Straight Man's Burden
    • Uganda's popular tabloid Red Pepper takes part in an anti-gay witch hunt sparked by a proposed bill that would apply the death penalty to homosexuality

A young man who called himself Blessed had agreed to meet me in front of the Speke Hotel, the oldest in Kampala, Uganda's capital, but he was late, very late, and I had no way to contact him. Emailing me from a café, he'd said he didn't have a phone; calling from a pay phone, he'd said he didn't have a watch. The friends who'd put me in touch with him said he didn't have an address. I'd seen a picture of him: he had a long neck, a narrow face, and a broad smile that made him look both kind and a little sly. I wanted to talk to him precisely because he was hard to find, because he was gay, and because he was on the run.

On October 14, 2009, a Ugandan member of parliament named David Bahati introduced legislation called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Among its provisions: up to three years in prison for failure to report a homosexual; seven years for "promotion"; life imprisonment for a single homosexual act; and, for "aggravated homosexuality" (which includes gay sex while HIV-positive, gay sex with a disabled person, or, if you're a recidivist, gay sex with anyone — marking the criminal as a "serial offender"), death. As of this writing, the bill has yet to pass, despite near-unanimous support in Parliament. But the violence has been building, a crackling fury not yet quite a fire: beatings, disappearances, "corrective" rapes of lesbians, blacklists in a national tabloid, vigilante squads and church crusades, preachers calling out "homos" in their own pews.

It was Blessed's pastor, a celebrity with an American following, who had outed him. "Am being hunted by my family at the moment," he'd written in an email apologizing for his inability to commit to dinner plans. "Am moving place to place now." Then, in case I didn't understand: "They want to kill me."

The Speke is nothing grand, just a succession of stucco arches, but smartly located midway between the business district and the president's office, just down the hill from the gated gardens of the luxury Sheraton. At night, mzungus (white men — aid workers, oilmen, missionaries) come to shop for twenty-dollar prostitutes at the outdoor bar. By day, the Ugandan elite meet at the sidewalk tables. They ignore the whores, regal women who sip colas while they wait for evening, and likely have no idea that the hotel also serves as one of the city's few havens for gays and lesbians.

Certainly Miria Matembe didn't know. I'd been looking for her too. Then one night, there she was, pointed out to me by my friend Robert, a Ugandan journalist I'd hired to show me around. "That is Honorable right there," he said. Uganda's first minister of ethics and integrity, the Honorable Matembe, now out of government, was working as a private lawyer. A small woman in a brown power suit, with short hair styled upward, she charged through the café tables with two cell phones simultaneously in action.

"Honorable!" I called, and ran after her. She trapped one phone between her shoulder and her ear, stared at me, and held up a finger: Stop. She crooked it: Follow. She pointed: Speak. I whispered beneath her two conversations, telling her that I'd heard she'd been at a planning meeting for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, that I was writing about the Fellowship, and that I wanted to understand the connection.

"Wait!" Matembe said into her phones. Then, to me: "You are funny!" She chortled, held up five fingers, and walked away.

The Fellowship is the Ugandan Parliament's branch of an American evangelical movement of the same name, also called the Family. The Family differs from most fundamentalist groups in its preference for those whom it calls "key men," political and business elites, over the multitude. The bill's author, MP Bahati, the de facto leader of the Ugandan branch, has become a national star for his crusade against gays. Winston Churchill called Uganda "the pearl of Africa"; the Family agrees. In the past ten years, it has poured millions into "leadership development" there, more than it has invested in any other foreign country, and billions in U.S. foreign aid have flowed into Ugandan coffers since a Family leader turned on the tap twenty-four years ago for President Yoweri Museveni, a dictator hailed by the West for his democratic rhetoric and by Christian conservatives for the evangelical zeal of his regime.

Every year, right before Uganda's Independence Day, the government holds a National Prayer Breakfast modeled on the Family's event in Washington. Americans, among them Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, former attorney general John Ashcroft — both longtime Family men and outspoken antigay activists — and Pastor Rick Warren, are a frequent attraction at the Ugandan Fellowship's weekly meetings. "He said homosexuality is a sin and that we should fight it," Bahati recalled of Warren's visits.

Inhofe and Warren, like most American fundamentalists, came out in muted opposition to Uganda's gay death penalty, but they didn't dispute the motive behind it: the eradication of homosexuality. They may disagree on the means, favoring a "cure" rather than killing, but not the ends. For years, American fundamentalists have looked on Uganda as a laboratory for theocracy, though most prefer such terms as "government led by God." They sent not just money and missionaries but ideas, and if the money disappeared and the missionaries came and went, the ideas took hold. Ugandan evangelicals sing American songs and listen to sermons about American problems, often from American preachers. Ugandan politicians attend prayer breakfasts in America and cut deals with evangelical American businessmen. American evangelicals, in turn, hold up Ugandan congregations as role models for their own, and point to Ugandan AIDS policy — from which American evangelicals nearly stripped condom distribution altogether — as proof that public-health problems can be solved by moral remedies. It is a classic fundamentalist maneuver: move a fight you can't win in the center to the margins, then broadcast the results back home.

Half an hour after our first encounter, Honorable Matembe and two friends plopped down at my table. Night had come, the air was cooling, the prostitutes were rustling, and the guards — skinny men with wide-mouthed shotguns — were guiding the white SUVs of Uganda's elite in and out of the drop-off zone a few feet from our table. "You wanna talk about homos?" Matembe asked. She drew the word out for comic effect. Honorable — in Uganda even former politicians go by their honorifics — had a booming voice that rose above the boda-boda bikes, the careering motorcycle taxis that rule Kampala's cratered streets, but she stage-whispered a list of practices she knew to be common to homos: boy-rape, blasphemy, "golden showers." Then she threw back her head and cackled.

"I was the first person to fight homosexuality!" she shouted. During the late 1990s, American missionaries were rushing in, a revival sweeping the land. Ugandan Catholics and Anglicans made evangelical causes and evangelical pariahs — including homosexuality — their own. Matembe, who said she was one of the original members of Uganda's parliamentary Fellowship group, was in the vanguard.

"I used to come here and catch them!" She mimed sneaking up and pouncing. "People used to tell me where they were hiding." For a brief period, gay life had almost flourished in Kampala. Gay men cruised the streets, and parties at the Speke Hotel began to take on the political cast of an identity in formation. Matembe put a stop to that. "You see Matembe walk into a place," said Matembe, "and you disappear!" She sipped her beer and ate some nuts. "Eventually, of course, people went underground."

That was all right with her. The closet, she believed, was a fine African tradition. That made her a liberal; she didn't want to kill gays. "First of all, I am a human-rights activist," she said. "My activism is guided by godly principles. Therefore, I don't support homosexuality as a human right. Why? Because my beautiful — my godly conviction is that homosexuality is not a sin but a curse! Looking at homosexuality as a curse by God, I do not prescribe the death sentence for such people."

Her real problem with the bill, she said, "is it makes us all potential criminals." She was referring to a provision designed to enlist every Ugandan in the war against the gays. "Like, if I am speaking with you, and if I find you are a homosexual . . . " She'd have twenty-four hours to report me or face a prison sentence of up to three years. This, she thought, was unfair. To her.

She wanted to make it clear that she bore no responsibility for David Bahati's bill. Who did? American politicians and pastors, Matembe believed, their disavowals notwithstanding. "The Prayer Breakfast continues, but I no longer go to it. They were corrupted. It is the Americans! Confused as usual, exploiting." She sighed, depleted. Then she rallied, remembering the good old days. "But I was the first! I fought the homos!"

The owner of the hotel swooped down on the table, cutting her off. "Honorable Matembe!" he cried. He took her gently by her arm and lifted her from us, petting her and flattering her, quieting her. She was scaring away the trade.

The lobby was empty when Blessed arrived, an hour late. He wore crisp black slacks and a lime-green long-sleeved shirt underneath a black sweater vest, too warm for the weather. Only twenty, he tried to carry himself like an older, courtlier man. He apologized for his impeccable appearance with what he hoped sounded like a joke. "I am a bit homeless at the moment," he said, and then chuckled, as if this were merely an inconvenience. Walking up the hill to the Sheraton for dinner, he began to tell me his story.

Tags: anti-homosexuality bill, bahati, catholics, david bahati, freedom and roam uganda, gay, gay rights, homosexual, homosexuality, jim inhofe, john ashcroft, kampala, matembe, missionaries, museveni, national prayer breakfast, rick warren, the family, the fellowship, uganda, yoweri museveni

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  • Jeff Sharlet is Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the bestselling author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper), C Street (Little, Brown & Company), and Sweet Heaven When I Die. He's a contributing edit...

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