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After Americans Visit, Uganda Weighs Death for Gays

by Jeffrey Gettleman
KAMPALA, Uganda - Last March, three American evangelical Christians, whose teachings about "curing" homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States, arrived here in Uganda's capital to give a series of talks.

The theme of the event, according to Stephen Langa, its Ugandan organizer, was "the gay agenda - that whole hidden and dark agenda" - and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.

Demonstrators carried banners denouncing homosexuality in December in Kampala, Uganda. For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how "the gay movement is an evil institution" whose goal is "to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity."

Now the three Americans are finding themselves on the defensive, saying they had no intention of helping stoke the kind of anger that could lead to what came next: a bill to impose a death sentence for homosexual behavior.

One month after the conference, a previously unknown Ugandan politician, who boasts of having evangelical friends in the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which threatens to hang homosexuals, and, as a result, has put Uganda on a collision course with Western nations.

Donor countries, including the United States, are demanding that Uganda's government drop the proposed law, saying it violates human rights, though Uganda's minister of ethics and integrity (who previously tried to ban miniskirts) recently said, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

The Ugandan government, facing the prospect of losing millions in foreign aid, is now indicating that it will back down, slightly, and change the death penalty provision to life in prison for some homosexuals. But the battle is far from over.

Instead, Uganda seems to have become a far-flung front line in the American culture wars, with American groups on both sides, the Christian right and gay activists, pouring in support and money as they get involved in the broader debate over homosexuality in Africa.

"It's a fight for their lives," said Mai Kiang, a director at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a New York-based group that has channeled nearly $75,000 to Ugandan gay rights activists and expects that amount to grow.

The three Americans who spoke at the conference - Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including "7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child"; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads "healing seminars"; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality" - are now trying to distance themselves from the bill.

"I feel duped," Mr. Schmierer said, arguing that he had been invited to speak on "parenting skills" for families with gay children. He acknowledged telling audiences how homosexuals could be converted into heterosexuals, but he said he had no idea some Ugandans were contemplating the death penalty for homosexuality.

"That's horrible, absolutely horrible," he said. "Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people."

Mr. Lively and Mr. Brundidge have made similar remarks in interviews or statements issued by their organizations. But the Ugandan organizers of the conference admit helping draft the bill, and Mr. Lively has acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. He even wrote on his blog in March that someone had likened their campaign to "a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda." Later, when confronted with criticism, Mr. Lively said he was very disappointed that the legislation was so harsh.

Human rights advocates in Uganda say the visit by the three Americans helped set in motion what could be a very dangerous cycle. Gay Ugandans already describe a world of beatings, blackmail, death threats like "Die Sodomite!" scrawled on their homes, constant harassment and even so-called correctional rape.

"Now we really have to go undercover," said Stosh Mugisha, a gay rights activist who said she was pinned down in a guava orchard and raped by a farmhand who wanted to cure her of her attraction to girls. She said that she was impregnated and infected with H.I.V., but that her grandmother's reaction was simply, " ‘You are too stubborn.' "

Despite such attacks, many gay men and lesbians here said things had been getting better for them before the bill, at least enough to hold news conferences and publicly advocate for their rights. Now they worry that the bill could encourage lynchings. Already, mobs beat people to death for infractions as minor as stealing shoes.

"What these people have done is set the fire they can't quench," said the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian who went undercover for six months to chronicle the relationship between the African anti-homosexual movement and American evangelicals.

Mr. Kaoma was at the conference and said that the three Americans "underestimated the homophobia in Uganda" and "what it means to Africans when you speak about a certain group trying to destroy their children and their families."

"When you speak like that," he said, "Africans will fight to the death."

Uganda is an exceptionally lush, mostly rural country where conservative Christian groups wield enormous influence. This is, after all, the land of proposed virginity scholarships, songs about Jesus playing in the airport, "Uganda is Blessed" bumper stickers on Parliament office doors and a suggestion by the president's wife that a virginity census could be a way to fight AIDS.

During the Bush administration, American officials praised Uganda's family-values policies and steered millions of dollars into abstinence programs.

Uganda has also become a magnet for American evangelical groups. Some of the best known Christian personalities have recently passed through here, often bringing with them anti-homosexuality messages, including the Rev. Rick Warren, who visited in 2008 and has compared homosexuality to pedophilia. (Mr. Warren recently condemned the anti-homosexuality bill, seeking to correct what he called "lies and errors and false reports" that he played a role in it.)

Many Africans view homosexuality as an immoral Western import, and the continent is full of harsh homophobic laws. In northern Nigeria, gay men can face death by stoning. Beyond Africa, a handful of Muslim countries, like Iran and Yemen, also have the death penalty for homosexuals. But many Ugandans said they thought that was going too far. A few even spoke out in support of gay people.

"I can defend them," said Haj Medih, a Muslim taxi driver with many homosexual customers. "But I fear the what? The police, the government. They can arrest you and put you in the safe house, and for me, I don't have any lawyer who can help me."

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