How the US & UK Led to Uganda’s New “Kill the Gays” Bill

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Politicians in Uganda have just passed a horrific bill that would put people to death for homosexuality, a move that “Western” countries have rushed to (rightfully) condemn. Which is ironic, because it’s our fault.

I can already hear the conservatives in the audience complaining: sure, everything is white people’s fault, right? Even when the democratically elected representatives of an African country passes their own legislation. And yes, just to be very clear, it IS white people’s fault that all this happened, thanks to a little thing known as colonization, and another little thing known as Christianity.

Way back in 1862, the king of Buganda (a large kingdom within modern-day Uganda), Muteesa I, was faced with a growing threat from traders, missionaries, and colonizers from Europe and Arabia that were all pushing at his borders. He solved his problem by inviting all three warring religious factions (Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) to send their missionaries in, at which point he just pitted them all against each other and thus held them in check.

Unfortunately, Muteesa soon died suddenly, leaving his 16-year old son in charge. Historians suspect he died of hepatitis, but apparently the Christian missionaries proclaimed that he died due to committing acts of sodomy. I say “apparently” because I’ve seen this referenced a lot online but I have yet to see the original source letters from the missionaries, so take it with a grain of salt.

But it is established that the people of Buganda had a fairly liberal view of homosexuality prior to that first contact with the Christian missionaries. Muteesa’s son, Mwanga II, was almost certainly bisexual, as he had sixteen wives but also a collection of male pages for fun times. Unlike his father, the young Mwanga saw the missionaries as a huge threat to the sovereignty of Buganda, and he immediately started clearing house. He was particularly suspicious of both sects of Christians – as Henry Morton Stanley wrote in 1890, “To his (Mwanga’s) distorted view the missionaries were men banded together for the undermining of his authority, for sapping the affections and loyalty of his subjects and for ultimately occupying the whole of Buganda.”

Hmm, is it Mr. Stanley? Is it distorted? Ah, to have 140 years of hindsight.

While Mwanga was obviously very correct, his response to his suspicions was, uh, not the smartest. I mean, he was a teenager so you can’t expect ingenious policymaking but at the very least he shouldn’t have defaulted to doing a genocide. He ended up having dozens of Christian converts in his court murdered, and one prominent missionary wrote an account that has colored the event ever since. According to Scottish missionary Alexander Mackay, men in Mwanga’s court who converted to Christianity no longer wanted to “service” the king because they now saw “sodomy” as sinful. Mackay wrote that this refusal was “a splendid disobedience and brave resistance to this Negro Nero’s orders to a page of his, who absolutely refused to be made the victim of an unmentionable abomination.”

When Mwanga then had at least 30 converts killed, the rumors immediately began that they were killed because they refused to have sex with him (as opposed to them being killed for being suspected of plotting against him). Dr. John Blevins dug into the contemporaneous accounts of the event for research published in 2015, and he found that there was probably truth to the story that Christian converts stopped having sex with the king, but that the killings were more complicated than just a jilted lovers’ quarrel. 

In any event, the story makes a few things clear: that male bisexuality was tolerated, if not commonplace, in pre-colonial Buganda; that homophobia was probably NOT commonplace; and that European Christian missionaries began their takeover of central Uganda with homophobia. The religion and the hatred are inextricably linked.

The Christians did eventually drive Mwanga from the throne, the Imperial British East Africa Company took control, and the British Empire ruled Uganda for the next 60 years or so.

In 1963, Uganda finally regained independence, but by then the country was almost entirely Christian, and the homophobia of those first missionaries remained. Lest you think Westerners’ impact on the country’s LGBTQ population ended there, allow me to offer the tidbit that no, it somehow got worse.

For decades, American evangelicals have been sending missionaries to Uganda to hammer home the message that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin that must be wiped from the Earth. In 2009, Ugandan human rights activists drew attention to the problem of people like Rev. Rick Warren, of California’s Saddleback mega-church, coming to the country and preaching that homosexuality is akin to pedophilia.

Sure enough, soon after three American evangelicals held a conference in Uganda on “the gay agenda” and met with local legislators, one Ugandan MP introduced a bill to criminalize homosexuality and punish offenders with the death penalty. That punishment was lessened to life in prison and it was passed through Congress and signed by the president. Luckily, a few months later a court ruled that it was invalid.

A pan-African newspaper pointed out that tabling a bill in Ugandan parliament is an expensive operation, and the man who introduced it was fairly obscure. They write, “There is evidence to suggest that support for Bahati’s bill has come from extreme-right Christians in the United States of America who are working through allied churches and parliamentarians in Uganda.” They suggest that the support wasn’t just spreading homophobia, but actually offering the money required to get the bill to a vote.

That bill ultimately failed in court but the Christian homophobes remained undeterred, leading to the passage of a similar bill this month: the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2023, which only two MPs voted against, suggests life in prison for homosexuality and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes having sex with anyone over the age of 75. “Promotion” of homosexuality is punishable by prison time and a fine. It’s now going to the president to pass or veto, and he has been supportive of the bill up until now.

It’s truly heartbreaking for the Ugandan people, and it’s a wake-up call for Americans: these same evangelicals want that to happen here. Oh sure, when the New York Times reaches out to them for comment they pretend to be aghast, but remember how many of them also pretended to be opposed to the outlawing of abortion until they overturned Roe v Wade? Remember how they pretended to only want to legislate trans people to “protect the children,” until they started introducing laws to prevent adults from transitioning? It’s the wedge. They will keep pushing and pushing until they get everything they want. And if you are in any way queer, or a minority, or a woman, or someone in an interracial relationship, or someone in an inter-religious relationship, or disabled, they are coming for you next.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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