Activist Asserts African LGBTQ Alliances Overseas are Key to Protective Policy and HIV Services

January 4, 2016

The December 20 New York Times article, “US Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good” argued that the new level of LGBTQ harassment in Africa is an unintended result of increased American support for protective policies and HIV services. In other words, so-called US cultural imperialism is a primary cause of homophobia, specifically in Nigeria, but also on the continent at large. The article has prompted many responses from African LGBTQ activists. Paul Semugoma, of Uganda, is one of the many voices arguing against the Times’ depiction of US funding as a liability rather than a lifeline.

I would disagree with the premise of the article.

I have heard similar arguments a lot, being Ugandan—the attendant argument that our fiercely loud fight against the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014 in Uganda resulted in the backlash on the rest of the continent. In my experience, and very respectfully, that is all bullshit. Because it is counter to the real history.

In Uganda, the President [Museveni] was a darling of the US presidents from Clinton through Bush. During the eight years of Bush, that is when the country was really opened up to the waves of evangelization from Americans. Those are historical facts. Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa—known for his feverish portrayal of gay men as those who ‘eat da poo poo’—was very vocal about the ‘right way’ to fight HIV: Abstinence, Being faithful. He was actually in the US Congress to highlight Uganda’s AB policy, back when Uganda was the AB ambassador of the world.

What was not really known to the rest of the world was that back home Pastor Ssempa was fiercely fighting an invisible foe—homosexuality. But, there was a crucial thing missing. There were no visible homosexuals in the country. He was shadow punching, very openly, very strongly, but fighting an invisible foe that only he saw as a clear and present danger. I know. I was living in the country. His ignorant utterings were felt by all of us. But we were completely invisible . . . that is, until there came a time when we decided that the risks of hurting our invisible, closeted selves were hurting us more than helping us. That was in 2007.

We held a press conference. I was there. And I did support the move. Because it was simple survival. We couldn’t become more demonized than we already were. The Uganda AIDS Commission was regularly pointing out that ‘there were no homosexuals’ visible. There was no need for our HIV prevention efforts.

After the press conference came the backlash. Ssempa organized protests and campaigns. He was very happy to go ahead and shout even louder. He had a visible foe then and continued to demonize us as much as he could.

To say that we as gay Ugandans were ‘responsible’ was to credit us with the supernatural powers that he was accusing us of. We were few, disorganized, poor, with actually no funding at all. Ssempa and company were rolling in US dollars from the abstinence and be faithful campaigns. They had political, social and financial support. We couldn’t even go on the airwaves. They did.

We didn’t organize Scott Lively’s visit to Uganda and the anti-gay seminar in 2009, widely believed to have paved the way for the ‘kill the gays’ bill.

Of course, when the Anti-Homosexuality Bill came into the country, we reached out, because we were drowning. And we did grasp at the straws that were then available to us. As our country-people debated putting us to death for the grave crimes of ‘aggravated homosexuality’, we embraced the help of foreigners who were like us, who could understand the horror of being the subject of moral murder and disdain.

Yes, we were lucky. At the same time there had been a sea change in the US—a traditionally ardent supplier of missionaries. With Obama as president, the LGBTQI movement was flexing political muscle. And we took advantage of it. Even in Europe.

No, I personally will not blame the gay men and women in the US who took on the fight against HIV. Because it was their lives at stake. They might have found a calling and reason to live through the AIDS scourge of the 80s, but they were simply surviving.

I will not blame those gay people working in HIV understanding that there was an issue with the ‘AB’ approaches. I will not blame them for making common cause with us. I will not blame them for being great allies and showing us the straws that were available. I know that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s death penalty provisions were defeated in the US, not in Uganda. I was there. I understood the dynamics. I knew we were powerless. And I knew where the leverage was, for my government.

Of course, there was apt to be backlash. Fair enough. And, of course, it has led us in ways and directions we had never thought possible.

But, in 2007, we had no HIV programme. But just last week, Sexual Minorities Uganda was celebrating the Equality Awards, celebrating a three-year partnership with the SHARP HIV/AIDS Alliance delivering an HIV programme to LGBTQIs in Uganda.

For one to tell me that our fight, the alliance with our allies overseas has done more harm than good is not to remember what was there, on the ground. I was there. I have been involved. No, I would rather that Ugandans who are gay know that HIV is spread through sex, than for them to assume that they are free of HIV because they have sex with men, and not with women. That time was then—we didn’t even begin to understand how much it was hurting us. But we know it did hurt us.

I must affirm that these are my thoughts. My strongly held opinions. But I am sure history supports me here.

Paul Semugoma is a Ugandan Physician and LGBTQI activist living in South Africa.