Arizona and Uganda are nine thousand miles apart, but they were side by side in the news this week, due to extremist anti-gay laws that spring from and are supported by the religious right.
Uganda, Nigeria, etc.
On Monday, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-gay bill imposing harsh punishments for same-sex activity. Uganda was already one of 38 African countries where homosexuality is illegal. Its new law is similar to one signed by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan last month, triggering a wave of anti-gay violence in that country.
Uganda's new law calls for a 14-year prison sentence for first-time offenders, and a life sentence for "aggravated homosexuality"; defined as repeated sexual activity between two same-sex adults, as well as same-sex acts involving a minor, a disabled person, or at least one HIV-positive partner.
It's even worse than most media accounts reveal.
- Anyone who "purports to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex," faces life imprisonment.
- Anyone who "conducts a marriage ceremony between persons of the same sex," faces imprisonment for a maximum of seven years. Institutions conducting same-sex weddings will lose their licenses.
- Anyone who "attempts to promote or in anyway abets homosexuality and related practices," can be imprisoned for seven years, with a lifetime sentence for repeated offenses.
Condemnation was swift. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Museveni's signing of the law "a tragic day for Uganda," and added that the U.S. is "beginning an internal review of our relationship with the Government of Uganda," meaning Uganda may lose U.S. aid. The Netherlands has already suspended part of its aid to Uganda, and several other countries are considering doing the same.
The reaction in Uganda was equally swift. Prior to the law, police were rounding up 30 to 40 "suspected homosexuals" each week. Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said that the new law has caused an increase in anti-gay vigilantism, and that some religious leaders are calling for gays to be killed or burned, over local public address systems.
The Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper published a list of the country's "top" homosexuals on Tuesday. The headline was similar to one published in 2010 by the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone, which listed the country's "top 100 gays and lesbians" next to a banner reading, "Hang Them."
The bill was widely popular in Uganda, and Musveni faced pressure from Ugandan religious leaders and politicians to sign it. Nine thousand miles away from Uganda, Arizona governor Jan Brewer faced a somewhat similar decision.
Arizona, Kansas, Georgia, etc.
Arizona's legislature passed SB 1062 — a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to any customer on the basis of the owners' religious beliefs. The bill was a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against LGBT people, and a reaction to a string of legal victories for marriage equality proponents.
SB 1062 appears to be part of a right-wing campaign to launch similar "Jim Crow-style" bills against LGBT Americans.
- In Kansas, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would allow both businesses and private individuals to refuse service to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious beliefs, and even barred same-sex couples from suing if they were denied service.
- Georgia's General Assembly was working on legislation that would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT persons by denying them employment and even banning them from restaurants and hotels. The Georgia law would also allow businesses and individuals to ignore other civil rights and anti-bias laws that prohibit anti-gay discrimination.
- Similar bills have been introduced in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennesee, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, and, of course, Arizona.
Lawmakers in Idaho, Tennessee, and South Dakota have already voted down, blocked, or backtracked on their own legislation. This week, Mississippi and Georgia backed away from their bills.
After protests from LGBT activists, condemnation from religious leaders, criticism from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and becoming the focus of nationwide scorn, Kansas Republicans got cold feet. Senate president Susan Wagle said that she had "grown concerned about the practical implications" of the bill. The chair of the Senate Judiciary committee announced that he would not hold hearings on the bill, guaranteeing that it will go nowhere — for the moment.
The spectacle of Republicans lawmakers saving themselves from their own legislation was repeated in Arizona.
- A poll showed that Arizona Republicans wanted Brewer to veto the bill, by a two-to-one margin.
- The Super Bowl Host Committee condemned the anti-gay measure, and the NFL considered taking the Super Bowl away from Arizona.
- Delta Airlines and American Airlines have joined other corporations in calling on Brewer to veto the bill. The companies said that the law, if enacted, would run counter to their own internal non-discrimination policies.
- The Hispanic National Bar Association cancelled its 2015 conference in Phoenix, becoming the first group to do so.
- Apple hinted that the bill could impact its plans to build a plant in Mesa, Ariz., bringing 2,000 jobs to the state.
Governor Jan Brewer promised to "do the right thing," but in the end she didn't have much of a choice. Brewer initially said she wouldn't make a decision on SB 1062 until Friday. Instead, Brewer announced her decision to veto the bill in a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday.
Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, because the heat she will take from the far-right wing of the GOP is nothing compared to the broader economic and political consequences of signing it. The fate of the Kansas and Arizona bills illustrates that the GOP is caught between a shrinking, extremist base and a mainstream that is light years ahead of that base.
Bills like SB 1062 are swimming against a growing tide of support for equality. Last month, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 53 percent of Americans now support marriage equality for same-sex couples, compared to 32 percent since 2003.
These statistics from Freedom to Marry show just how much the world has change for the GOP and its right-wing base.
- Seventeen states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington state – plus Washington, D.C. have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
- Three states offer broad protections short of marriage. Colorado allows civil union, while Oregon and Nevada offer broad domestic partnership. Wisconsin has more limited domestic partnership.
- Over 38% of the U.S. population lives in a state that either has the freedom to marry or honors out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples.
- Over 41% of the U.S. population lives in a state with either marriage or a broad legal status such as civil union or domestic partnership.
- Over 43% of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides some form of protections for gay couples.
Legal victories in Utah, Nevada, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Virginia, and now even Texas have left marriage equality opponents scrambling for an effective response. SB 1062 and similar bills are being cooked up by GOP lawmakers who can't afford not to placate their base by introducing such legislation, and can't afford to offend the growing majority of voters who support marriage equality.
The reaction extends far beyond the U.S. Anti-gay rights bills like those passed in Uganda and Nigeria show the influence of the religious right — the same one that GOP lawmakers are trying to placate with legislation.
As they did in Russia, where anti-gay laws and violence overshadowed the Winter Olympics, conservative evangelicals have traveled to Africa in recent years, peddling anti-day politics that are harder to sell back home. Organizations like the National Organization for Marriage have been linked to the promotion of anti-gay laws in Africa, through its ties to evangelical organizations.
Ugandan president Museveni complained of Western pressure not to sign. Museveni even fell back on the convenient trope of homosexuality as a form of Western imperialism. The irony is that it's not homosexuality that signified Western imperialism in Uganda, but Uganda's anti-gay law itself, and the U.S. evangelical influence behind it.
Museveni's comments echo those of other African leaders, who have asserted that homosexuality was bought to Africa by Europeans. As Michael Mumisa wrote, it is homophobia that is alien to African culture, not homosexuality. The very existence of "sodomy" laws in Africa are a product of European imperialism, in an attempt to control what they saw as the immorality of an Africa in which more than 21 varieties of homosexuality existed, as the varied people who shared the continent found ways to include and incorporate same-sex-oriented people into the context of their cultures.
In "Born To Be Gay: A History of Homosexuality," which covers homosexuality from the pre-Christian era to the present, historian William Naphy addressed African leaders in the midst of conducting anti-gay campaigns.
If they wish to cling to a model of normality and morality constructed by their Western conquerors that is, of course, their choice, but their own histories, cultural heritage and linguistic record as well as the testimony of all other non-Western/Christian societies suggests that this would be aberrant — abnormal.
Naphy expands his view beyond Africa, to point out that in the context of Western history the "virulent homophobia" of the past 500 years is the real aberration.
Homosexuality, while never the behavior of the majority and also never seen as a life-long alternative to procreative relationships, has in almost all cultures been accepted and 'fitted into' the structures of society. Indeed, the virulent homophobia of Western Christianity has been shown to be a feature that came into fruition only in the past 500 years, and was never consistent. More importantly, the spread of the negative Christian view of homosexuality became worldwide only as a result of the nineteenth-century global hegemony of Europe, and the cultural and economic dominance of the United States in the last century. In effect, the West's 'colonization of the mind' continues apace, aided and abetted by non-Westerners, who seem bent on sacrificing their own histories and traditions in an effort to emulate all aspects of what even they seem to consider the 'successful' cultures of the West.
It's not gay people or the acceptance of and incorporation of same-sex oriented people into society and culture, but anti-gay laws like the one passed in Uganda and the one vetoed in Arizona that are outside the norm, that are the product of colonized minds.