Uganda’s legislature has been considering virulently antigay legislation for the past year. One of the leading voices against the legislation is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a courageous Ugandan who has taken a stand for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of his country at the risk of his own life and career. Senyonjo’s adamant defense of LGBT rights has won him many admirers, including fellow Anglican Bishop and American Progress Senior Fellow Gene Robinson, who is also no stranger to death threats and controversy. The openly gay Bishop Robinson called Bishop Senyonjo “one of my heroes” and “someone who I look to for great inspiration” during a conversation about the global struggle for LGBT rights held at the Center for American Progress this week.
Sally Steenland, CAP’s Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, introduced the event. Michael H. Posner, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor gave opening remarks and made it clear that the United States government believes “LGBT rights are human rights.”
Senyonjo painted a dire portrait of the brutally oppressed LGBT community in Uganda. LGBT people are routinely shunned by their family and friends. They lose their jobs, are kicked out of schools, and get chased out of their homes on a regular basis. If Uganda’s proposed law passes, they will also face a minimum of life imprisonment, as well as possible capital punishment, in addition to such harsh social persecution.
Senyonjo believes this intolerant, ignorant, and hateful lawmaking stems from misinformation. Many Ugandans believe that homosexuality is imported from the West, claimed Senyonjo. Ugandans have also been misinformed about the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia—the idea that LGBT people are pedophiles and vice versa has become a widely held misconception in the African nation.
Senyonjo also decried the state of HIV-AIDS education in his country, saying that there has been a turn toward preaching abstinence and stigmatizing condom use. These factors have contributed to Uganda’s fall from its former position of being a leader in HIV-AIDS education and prevention, according to Senyonjo.
Many Ugandans also don’t know that homosexuality is not a choice but rather an inborn trait. Senyonjo recounted the story of a young Ugandan man who prayed and fasted extensively with the belief that this penance would turn him straight. When it didn’t work he contemplated suicide. Senjonyo said Uganda’s LGBT community needs to know that their sexuality isn’t a sin or a choice. “That’s how God created them,” he said, urging his country to “not mix prejudice with ignorance.”
Senyonjo and Robinson see a connection between the increasingly homophobic attitudes and legislation in Senyonjo’s nation and the American religious right’s intolerant message toward homosexuality. The misinformation, hatred, and violence cropping up in Uganda often can be traced to the far-right rhetoric spread by American missionaries working abroad.
“There are some religious groups coming from here, from the U.S., that come to preach a gospel of hatred to LGBT people,” said Bishop Senyonjo. Robinson concurred and drew a metaphor between those who disseminate homophobia in Africa and reckless campers who start wildfires that destroy buildings and homes. The damage done by this antigay rhetoric is all too real. Bishop Senyonjo even went so far as to call the situation in his country “a kind of genocide.”
We in the United States often only think about the struggle for LGBT rights within the context of our own borders. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, for example, is strictly a national issue. We even tend to limit our conception of these battles to specific states—the fight over California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay couples from marrying, seems to be confined solely within that state’s borders (although the pending federal court case around Prop. 8 could change that).
But Bishop Senyonjo’s story illustrates how this narrow perspective affects LGBT people around the globe. We should be mindful that opponents to LGBT equality at home are exporting their hateful strategies and rhetoric abroad. Pro-equality forces—including the U.S. government—have an obligation to combat these enemies of equality wherever they operate, and fight to make life better for all LGBT people.
Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, Center for American Progress
Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Bishop Gene Robinson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and Visiting Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Bishop Christopher Senyonjo retired Anglican Bishop of West Buganda, Uganda and Chaplain of Integrity Uganda