By Neal Broverman
While Uganda's proposed "kill the gays" bill has grabbed the attention of the LGBT world, many straight Americans have never even heard of it — or the American influence behind the bill. Wednesday night Current TV will premiere an episode dedicated to the bill on its documentary series, Vanguard. "Missionaries of Hate" delves into the issue, with Peabody Award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller traveling to the heart of hate in Uganda.
Van Zeller spoke with Ugandan pastors like Martin Ssempa and American evangelicals like Scott Lively, both of whom have stirred up more homophobia in a nation already extremely antigay to begin with. Pregnant at the time, van Zeller also reached out to gay Ugandans, who wanted to speak on the increasingly desperate situation there. Back home in Los Angeles, van Zeller talked with The Advocate about her experiences in Uganda and provided more insight on what is really going on there.
The Advocate: Were you hesitant to take the story?
Mariana van Zeller: Not at all. The first time I saw a news clip on this bill, I immediately thought we had to do this story. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Shortly after, I started reading about the influence of American evangelicals and the strong belief that they influenced this bill. A couple of weeks later, we were on a plane to Uganda. We wanted to investigate what exactly was the role of American evangelicals on this bill and also what was life like for gays in Uganda and how things stand to change if this bill is passed.
What are the conditions like in the country? Are gays being scapegoated for issues like poverty and instability?
Unfortunately, homophobia exists across Africa. What Uganda has done is take it to another level. The hate that is being propagated in Uganda right now is extremely scary.
Uganda is a poor country; 30% of its income is dependent on foreign aid. But it’s politically stable, even though it had a war for many years that brought down the economy. The war faded and it’s been a stable country; it has stable leadership compared to other African nations. However, one of the questions we asked to many of these pastors was, "With so many problems like AIDS and poverty, why make this your main focus?" What they replied over and over again was that the family is the base of African culture and they believe that family values are being destroyed by what they call the "gay agenda," and so this is where they have to start their battles. If this isn’t taken care of, then everything else is at risk, which is of course, ridiculous.
Is there an ulterior motive with the people pushing this bill, like [member of parliament David] Bahati and Pastor Martin Ssempa?
Absolutely. Over 90% of the population is against homosexuality, which is a staggering statistic. Both Bahati and Ssempa really used this to increase their popularity. You can see that with a person like David Bahati, who was a relatively unknown politician before this and is now one of the most well-known people not only inside Uganda but around the world. The same thing happened with Pastor Ssempa — he’s been a popular pastor, but this has taken his popularity to a whole new level. What has surprised us is that he is extremely popular among young people. The majority of his congregation is young people. He holds church rallies every Saturday night at Makerere University, one of the most prestigious universities in East Africa, and it’s always packed with college students. His Sunday morning services are always packed with young people and are also held at the university.
To actually interview some of these young people is to see how they believe and trust every word Ssempa says; it's incredible. They really think homosexuals are evil and should be put in prison for life, and some actually said to us that “they should be killed.”
The antigay agenda seems to be pushed by an emphasis on the mechanics of certain sexual practices. Is that their ticket to turning people against gays?
Absolutely. They’re using a lot of the same language that is being used by some American evangelicals here when they talk about the threats of the gay agenda: the recruitment of children, the fact that gays aren’t born this way, that it’s a choice.
We were there reporting when the bill was really heating up, when Ssempa had become the face of this campaign and he was holding weekly church rallies and mass protests all around Uganda in support of the bill. Again and again, he would show gay porn because he thought it was important to show people what gay people do in the privacy of their home because. He’d say, “You know, [gays] say it’s not our business what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom, but let me show you what they do in the privacy of their bedroom.” Obviously it’s a completely distorted image of what gays do. He’s showing fisting, very graphic images in front of congregations of hundreds of people, children included. He’s showing, as he calls it, the "eating of poo-poo" — and so that’s what people think represents gay sex. So, after seeing and hearing this, they think gays from the West are coming into their country and actively recruiting children into homosexuality, and then the result of that is they want gays jailed or killed.
It seemed almost impossible to find someone who would defend gays. Is the national homophobia as widespread as it appears in your story?
It is, and that was extremely surprising to us. We went to the market with a man named Long Johns who is gay, and he asked people at the market, who didn't know he was gay, what they thought of this bill and what they thought of gays, and then we saw his reaction. The majority of people said gays deserve life in prison or death. Unfortunately, it really is the majority of the country [that holds that opinion].
There must be educated people who know this propaganda is not true. Why are they not speaking up?
There was a human rights conference that was held mainly to speak about this bill. There was an American professor invited and human rights and gay activists that got together and spoke about how unconstitutional and against human rights this bill was. Shortly after the conference started, a member of parliament stood up and basically took over the conference and used some of the harshest words I'd heard in Uganda. He said he hopes this bill is introduced and he hopes he is allowed to be a hangman and allowed to hang gays. I tracked him down after the conference and asked him a few questions. He said it's not just me or David Bahati who believes this, it's 90% of Ugandan parliament [that] is against homosexuality and feels, some way or another, this bill should be passed. So this idea that it's some crazy nut in Uganda and the majority doesn't think this way is not true.
How do the gay Ugandans keep up their spirits?
One of our main goals for going to Uganda was to find out what life was like for gay Ugandans. We’ve seen news clips and things written about the bill but we wanted to get as close as we could to gays in Uganda so we could get a sense of what life was like. We knew it was going to be challenging because there’s a lot of fear in the community, so we didn’t know how many would speak on camera because they’re risking their lives. It was amazing how many people were willing to speak on camera, including Long Johns, who opened up his life to us. He said, “There can be risk involved by showing my face, but I believe this is the right thing to do. I want to raise awareness of what is happening in my country and among my peers. I believe by showing my face, I can make a difference.”
Was it scary reporting the story?
Never scary for me. More scary for the people we were interviewing. We had one young gay man named Gerald who agreed to be interviewed and we asked, "Would you feel comfortable doing this interview walking down the street?" He immediately said, "Yes, I can take you to the neighborhood where I grew up." During that conversation he kept pointing out people looking at us. He said there were certain words I can't say like "homosexual," so we were using code words. He knew if we used certain words, we could get attention, and he said, "If they find out I'm gay and speaking to you, a group could come up and start beating me." In fact, during one point in our conversation, one taxi driver kept giving him intimidating looks. At that point we stopped the interview.
Was it hard to remain objective?
Yes. It was extremely difficult to keep quiet while you're listening to all these religious men and politicians who have enormous influence saying these outrageous remarks. However, our role there was to get them as comfortable as possible so they could speak as openly as possible, so that we could show people around the world what is actually happening in Uganda.
You know, I was four and a half months pregnant in Uganda. At one point it came out to Ssempa and other pastors that I was pregnant. Their first reaction was for them to put their hands on my belly and start praying for my baby to not be homosexual. I really had to contain myself not to say, "Stop it. Take your hands off my belly; my baby can be whoever he wants to be." But I thought it was important to let it go so that I could interview him and really get his thoughts on homosexuality and get his message back to the United States.
The segment delves into American evangelicals coming over and spreading antigay animus. Do you think there will be fewer pastors coming to Uganda because they don't want to be attached to legislation involving execution?
There have been many American evangelicals who have distanced themselves from this bill, and one of them is Rick Warren. Warren has very close ties to Ssempa — Ssempa actually called Warren a wimp — "He comes to Uganda and says homosexuality is evil and then he goes to the United States and says this bill is wrong."
But it hasn't stopped American evangelicals from going to Uganda. Just in the beginning of May, Lou Engle from a group called TheCall, who was involved in the passing of Prop. 8, visited Uganda and attended a rally that had all the main players of the bill there. Even though he didn't say he wasn't for this bill, he said Uganda was ground zero and Ugandans should stay firm in the face of evil. That had enormous damage. Many American evangelicals have condemned the bill, but as many gays in Uganda have told us, sending out a press release is not enough. This bill has an American face to it, especially to the gay community in Uganda. What they pinpoint again and again is this March 2009 conference where they say things really took a turn for the worse — it was attended by these three American evangelicals. Since then, the path to legislation is being pushed by men who have long histories with American evangelicals. These evangelicals need to go to Uganda and take back what they previously said, and say, "This bill is wrong and we absolutely condemn it." We haven't seen anyone do that.
American evangelical Scott Lively told you Uganda is a Christian nation, while America is not. Is that part of the reason people like him are going to Uganda, because their voices are no longer being heard in the U.S.?
Absolutely. Scott Lively is not really taken seriously in the U.S. This is the guy who wrote The Pink Swastika that says gays are responsible for the Holocaust; he's sort of a fringe character. But he goes to Uganda and he's treated like Billy Graham. There's a certain amount of credibility one has in Uganda just by being an American, so every word they say there carries a lot of weight. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that a month after the evangelicals' March 2009 visit, this bill was introduced in parliament.
The bill seems to be dying a slow death. What do you think will happen?
It looks like it might indeed be dying. But next year is an election year in Uganda, and with over 90% of the population being against homosexuality, President Yoweri Museveni has a really tough choice to make. He can risk losing public support and votes if he condemns the bill, or he can risk losing foreign aid by pushing the bill. So things are very much up in the air.
What has the president said about the bill publicly?
He issued one statement that I know of. He didn't say whether he supported it or not. He said, "It's incredible, with all the problems that exist in this country, that Hillary Clinton is now obsessed with this." Many supporters of this antigay campaign took that as a veiled endorsement because they thought he was saying Americans should mind their own business.
Is the bill dying simply out of practical reasons?
I think there's an enormous amount of international pressure on president Museveni right now.
Is the typical Ugandan aware of the financial ramifications of this bill passing?
No, in fact, when we confronted Ugandans on this, they said, "We can live perfectly without foreign aid. It's more important for us to put homosexuals in prison."
Current TV's reports from Uganda:
- Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 1
- Uganda Is a Christian Nation: Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 2
- Pastor Martin Ssempa's Crusade: Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 3
- Gay Ugandans Speak Out: Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 4
- The Whole World Is Watching: Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 5
- Uganda as Ground Zero: Missionaries of Hate, Pt. 6
- Scott Lively, Father of Uganda's "Pro-Family" Movement: Vanguard Extended Interview
- Inside Vanguard's Missionaries of Hate: Mariana van Zeller Reflects
- David Bahati, Uganda Parliament: Vanguard Extended Interview