As California marked its inaugural Harvey Milk Day this past weekend, celebrating the gay rights icon, I couldn't help but remember an interview I recently conducted in Uganda, the east African nation that is home to proposed legislation that would make being gay a crime punishable by life in prison or, in some cases, death.
"I was shocked the other day when I was watching this American movie 'Milk,'" said Sylvia Tamale, dean of law at Makerere University in Uganda, referring to Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic. "I was shocked to see that the arguments put forward by the proponents of anti-homosexuality sentiments were exactly the same, almost word for word. These arguments are not new at all that Ugandans are using to justify the anti-homosexuality bill."
I met with Tamale while filming the documentary "Missionaries of Hate" for the new season of Current TV's Vanguard. While I was in Uganda, the campaign to push through the controversial anti-gay bill was reaching a fever pitch, with backers of the legislation drumming up support by holding mass rallies and marches condemning homosexuality.
Just as it was during the life and times of Harvey Milk, the movement against homosexuality in Uganda is being led by a group of conservative Christian evangelicals. And the arguments they're using are an echo of Anita Bryant and the Save Our Children campaign.
"I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children," Bryant said in 1977. "Therefore, they must recruit our children."
More than 30 years later, our cameras were rolling as Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa brought a young woman to a press conference to testify about how she had been allegedly recruited to be a lesbian. "American money...is being used to seduce our children into homosexuality," Ssempa said. "This bill is in response and desire to protect our children."
The connection, while decades apart, is perhaps not so surprising if you believe those who trace the current anti-gay campaign in Uganda back to March 2009. That's when three American evangelicals were invited to speak at a conference in the country about how Africans can protect themselves from homosexuality. Being gay in Uganda was never easy. But according to many local gay and human rights advocates, it was that conference where the depiction of homosexuality as predatory by nature gained currency in Uganda.
From there, local politicians and pastors--many with long-standing relationships with American Christian groups--took this notion and ran with it. Ssempa, as you'll see in the documentary, went so far as showing hardcore gay porn in church in order to demonstrate the "sickness" of homosexuality.
It's been more than three decades since Harvey Milk's assassination, but the battle he led continues and is now open on new fronts. "I believe that the Christian fundamentalists in the US have found fertile ground in Africa to fight their battles," Tamale told us. "Obviously they are not making a lot of the headway in the U.S., and they can very easily find allies here to fight their wars on the continent."
Even after Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill drew the ire of international human rights organizations and governments around the world, another American evangelical, Lou Engle, traveled to Uganda to hold a rally with many of the leaders of Uganda's anti-gay crusade.
Despite their best efforts, the anti-gay bill is still wavering in Ugandan parliament. Few now believe it will pass in its current form. But the public campaign to push it through created one of the most hostile environments for gays in the world today.
Yet even in this extremely charged climate, we managed to find gay men and women, activists and ordinary citizens who were willing to speak openly about their struggle.
"Admitting I'm gay is no longer a shame to me," explained Long Jones, a gay man we met in Kamapala who had already been jailed, beaten and blackmailed because of his sexual orientation. "I'm not afraid because this is the opportunity that most people are getting to know that we really exist."
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