U.S. evangelicals see Uganda as "fertile ground" for their brand of anti-gay and -trans sentiment, according to one activist who's worked in the nation. As a result, LGBT Ugandans have to survive increasingly untenable prejudices and persecutions.
Angel Collie, Trans Gender Non Conforming Program Officer for Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), spoke at MCC's General Conference at the Fairmont Chicago July 2 about his experiences doing activist work in Uganda.
The nation's anti-gay sentiments were typified by its notorious "Kill the Gays" bill, which was introduced in 2009 but has not yet been brought to a vote. The bill widely broadens criminal punishment for gay activities, including use of the death penalty.
Collie said that American Evangelical Christians stoked the flames that inspired the bill. "They held a conference there, and within a month, the legislation was introduced."
But an even more insidious component to the legislation would prosecute individuals who know of or assist LGBTs. "For example, if you are a parent and you know your child is involved with someone of the same sex, and you don't report it, you could go to jail. A healthcare worker or a pastor could face jail time for not reporting that person to the police," according to Collie.
So LGBT Ugandan increasingly cannot access basic services. "People who go to their doctors are not able to talk about their experience, reality, and sexual health, and they're being misdiagnosed and mistreated," Collie said. "Since I was there, two months ago, there have been three trans women who have passed away from HIV-related complications."
Gay and trans individuals often end up in antagonistic relationships with health care providers, who will sometimes openly mock them. A friend said to Collie that they'd "rather be sick than go to the doctor."
Trans individuals, since they are less likely to pass as straight, are bearing the brunt of the prejudice, Collie added. Many trans women are forced into sex work as their last option, without any support networks. Oftentimes they find themselves in scuffles with other sex workers who are upset that trans women get more clients or are concerned about their territory being stepped on.
Collie said that the rhetoric in Uganda describes homosexuality and gender non-conforming representations as evil imports from the West. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "Many of the penal codes that punish these behaviors were actually introduced by the British. So really what you have with American evangelicals digging this stuff up is neo-colonialism in a lot of ways."
"It's not the diverse expression of gender and sexual identity that's being exported," Collie added. "It's the homophobia, because those other things have always been there."
Some nations have threatened to withdraw funding from Uganda should the anti-gay legislation pass, only to have those threats fall on deaf ears from the nation's government, according to Collie. "One member of Uganda's parliament said that she'd rather see people starve and die than receive 'evil money' from the West."
He suggested that a pastoral care-centered approach by Ugandan activists is what's needed to assist its LGBT citizens, since 82.6 percent of the country identifies as Catholic, Anglican or Protestant. "Everywhere you go you are surrounded by churches and religious messagingI would go to secular LGBTQ meetings and they would begin with a prayer."
That approach has to be characterized by an understanding of the community's needs as well as a willingness talk about scripture and new realities that it might present. "The hope is to rewrite the internalized homophobia and transphobia that they experience on a daily basis," Collie added.
American activists shouldn't expect to ever have an impact on the ground in Uganda. "Most Americans wouldn't understand the context," Collie said, admitting, "I didn't really understand the context. I just wanted to be there and do what I can to help them."
The best role activists here can play, according to Collie, is spreading the word about what part Evangelicals in this country have played in the Ugandan situation. "So many of us have the potential to be catalysts for change here in our own communities, when we have these conversations about the impact of these churches."