On God Loves Uganda, Issues of Solidarity, and Gay Politics
Editor’s note: In relation to becoming more aware of concerns expressed about the condition of LGBTQ people in East Africa, 57th Street Meeting hosted a program which consisted of the documentary God Loves Uganda and panelist presentations and discussion with Yasmin Nair and Justimore Musombi. The following presents some of the content of that program.
The excellent documentary, God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams, is about Uganda as the epicenter of a U.S. fundamentalist Christian evangelical drive to convert all of Africa. This campaign is led or inspired by people like the extremely homophobic Scott Lively, currently standing trial1 for crimes against humanity in a suit brought against him by the group Sexual Minorities Uganda. Men like Lively openly avow that their aim is to wipe homosexuality and homosexuals from the earth. As a result of such U.S. evangelicals working in collusion with conservative patriarchal forces in Uganda, the country’s legislators had drafted an anti-homosexuality bill, which guaranteed the death penalty for anyone convicted of what are defined as homosexual offenses.2
The question prompted by God Loves Uganda is of course, what can we do? Even more importantly, how do we go about doing it? How do we conceptualize and put solidarity in action without repeating what writers like Joseph Massad3 have termed, rightly, a form of international gay imperialism? I am responding to a form of queer identity and solidarity which claims a universal gay subject without taking on the work and the responsibility of understanding local issues and politics, and a form of a “solidarity” which is often implicated in the neoliberal project of US-led economic and political domination.
At this current moment in time, US gay groups—which have mostly defined their existence through the causes of gay marriage, hate crime legislation, and the push to allow gays and lesbians into the military—now find themselves at a crossroads. As their issues have gained mainstream acceptance, the criticism of this type of gay politics has begun to increase. For years, Against Equality4, a group I co-founded with Ryan Conrad5, and others have pointed out the hollow-ness of the neoliberal gay agenda and that criticism is finally becoming mainstream. In that context, gay organizations are struggling to establish their relevance.
Recently, the world’s largest and richest LGBT organization, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), publicly declared that it would now focus on international gay and lesbian issues. HRC is a co-founder of the dubiously named Council for Global Equality. Given its history with neoliberal gay concerns like marriage and the military, its ability to form collusions with economically starving Non-Govern-mental Organizations (NGOs) on the ground in impoverished countries can only mean a tightening of the US-led neoliberal stranglehold. As Massad and others have consistently pointed out, NGOs have become largely an unregulated or under-regulated growth market unto themselves.
What can we do? We can engage activists on the ground who are working on the issues, and not rely on NGOs who can be distant from work on the ground and can regulate what work is done due to their access of resources. International NGOs have a habit of shutting up dissent and critics through the money they can give, which while very little in US dollars is enormous for locals activists. Also international NGOs can skew work toward their own financial interests and agendas by corral resources because of their access to both local governments and the US.
What is required on the part of those of us wishing to engage an effective response is a drastic reframing of the issues. Even in progressive/ left groups, there is a tendency to only think of LGBTQ issues within terms like “criminalized love” or “same-sex relationships and loving and committed relationships.” If we are to do any kind of long-term work that has any lasting result, we have to break that framework of focusing on romantic love, and insist on recognizing that this is not about relationships but about the discursive, political, and material existence of queerness, of homosexuality, of deviancy, and the threats it poses to the state. It does not and should not matter whether we are talking about relationships or not—queer people will be targeted (and are being targeted) for any number of reasons.
There is a great danger in only thinking about the needs of LGBTQ people in the contexts of homophobia and transphobia, and forgetting that the work of certain Christian evangelicals is imbricated in a much larger project that stretches back to not just a neocolonial project, but a longstanding colonial project. Uganda’s own history is the history of looting and plunder, and the modern-day arms race in which it finds itself is a neoliberal iteration of that history. It comes as no surprise that so many of those involved with certain US-based religious organizations are also enjoying a financial gain from the fruits of their labor.
If we think of homophobia and transphobia as merely phobias, we run the risk of further endangering the lives of not only the gays and lesbians on the ground, but of millions of people whose lives will be shunted aside as less worthy. The propagation of these phobias are part of the larger colonial and neo-colonial projects. These phobias cannot be adequately addressed in the absence of addressing these projects. The Obama administration’s threat to cut funding for aid for Uganda in relation to anti-homosexual legislation is symptomatic of seeking to respond to a phobia while maintaining these projects. As both Scott Long6 and Karma Chavez7 have pointed out, such political gestures hide the machinations and insidious politics of larger military and economic agendas.
The very great danger is that in looking for solidarity without questions, we may end up swapping one kind of tyranny for another by appeasing ourselves into thinking we are enacting change, when actually we are only enabling the neoliberal domination and exploitation of an entire continent which is still reeling from the brutality of its colonial legacies.
2. Since the filming of the documentary, this bill was passed and then ruled invalid on procedural grounds. While a new bill has not been able to make its way through the legislature, there is still a vocal anti-homosexuality movement in Uganda).