kampala, Uganda to the United Nations where the global community is debating its priorities for HIV in the next five years. My week began with the homophobic celebration of Ugandan Martyrs Day in Kampala, talking and working with the persecuted LGBT community and praying at the grave of David Kato. It has ended in the UN General Assembly where the role and existence of the LGBT global community is not only questioned but has not even been mentioned in the draft Declaration that will be voted upon this Friday.”

Interpretation of history, particularly religious history, must always be done with the meticulous skill of a surgeon, or the patient may die. Left to the devices of amateurs or God forbid, politicians, lots of people will remain seriously wounded or die.

Interpretation of history, at its highest calling, must be to enable the healing of the past and repair some kind of communal “wound.” The Jewish concept of “repairing the world” while avoiding humanity’s most dangerous sin – amnesia -- remains a constant theme engrained in holy Scriptures and epic stories.

“Remembering rightly” is ultimately about community health and survival. Simply put, when history is deliberately distorted, we get in trouble and repeat the mistakes of the past.

A recent example of this comes from the Serbian misuse of an old battlefield in Kosovo where in 1389, at the “Field of Black Birds,” Prince Lazar of Serbia fought a battle against the Turks and lost. His sacrifice and mythology seeped into every Serbian nationalist heart to avenge and reclaim what was taken from them and read by every Serbian school child. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic used the symbolism of the field to promise Serbians that they would not be defeated again. Speaking at the site of the battle, he claimed, “They’ll never do this to you again. Never again will anyone defeat you.” Milosevic also used the Prince’s mortal remains, carried from city to town, to reinforce his message of fear and hatred of the Muslim minority community. No-one, (including academia or the church) challenged him. His interpretation of history became the precursor to genocide and ethnic cleansing that remains a traumatic open wound in the Balkans today.

What should be done when political and religious leaders to deliberately distort cultural heritage to promote fear and hatred of a minority and to develop a contemporary political agenda?

The most recent example of this abuse of shared cultural heritage comes from Uganda, which has just celebrated a major national holiday, Ugandan Martyrs Day on June 3, shared by 20 million Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Saint Charles (Carl) Lwanga and his companions were a group of Christians (both Roman Catholics and Anglicans) who were murdered by Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, between 1885 and 1887. Their deaths were part of a three-way religious struggle for political control of the Buganda royal court.

In 1877, the Church Missionary Society in London had sent Protestant missionaries to the court, followed two years later by the French Catholic White Fathers. These two competed with each other and the Zanzibar-based Muslim traders for converts and influence. By the mid-1880s, many members of the Buganda court had converted and become proxies for the religious and nationalist conflict being played out in the court. Kabaka Mwanga II, upon his ascension to the throne, attempted to destroy the foreign influences he felt threatened the Buganda state, but was instead deposed by armed converts in 1888. Twenty-two of the martyrs were Roman Catholics and were canonized by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 18, 1964. Their shrines are in Nabugonga. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (many walking for days) made their pilgrimage to the shrines just outside Kampala to remember the sacrifice of Africa’s first canonized martyrs.

The Roman Catholic interpretation of the story of their martyrdom emphasizes the young courtiers refusing to deny their loyalty to “King Jesus” and their newfound Christian faith within a highly contentious and changing political landscape. The inexperienced King Mwanga interpreted their loyalty to European religion as treason. The Anglican version of the martyr’s story was relatively similar to the Catholic version until around 2006, when the crime of the King also involved pedophilia and the “faith of the martyrs” was elaborated upon to include their resistance to the homosexual advances of the King. All Bugandan subjects (men and women) were deemed to be the “wife” of the Kabakka, whose power was never to be challenged. Interpretation of events and sites remains controversial and if you happen to be a contemporary Ugandan gay or lesbian person, June 3 is a dreaded day when you are advised to stay home and lock your doors.

David Bahati, the latest Anglican commentator and his global crusade

This year’s observances are even more controversial because they recalled the recent failed attempts by member of Parliament and Anglican lay leader David Bahati to introduce a bill to Parliament calling for the death penalty for “repeat offenders of homosexuality,” families and professionals to report known homosexuals and the extradition of exiled LGBT Ugandans to face life imprisonment.

Echoes of Bahati’s attempts to criminalize homosexuality even further were heard in President Musevene’s address at Nabugonga when he thanked the churches in helping him to fight homosexuality. The speech was delivered by the Vice President and was carefully crafted to gain waning support for his precarious new government.

Bahati and Musevene are both Anglicans who have close relationships with the secretive organization “The Family,” an extensive network of fundamentalist and theocratic organizations that are leading a global attack on LGBT people, their rights and even their supportive organizations.

The global impact of this movement cannot be underestimated. In over 70 countries where homosexuality is still criminalized, it is, for example, illegal for NGO’s to provide HIV education and prevention services to LGBT people. This has become a very important subject that affects the global family of nations achieve universal access to HIV prevention and health.

Uganda and the fusion of religious myth and state-sanctioned intimidation against the LGBT community is an example of the dilemma the global community must now face. How do you eradicate a disease while excluding and denying the valid existence of minority populations who are also impacted by the disease?

Impact on global HIV strategies and services by an unholy Trinity

This week at the United Nations, coalition blocks of African and Arab countries will defend their collective decisions that these “criminal” populations should not be listed for services or funding in the next wave of global AIDS funding.

In the proposed International Declaration on HIV that is being negotiated at the UN this week, over 400 civil society partners have fought for inclusion of naming LGBT people, men who have sex with men (MSM), IV drug users and sex workers.

A Mormon-led organization Family Watch International attempted to exclude all references to these populations with an emphasis on the “elimination” of the behaviors.” They framed a well-organized strategy that included a trip for 30 national delegations for a weekend conference in January and created significant papers and suggested changes to the draft declarations. Their agenda was to reduce LGBT people to mere “behaviors” that need to be healed through so-called reparative therapy. It is not surprising to learn their Uganda representative is the Rev. Martin Ssempa, who is one of Bahati’s key supporters and proponent of so called “ex-gay” therapy.

The Vatican, also part of this coalition, released a statement on Sexual Orientation to fully clarify its position that LGBT people do not have “an identity.” They, too, see homosexuality as an “intrinsically disordered” behavior that needs to be repaired. Homosexuality is a choice or “preference” and not an orientation that deserves a separate identity.

Under the smokescreen of shared family values, these powerful UN lobbies almost succeeded in having LGBT issues (and wider minority community populations known to be at risk for HIV because of legal barriers mentioned above) completely excluded from the final political document. The current draft barely notes the existence of MSM and intravenous drug users and sex workers and does not mention LGBT people at all. The UN’s unholy Trinity of Mormons, Vatican diplomats and Evangelicals is a re-run of Proposition 8 with global and long-term consequences.

The absence of significant LGBT leadership from the USA during these UN deliberations is also a factor that is giving the unholy Trinity a free range. We need to monitor and “map out” what this unholy Trinity is doing, not just in the USA, but globally to undermine LGBT and other minority community human rights and services.

Over 400 global Civil Society organizations, including the St. Paul’s Foundation, are working very hard to encourage the global body to explicitly include these populations because it will mean countries will be more accountable to engage these communities and fund new programs. The Global South, pulling together to share best practices and funding are split on this debate. South Africa broke with the monolithic African delegation that refused to mention the populations and shared their position that any form of discrimination was against their constitution. Mexico delivered a powerful speech on the floor of the Assembly calling for inclusive strategies and joins Brazil and other South American (largely Catholic) countries to continue to challenge the Vatican’s position and any deliberate attempts to drop any reference to these marginalized at risk populations.

Ironically some of these individual countries in the Global South are independently admitting they need to somehow address HIV prevention for MSM, IV drug users and sex workers but are still unable to address it as an international block. It is a form of institutional homophobia on a global scale.

Uganda is one of the countries that have been unwilling and unable to discuss the issues openly, even from a sound public health strategy because of the influence of American-led Christian fundamentalism and Musevene’s personal homophobia. It was totally inappropriate for the President to talk about fighting homosexuality at a religious festival, but this fusion of religious homophobia and state criminalization is the “elephant in the room.” The Bahati bill also proposed criminal penalties for LGBT with HIV thus driving the already traumatized community even further from sources of information and support. Behind these seemingly “harmless” religious observances in relatively obscure places like Uganda, a very definite form of theologically motivated “cleansing” is taking place that will ultimately claim millions of lives if the misinformation is not challenged as inaccurate propaganda.

An Anglican’s observation

Given the epicenter of AIDS is in Africa where we have over 40 million Anglicans, one might assume the Anglican Communion would be engaged in the UN process, but under, under the leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams we remains largely in the shadows of these debates. Wearing Teflon-like vestments, Williams and the Anglican establishment have deflected any responsibility for Anglican-led homophobia in Africa or any accountability for allowing the popular Bahati narrative to remain unchallenged.

Although there is a full time Anglican Observer to the United Nations appointed by the Anglican Communion Office, there has been no attempt, for example, to engage or advocate for minority populations in the an important UN Declaration to include these at risk populations for fear of incurring wrath from African Anglican leaders. The current Anglican Observer is also a Ugandan. Forty-five of the countries that criminalize homosexuality share former Colonial ties with Anglican Britain and remain part of the British Commonwealth. Like leftover buried landmines from forgotten wars of domination, they continue to maim and kill. There is no significant political will from the Anglican establishment or the UK government to engage the issues and clean up these remaining vestiges of their Colonial ancestors.

The global responsibility for historical interpretation

Last Friday’s celebration of Ugandan Martyrs Day raises several serious concerns for everyone about our use of history.

The misuse and the misinterpretation of historic events and sites that are part of shared cultural heritage in Uganda should be reviewed, perhaps by an independent body from several universities in Africa, France and the UK, the World Heritage Community and Roman Catholic and Anglican authorities. This would also be helpful in ensuring accurate historical data was included in text books for Ugandan schools where the current wave of anti-gay sentiment, fueled by the Martyrs story, makes it extremely difficult for creating safe spaces for all Ugandan children.

I met a number of young LGBT adults who were traumatized and kicked out of school for being gay. Some of them are illiterate. Trillions of dollars of foreign aid, IMF and World Bank funding has poured into Uganda in the last 20 years without any oversight of what is being taught in Ugandan schools around human rights and the protection of minority communities.

The international community would be concerned if similar propaganda was being directed towards Jews or African-Americans through educational institutions it supports and may ask … where might all of this end? In a country that holds 56 different ethnic groups together, Uganda and her international partners have a lot to loose if Mr. Bahati’s propaganda remains unchallenged and this story’s symbolic significance for other British Commonwealth democracies.

The unraveling of the unholy alliance

Last December, while appearing on the “Rachel Maddow Show,” Mr. Bahati claimed he had evidence that western homosexuals were recruiting hundreds of thousands of children into homosexuality but when invited by Maddow to produce any evidence, he could not prove his claim.

The Ugandan government’s silence on this issue means they too are supporting Bahati’s campaign of terror and fear, and are using the current wave of anti-gay sentiment as a smokescreen for their own violation of human rights. The Anglican Church of Uganda, by supporting the Bahati bill and Musevene’s invitation to fight homosexuality in his Martyrs Day speech, also illustrates complicity in the distortion of history and the true meaning of the sacrifice of Uganda’s first Christian saints.

Musevene is also looking for some common cause to unite the faith community and deflect recent criticism of his government’s handing of the wave of public demonstrations. Last month, church leaders expressed concerns to their President about his government’s handling of the current state of civil protest about unemployment and the high cost of living in Uganda. The division between extreme wealth and poverty is everywhere in a society that has grown by 14 million in 14 years. His response surprised religious leaders when he told them they should focus on being pastors and just stay out of politics. In a recent interview by a Kenyan reporter, Musevene appeared shocked when he was accused of behaving like his predessor, the former dictator, Idi Amin. As the Ugandan Martyrs story attests, African rulers from this region have historically not responded well to this kind of criticism.

The practice of allowing propaganda and misinformation to terrorize the Ugandan masses with stories of a gay pedophile king whose advances were fought off by upstanding young heterosexual Christians, is, for now, allowed to go unchallenged. Other parts of the Ugandan Martyrs story have been conveniently forgotten this year, notably the murder of Archbishop Janani Luwum, by President Idi Amin in 1977, for having the courage to complain about Amin’s violation of human rights that eventually claimed a million Ugandan lives. Amin was alleged to have personally removed Luwum’s tongue before having him killed and placed in a mock car accident.

Religious leaders and Presidents have a stormy history in these parts and it remains to be seen if Anglicans and Catholics can remain silent to the abuse of human rights directed towards not only LGBT people but everyone else. Just as Mugabe tested his reign of terror on the gays of Zimbabwe before unleashing it on everyone else, Ugandan religious leaders may soon experience the sanctions of the state upon their own civil liberties and understand why the international grass roots community is concerned about the unraveling of human rights for everyone in Uganda while western governments support Musevene’s regime.

Why interpretation of cultural heritage and history is so important

Both ancient and recent martyrs stories share a similar “truth” about the Ugandan people who have historically had the courage to stand up for human dignity and justice, even stand up to their own leaders/dictators who eventually loose touch with reality.

The international community had mixed motives in Uganda’s internal struggle for identity in the 1880s. The Ugandan youth martyrs legend was also a convenient way for the British to undermine the authority of an inexperienced African chief before they conquered Uganda. The historical data from the period is told through the pens of the religious and military victors.

If we can see through the smoke machines on the Ugandan political stage carried by Musevene and Bahati, what might the Ugandan scenario really look like? Are they merely the “front men” for western economic self-interest to allow the international plunder of the resources of East Africa and neighboring Congo for as long as possible? Fear of a colonially-inspired homosexual agenda is a perfect and convenient distraction/barricade against a growing discontent among the Ugandan populous, where open protest against the government may land one in detention without trial for six months, or even worse. Musevene is asking Parliament to consider this draconian law and members are rightly concerned about the impact this would have on the constitutional rights of every Ugandan.

If the Ugandan Martyrs story was desexualized and included Uganda’s most recent martyrs, the story would have an extremely challenging message for the discontented Ugandan people. Saturday’s Ugandan local paper read “Reject Injustice” as the message of Martyrs Day, so for some, the smokescreen does not appear to be working as well as expected. By desexualizing the story, the moral of the story focuses on a ruler who makes a series of significant wrong judgments and abuses his authority by serial executions that eventually brings the wrath of his people upon him, with the support of the international religious and secular communities.

Sound familiar? The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches may be the only significant and trusted institutions to challenge the growing abuse of power, but they will have to agree to both desexualize the martyr’s story to let its most important meaning speak in every Ugandan heart. It will mean distancing themselves from Bahati and his fundamentalist “Prosperity Gospel Capitalists” from affluent communities like Virginia and Newport Beach. They get richer while the poor – Uganda’s poor -- remain unwelcome in their churches and increasingly so in many Kampala “mega-church” prototypes lead by other homophobes like pastor Martin Ssempa.

If the interpretation of history is designed to deliberately mislead us so as to be distracted from the important truth about the sacrifice of others, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Rather than dismiss it all as a kind of harmless piety, this kind of misinformation has spilled into the halls of religion, power and deliberation like the UN this week. If it is not confronted as intrinsically evil (at its heart it is about deliberate misinformation and political collateral at the expense of the voiceless) it will grow like a virus to deny identity, dignity and services to millions of human beings in the name of a God who, from Kampala to New York, appears extremely flawed, petty and punitive right now.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, based in San Diego. He has written extensively on the relationship between memory, history and violence for the United Nations UNESCO World Heritage Program. He has also followed and documented the current religious-based persecution of the LGBT community in Uganda. He recently taught a course on reconciliation and conflict resolution in Uganda and the need for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide to prevent the further spread of HIV. His organization works closely with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo on inclusive communities in Uganda and decriminalization issues for the international community. He was a civil society representative at both High Level meetings at the United Nations in April and June 2011.