Standing amid the grandeur of the Capitol’s West Front on a clear, frigid Monday, Barack Obama made history as the first president to call for equal protection for “our gay brothers and sisters” in his second inaugural address.
It was a huge moment for the LGBT community and a sign of growing acceptance in American culture. It seems that the toughest battles have been won as public opinion continues to move in our favor. Yet our victories here may result in increased discrimination abroad as zealous American Evangelicals turn their energy and influence elsewhere.
In recent years, as Christian conservatives have realized they are beginning to lose the culture war here at home, many groups began looking to places like Africa and Eastern Europe to promote their anti-gay agenda.
“The West has been in a decline,” Lou Engle, Senior Leader at the International House of Prayer, told The New York Times documentary “Gospel of Intolerance: American Evangelicals finance Uganda’s anti-gay movement.”
Engle was referring to the millions of dollars and hundreds of missionaries that the International House of Prayer sends to sub-Saharan Africa — especially Uganda — to promote homophobic rhetoric among the population and support anti-gay politicians. These efforts have influenced the most atrocious anti-gay bill in modern history, which until recently contained language promising the death penalty to homosexuals in Uganda. It now gives the generous sentence of life in prison.
The “Kill the Gays” bill is currently in limbo (its status has been fluid since 2009). Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of Uganda’s parliament, broke her promise to pass it before the New Year as a “Christmas present” to the Ugandan people. That doesn’t mean it’s dead, though.
Most American Evangelical leaders have said they are against the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality, but they agree that it should be illegal to some extent. While their money has failed to make this a reality in the U.S., American dollars can pack way more bang for their buck in developing countries. As we well know, money means political influence.
The International House of Prayer is just one of the groups sending millions of dollars to Uganda, Malawi, Kenya and other African nations they see as ripe for political intervention. This sort of outside influence greatly resembles the era of colonization, where Western powers imposed their will on nearly all of Africa.
The irony here is that many in Uganda believe homosexuality did not exist in Africa and was imported from the West. Politicians continually blame the nation’s many problems on the “evils of homosexuality.” This only makes Evangelical groups look more like saviors.
Unfortunately, People tend to fear what they do not understand, and since it is illegal to “promote” gay culture or gay rights in Uganda, there never can be an open dialogue. Adding in religious zealotry, hunger and extreme poverty only makes the situation more toxic.
American conservatives claim they only want to promote pro-life, pro-family values. Regardless of their intentions, though, their money has created an unlivable environment for Africa’s gay and lesbian community. Innocent people who cannot change their sexuality are harassed, beaten, left out of society, or even killed.
The international reaction has mostly stopped at condemnation. Recently, however, some European governments have cut $180 million of aid funding to Uganda in response to the “Kill the Gays Bill,” a possible reason for its sluggish progress. But the fact that the bill has not been scrapped means that more can be done.
The United States, as the self-appointed guarantor of freedom worldwide, has much more leverage to influence nations considering the genocide of their gay populations. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an important speech about the State Department’s responsibility to gays that face extreme discrimination abroad … but actions are stronger than words.
Hopefully Obama’s powerful inaugural speech was more than just flashy rhetoric. As battles are won here at home, the U.S. can turn its own energies overseas and put pressure on countries that criminalize homosexuality. If the president truly cares about LGBT equality, his administration has a lot of work ahead of him in his second term.