11/19/2012 05:42 EST | Updated 02/25/2014 02:59 EST

Why Gay Rights In Uganda Is A Colonial Issue

Uganda's anti-gay bill, which has been roundly condemned by the international community calls for the death penalty in cases of "serial homosexuality." I think prominent voices in the media are actually making the situation worse for LGBT activists in Uganda by missing or deliberately ignoring the colonial contexts of the anti-gay bill.

Last week, Ugandan Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga made a public promise that she would not only revive the infamous anti-gay bill but that it would pass by the end of the year.

The bill, which has been roundly condemned by the international community and called "odious" by President Obama calls for the death penalty in cases of "serial homosexuality," among other things. Preceding her announcement, Speaker Kadaga attended the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Quebec City, where she was engaged in a verbal altercation with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird.

Several articles that I've read have praised Minister Baird for his actions in holding the Speaker accountable. Unfortunately, while Minister Baird should be commended for his stance on the issue of LGBT human rights, I am hesitant about his methods. I fear that Minister Baird and other prominent voices in the media are actually making the situation worse for LGBT activists on the ground in Uganda by missing or deliberately ignoring the colonial contexts of the anti-gay bill.

One article in particular is representative of many of the claims that have been made with respect to the anti-gay legislation in Uganda. John Scheinert's piece entitled "Gay rights in Uganda isn't a colonial issue," was a disappointing read.

Scheinert's piece takes an insulting tone from the start by claiming that "Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Uganda's parliament, wants to be Che Guevara, but she's not. She's nothing close." Scheinert goes on to list the reasons why resisting LGBT persecution in Uganda is not colonialist in the least. While Scheinert's point that colonialism is not a sufficient justification for persecution of LGBT individuals stands, his tone is inappropriate and he misses the actual colonialist implications of the bill.

First, it is important to acknowledge the colonial overtones that made the bill possible in the first place. Many of the Ugandans agitating for the "kill the gays" bill found inspiration in, and drew ideas from, white, American evangelicals like Scott Lively who advocated a virulent homophobia couched in Christian fundamentalism. The organizer of the conference that led to the initial drafting of the bill back in 2009, Stephen Langa, not only had Lively speak at the conference but continued preaching Lively's message about "the gay agenda -- that whole hidden and dark agenda."

Another white American, Richard A. Cohen, wrote one of the texts that Langa specifically cited as inspiration, entitled Coming Out Straight. The book claims that gays are much more likely to molest schoolchildren, feeding Ugandan fears of "recruitment" as well as more legitimate concerns of sex tourism and pedophilia, fears that are now being used to justify the bill. Ugandans are capable of making their own choices, but there is no questioning the influence that these foreign nationals from former colonial powers had in the country.

Let me be absolutely clear, I am not drawing connections between homosexuality and pedophilia. Nor am I seeking to draw a connection between homosexuality and sex tourism. Unfortunately however, both are issues in Uganda unrelated to LGBT human rights concerns. Sex tourism (and particularly the sex tourism industry as it relates to trafficked children) poses a legitimate concern in Africa generally, as well as in Uganda. The U.S. State Department has created a global database of resources on the issue.

Relatively wealthy, often white individuals from developed countries in the West seek out children in Africa and Asia to victimize specifically because of the anonymity, poverty and lack of consequences they believe they will find abroad. Further, it was white foreign nationals like Richard Cohen who promoted the idea of linking pedophilia and child sex tourism to homosexuality in Uganda. We can certainly read Cohen's actions as colonial, specifically in that he promoted a particular moral vision as a white individual in a majority black African nation.

We can understand Ugandan fears of child sex tourism (particularly where whites are implicated) by situating them in a colonialist context. White, mostly male individuals from wealthy countries victimizing African children obviously triggers colonialist fears. Ironically, it was white men who did the work of stirring up these colonialist fears. There are two layers to the colonialist framing: it was white foreign nationals who did the colonialist work of linking homosexuality to another separate colonialist fear of child sex tourism. Remember, Uganda only gained independence in 1962 and many of these wounds are still raw.

Given these contexts, I am surprised that Scheinert's piece would make the claim that the issue is entirely divorced from the realities of colonialism. I am disappointed that Ugandans advocating for the bill are given more ammunition with which to declare their homophobic legislation anticolonialist when Minister Baird, Scheinert and others assert their message without considering the subtleties of diplomacy.

When Speaker Kadaga returned home after her altercation with Baird, during which she claimed that, "Uganda is not a colony or protectorate of Canada," she was met with applause.

I cannot stand up for cultural relativism that allows for persecution, but neither can I endorse the actions of those who do not consider how best to actually get an effective response from Ugandan politicians and constituents alike. As trans activist and journalist Mercedes Allen has stated,

"What needs to be done is complex, but includes networking with and empowering women and LGBT people [...] so that they can lead their own activism within the cultural context that Westerners often clumsily don't understand enough."

The following letter has been provided by a coalition of Ugandan LGBT activists on how best to proceed and support the LGBT cause on the ground. We would do well to listen.

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