Rep. Karen Bass Calls on LGBT Leaders to Turn the African Anti-Gay Tide
Karen Ocamb

The historic White House-African summit was overshadowed by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa, keeping the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia home to deal with the crisis. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan decided to attend anyway, despite the climbing death toll in his country and the region. President Obama apparently refused him a private meeting, but it remains unclear if anyone from the Obama administration or State Department pulled aside and upbraided Jonathan, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni or any of the 30 other invited leaders from African nations that criminalize and severely punish homosexuality.

Rep. Karen Bass, whose district includes portions of Los Angeles, Culver City and Little Ethiopia is one leader who is taking the continent’s anti-gay laws very seriously. Since Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law by Museveni last February, Bass, a ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, says she has been talking about the laws to a number of African leaders, many of whom have sought her out. (A new report from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Human Rights First indicates that 37 of Africa’s 54 countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality.) Now she is holding a free, public town hall on Saturday, Aug. 9 at The Carl Bean House in West Adams to update the community on the laws and consider what the LGBT and religious communities can do in response.

Museveni made it clear that the overturning of the infamous anti-gay law on a technicality by Uganda’s constitutional court on Aug. 1 had “nothing to the do with” the timing of the summit on Aug. 4, nor did pressure from American travel bans or sanctions, according to the website Africa-News and Analysis. (Though a recent report indicates U.S. pressure has prompted officials to stop interfering with HIV patient care.) But Museveni also has legislation sitting on his desk that would criminalize the transmission of HIV and force health care workers to turn in patients or anyone seeking help,

And on Aug. 4, a group of Ugandan MPs announced their intention to press for a vote to restore the Anti-Homosexuality Act, according to Buzzfeed. There is also pressure from Christian evangelical pastor Martin Ssempa, who, ANA reports, has campaigned to “kick sodomy out of Uganda.” He has announced plans to appeal the decision to overturn the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the Supreme Court. Ssempa called the ruling a “judicial abortion” to make Uganda appear more moderate before the summit.

Bass says the idea for the homophobic laws town hall grew out of talks with an L.A. area minister from South Africa and African-American LGBT activists to discuss ways to respond. Indeed, the town hall is being sponsored by the iconic Holmon United Methodist Church and the burgeoning black gay power structure in Los Angeles, represented by In the Meantime Men’s X-Homophobia Campaign, the Black Los Angeles Young Democrats and the Los Angeles Black LGBT Network.

The organizers recently screened the powerful film God Loves Uganda to make the clear the role evangelical American missionaries have played in the persecution of gays. “That interests me,” Bass told Frontiers recently, “because when the African leadership talks to me, they appeal to me to stop, to do anything to stop the right-wing Christian organizations from the United States who openly say they are losing the war here and they want to go and save the continent and Lord help us. So I think it is our responsibility in the United States to address this here. It is so appalling to me that people would do that.”

And these white evangelicals have not been secret about their intentions. “Can anyone say AIDS?” Scott Lively asked at an anti-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda, in 2009, where he called AIDS a just punishment from God, according to longtime religious right-wing watcher Jim Burroway. In 2010, Lively told a reporter, “I was actually one of the people that helped to start the pro-family movement there. They were finding people there, primarily homosexual men from Europe and the United States coming into the country and working to try to change the social values. And they didn’t know what to do.” So Lively helped them. 

In the last five years, a lot of religious hate has been sewn worldwide. Bass and an empowered black gay community hope to explore how to reverse the trend of anti-gay Christianity, how to live with or resolve the contradictions of watching America do business with an anti-gay state while still pressing for equality, and how to share the messages they develop with their own churches, neighborhoods and communities. 

The town hall is taking place on Saturday, Aug. 9 from 10:30a-1:00pm at The Carl Bean House, 2146 W. Adams Blvd, LA 90019. The town hall is free and open to the general public.  Check In The Meantime Men Executive Director Jeffrey King’s Facebook page for updates and more information. 

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