Straight Man’s Burden
The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions.
2011 MOLLY PRIZE WINNER
Published August 18, 2010
It was a Ugandan member of parliament who introduced the bill that would penalize homosexuality with life imprisonment or death, but the idea traces back to a secretive American evangelical movement known as The Family.
A young man who called himself Blessed had agreed to meet me in front of the Speke Hotel, the oldest in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but he was late, very late, and I had no way to contact him. Emailing me from a café, he’d said he didn’t have a phone; calling from a pay phone, he’d said he didn’t have a watch. The friends who’d put me in touch with him said he didn’t have an address. I’d seen a picture of him: he had a long neck, a narrow face, and a broad smile that made him look both kind and a little sly. I wanted to talk to him precisely because he was hard to find, because he was gay, and because he was on the run.
On October 14, 2009, a Ugandan member of parliament named David Bahati introduced legislation called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Among its provisions: up to three years in prison for failure to report a homosexual; seven years for “promotion”; life imprisonment for a single homosexual act; and, for “aggravated homosexuality” (which includes gay sex while HIV-positive, gay sex with a disabled person, or, if you’re a recidivist, gay sex with anyone — marking the criminal as a “serial offender”), death. As of this writing, the bill has yet to pass, despite near-unanimous support in Parliament. But the violence has been building, a crackling fury not yet quite a fire: beatings, disappearances, “corrective” rapes of lesbians, blacklists in a national tabloid, vigilante squads and church crusades, preachers calling out “homos” in their own pews.
It was Blessed’s pastor, a celebrity with an American following, who had outed him. “Am being hunted by my family at the moment,” he’d written in an email apologizing for his inability to commit to dinner plans. “Am moving place to place now.” Then, in case I didn’t understand: “They want to kill me.”
The Speke is nothing grand, just a succession of stucco arches, but smartly located midway between the business district and the president’s office, just down the hill from the gated gardens of the luxury Sheraton. At night, mzungus (white men — aid workers, oilmen, missionaries) come to shop for twenty-dollar prostitutes at the outdoor bar. By day, the Ugandan elite meet at the sidewalk tables. They ignore the whores, regal women who sip colas while they wait for evening, and likely have no idea that the hotel also serves as one of the city’s few havens for gays and lesbians.
Certainly Miria Matembe didn’t know. I’d been looking for her too. Then one night, there she was, pointed out to me by my friend Robert, a Ugandan journalist I’d hired to show me around. “That is Honorable right there,” he said. Uganda’s first minister of ethics and integrity, the Honorable Matembe, now out of government, was working as a private lawyer. A small woman in a brown power suit, with short hair styled upward, she charged through the café tables with two cell phones simultaneously in action.
“Honorable!” I called, and ran after her. She trapped one phone between her shoulder and her ear, stared at me, and held up a finger: Stop. She crooked it: Follow. She pointed: Speak. I whispered beneath her two conversations, telling her that I’d heard she’d been at a planning meeting for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, that I was writing about the Fellowship, and that I wanted to understand the connection.
“Wait!” Matembe said into her phones. Then, to me: “You are funny!” She chortled, held up five fingers, and walked away.
The Fellowship is the Ugandan Parliament’s branch of an American evangelical movement of the same name, also called the Family. The Family differs from most fundamentalist groups in its preference for those whom it calls “key men,” political and business elites, over the multitude. The bill’s author, MP Bahati, the de facto leader of the Ugandan branch, has become a national star for his crusade against gays. Winston Churchill called Uganda “the pearl of Africa”; the Family agrees. In the past ten years, it has poured millions into “leadership development” there, more than it has invested in any other foreign country, and billions in U.S. foreign aid have flowed into Ugandan coffers since a Family leader turned on the tap twenty-four years ago for President Yoweri Museveni, a dictator hailed by the West for his democratic rhetoric and by Christian conservatives for the evangelical zeal of his regime.
Every year, right before Uganda’s Independence Day, the government holds a National Prayer Breakfast modeled on the Family’s event in Washington. Americans, among them Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, former attorney general John Ashcroft — both longtime Family men and outspoken antigay activists — and Pastor Rick Warren, are a frequent attraction at the Ugandan Fellowship’s weekly meetings. “He said homosexuality is a sin and that we should fight it,” Bahati recalled of Warren’s visits.
Inhofe and Warren, like most American fundamentalists, came out in muted opposition to Uganda’s gay death penalty, but they didn’t dispute the motive behind it: the eradication of homosexuality. They may disagree on the means, favoring a “cure” rather than killing, but not the ends. For years, American fundamentalists have looked on Uganda as a laboratory for theocracy, though most prefer such terms as “government led by God.” They sent not just money and missionaries but ideas, and if the money disappeared and the missionaries came and went, the ideas took hold. Ugandan evangelicals sing American songs and listen to sermons about American problems, often from American preachers. Ugandan politicians attend prayer breakfasts in America and cut deals with evangelical American businessmen. American evangelicals, in turn, hold up Ugandan congregations as role models for their own, and point to Ugandan AIDS policy — from which American evangelicals nearly stripped condom distribution altogether — as proof that public-health problems can be solved by moral remedies. It is a classic fundamentalist maneuver: move a fight you can’t win in the center to the margins, then broadcast the results back home.
Half an hour after our first encounter, Honorable Matembe and two friends plopped down at my table. Night had come, the air was cooling, the prostitutes were rustling, and the guards — skinny men with wide-mouthed shotguns — were guiding the white SUVs of Uganda’s elite in and out of the drop-off zone a few feet from our table. “You wanna talk about homos?” Matembe asked. She drew the word out for comic effect. Honorable — in Uganda even former politicians go by their honorifics — had a booming voice that rose above the boda-boda bikes, the careering motorcycle taxis that rule Kampala’s cratered streets, but she stage-whispered a list of practices she knew to be common to homos: boy-rape, blasphemy, “golden showers.” Then she threw back her head and cackled.
“I was the first person to fight homosexuality!” she shouted. During the late 1990s, American missionaries were rushing in, a revival sweeping the land. Ugandan Catholics and Anglicans made evangelical causes and evangelical pariahs — including homosexuality — their own. Matembe, who said she was one of the original members of Uganda’s parliamentary Fellowship group, was in the vanguard.
“I used to come here and catch them!” She mimed sneaking up and pouncing. “People used to tell me where they were hiding.” For a brief period, gay life had almost flourished in Kampala. Gay men cruised the streets, and parties at the Speke Hotel began to take on the political cast of an identity in formation. Matembe put a stop to that. “You see Matembe walk into a place,” said Matembe, “and you disappear!” She sipped her beer and ate some nuts. “Eventually, of course, people went underground.”
That was all right with her. The closet, she believed, was a fine African tradition. That made her a liberal; she didn’t want to kill gays. “First of all, I am a human-rights activist,” she said. “My activism is guided by godly principles. Therefore, I don’t support homosexuality as a human right. Why? Because my beautiful — my godly conviction is that homosexuality is not a sin but a curse! Looking at homosexuality as a curse by God, I do not prescribe the death sentence for such people.”
Her real problem with the bill, she said, “is it makes us all potential criminals.” She was referring to a provision designed to enlist every Ugandan in the war against the gays. “Like, if I am speaking with you, and if I find you are a homosexual . . . ” She’d have twenty-four hours to report me or face a prison sentence of up to three years. This, she thought, was unfair. To her.
She wanted to make it clear that she bore no responsibility for David Bahati’s bill. Who did? American politicians and pastors, Matembe believed, their disavowals notwithstanding. “The Prayer Breakfast continues, but I no longer go to it. They were corrupted. It is the Americans! Confused as usual, exploiting.” She sighed, depleted. Then she rallied, remembering the good old days. “But I was the first! I fought the homos!”
The owner of the hotel swooped down on the table, cutting her off. “Honorable Matembe!” he cried. He took her gently by her arm and lifted her from us, petting her and flattering her, quieting her. She was scaring away the trade.
The lobby was empty when Blessed arrived, an hour late. He wore crisp black slacks and a lime-green long-sleeved shirt underneath a black sweater vest, too warm for the weather. Only twenty, he tried to carry himself like an older, courtlier man. He apologized for his impeccable appearance with what he hoped sounded like a joke. “I am a bit homeless at the moment,” he said, and then chuckled, as if this were merely an inconvenience. Walking up the hill to the Sheraton for dinner, he began to tell me his story.
He was the only son of educated parents, his father a lawyer and his mother a bureaucrat. He had a happy childhood, “normal” in every way. His parents loved him, and he loved them. They sent him to an elite boys’ school in his father’s hometown, and Blessed loved that too. An affectionate child, he liked to touch people, to hug, to kiss. By the age of twelve, he knew that his hugs and his kisses with other boys — not unusual in Uganda, where straight men sometimes hold hands — felt different from those with girls. And this didn’t bother him. He was a good student, but his teachers told him his head was in the clouds. That sounded nice: up there, he didn’t see conflict; he saw love. By the time he was fourteen he’d found six other boys in the school who felt as he did, and he loved them.
All of them? “Of course I loved them. Because God loves me.”
His family was Catholic but not very religious. Neither was Blessed; he said he felt spiritual. Not in the vaguely agnostic American sense. He was like a holy fool, a boy for whom everything was sacred: church, his friendships, the rainbows over Lake Victoria, the white egrets in the trees, his books, the touches, the caresses.
The orgasms? Of course. Everything sweet, he believed, was holy. He began calling himself “Blessed” not long after he and his friends were turned in to their headmaster, who beat them, expelled them, and then sent them to the police. They spent forty-eight hours in jail. “It was so much fun!” Just imagine, he said — holding my eyes, his voice low — “Remember when you were sixteen?” Sixteen, forty-eight hours, the six sexiest people in the world, as far as you were concerned, all in one cell. “I call myself ‘Blessed,’ ” he explained, “because that’s what I am, so fortunate to be born like this.” Like this: gay, and so in love with the world that even in jail he forgot about the bars.
We’d taken an outdoor table, as far as possible from other people. Dinner was a buffet, and Blessed had heaped his plate high. He was built like a sapling, but the hillock of food disappeared and he went back for seconds. “I think you need to eat more too,” he told me, though I’m more baobab than sapling. “I like white men,” he added quickly, in case he’d insulted me. “Are you gay?” he asked.
“Well, no,” I said, embarrassed, a straight man in a country ruled by would-be gay killers.
Blessed didn’t see it like that. “Oh!” he said. “Then you have children? Let me see!” He spent ten minutes cooing over pictures of my daughter.
After his expulsion, he moved back to Kampala and began attending a new school. His parents wouldn’t pay; Blessed washed cars. His love took on a more political form: he began organizing youth clubs to talk about sex. Not just gay sex but straight sex too, and all the shades in between. He’d never experienced sex as anything but a gift, yet he understood that most teenagers are as terrified of sex as they are drawn to it. He wanted them to know about condoms, HIV, and abortion, but he also wanted them to believe that the good parts were “good news,” just like their pastors said of Christ. “I don’t think Jesus is against us,” he said, waving away the absurd thought with a gesture so fey I looked over my shoulder to make sure the waiter hadn’t seen.
Around the time Blessed became Blessed, he began attending Pentecostal churches, “spirit-filled” places where you sang and danced and maybe experienced the gift of tongues, babbling in languages granted you by God. The songs were American as often as African, the churches were sprinkled with handsome mzungus, and there was a lot of laying on of hands. It felt cosmopolitan, modern. Blessed’s favorite pastor was Martin Ssempa, who appeared in music videos in Uganda and in pulpits in the United States. Every Saturday night Ssempa led a service — a party, really — called Primetime, held at Makerere University’s outdoor pool. It was fun, even though, technically, it was antifun: an abstinence rally. But Blessed, and plenty of straight kids, were there to cruise. It was hard not to — girls in their Saturday best, hot-pink dresses tight around the hips and clinging baby T’s, boys in American hip-hop style, pants low, shirts giant, young faces lean.
Ssempa was beautiful too, golden-skinned, the handsomest bald man you ever saw, beckoning from the stage across the pool, which glowed in the night. The band thumped and Ssempa called, as if the kids might actually walk on the water. The story he told was almost always the same: sex (it’s going to be awesome!), sex (it’ll be wonderful someday), sex (wait just a little bit longer now). And then everybody would jump. A thousand, sometimes two thousand young Ugandans hopping in time as high as they could, holding on to one another lest they fall in the pool, giggling. “Holy laughter,” some called it. It was a gift they believed came from the Holy Ghost, just like tongues; and some had heard about “holy kissing,” another gift — not carnal! — the Spirit in the flesh. There were gay boys, and drag kings, and straight kids who might peer around the bend, all waiting, not having sex together, except when they were. “It was so hot!” said Blessed.
Then came the day Blessed had to choose a side. It was 2007, and he was in court, as spectator and supporter. The case being heard was called Yvonne Oyoo and Juliet Mukasa v. Attorney General. Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transman — born female, living male, interested in girls — taught Blessed — the sweet, femme boy — to be a man, a gay man, without ever meeting him.
Like Blessed, Juliet Mukasa knew as a child that she was attracted to children of the same sex. And like Blessed she’d been raised Catholic but had joined an American-style Pentecostal church, hoping that in the music and the dancing and the Holy Ghost — the ecstasy — she would find the resolution of her desires. But Juliet Mukasa was not as skilled as Blessed at leading two lives. Dressed like a girl, she couldn’t think. A pastor determined that she was possessed by a “male spirit” and asked his flock to help him heal her. As women in the pews swayed and sang for Mukasa’s liberation, the exorcism took place at the altar, boys and men from the church laying on hands and speaking in tongues. They took her arms, gently then firmly, and stripped her. Slowly, garment by garment, praying over each piece of demonically polluted cloth. She’d bound her breasts. They bared them. “I cried, and every time I cried they would call it ‘liberation.'” They slapped her, but it was holy slapping, and when she stood before them naked, the men’s hands roaming over her and then inside, they said that was holy too.
Then they locked her in a room and raped her. For a week. This is considered a corrective; a medical procedure, really; a cure. When it was all over, the pastor declared that the church had freed Mukasa. Maybe, in a sense, it had. Victor Mukasa no longer believed there was a demon inside him. The demons were in the church.
Mukasa became a man and an activist, determined to prevent what had happened to him from happening again. In 2003, he cofounded Freedom and Roam Uganda, an organization for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex human rights. In 2005, Ugandan police, led by government officials, raided his house. They didn’t find him. But a friend, Yvonne Oyoo, was there. They took her to the station. You look like a man, they said. We’re going to prove you’re a woman. They stripped her, fondled her breasts.
Mukasa fled. But in hiding and then in exile, he planned. The plan wasn’t lesbian, it wasn’t gay, it was . . . human, Blessed would say. It was a citizen’s plan: Mukasa sued, and never was a lawsuit more like a gift of the spirit, the romance of the rule of law.
Blessed, of course, was a romantic boy. He thought the trial was exciting! He wanted to be there, and so did his friends. They would swish for dignity, drag for democracy, be themselves for God and Victor Mukasa. Blessed could hardly wait. What he didn’t know was that his beautiful pastor, Martin Ssempa, was gathering an opposing force. Blessed, with his head in the clouds! He hadn’t paid attention. When he walked into the courtroom — late, as always — he could not have faced a starker choice. “Blessed!” called his church friends. Ssempa saw him and smiled. Blessed looked down at the T-shirt he’d chosen for the occasion: a rainbow. He looked to the other side of the room. His gay friends looked back. Some of them sighed. They knew how it was. If, with his sly, earnest smile, he chose Ssempa today, they would forgive him tomorrow. If he didn’t — the truth was, he didn’t know. All that would follow, all that he would lose, was beyond his imagination.
“I don’t know if I have a very strong heart,” he told me. “I do not know if I am a tough man.”
How did you make your choice, Blessed?
He gave me the smile, a mask for all he had lost. “I had a breakthrough.” “Breakthrough,” for Ugandan Christians, is a spiritual term. A gift from the Holy Ghost. Grace, in whatever shape it’s needed. “I got courage.”
Blessed sat down with the homos.
And then something like a miracle occurred: Victor Mukasa and Yvonne Oyoo won. The court ruled that the state had transgressed. Yes, homosexuality was illegal in Uganda, but there was still due process, even for homos, and the police had violated it. Without warrants, you cannot kick in doors, take prisoners, strip them, do what had been done to Victor Mukasa and Yvonne Oyoo.
Unless, that is, you change the law. Which is what a small coalition of Ugandans, inspired by American fundamentalism, set out to do. In the beginning they weren’t shy about their American influences. They invited American antigay activists, most notably Scott Lively — coauthor, with Kevin Abrams, of a book called The Pink Swastika, which blames the rise of Nazism on homosexuals — to address Parliament, and even drafted the bill with what appeared to be the concerns of their American friends in mind. Indeed, the bill followed, with remarkable precision, the talking points not of Lively, a fringe character, but of mainstream evangelicals and conservative politicians. It singled out same-sex marriage as a threat to Ugandan heterosexuality and in an opening clause declared the bill a model for other nations — such as those where same-sex marriage was a legal possibility.
One camp within the antigay movement, led by Pastor Michael Kyazze, argues that Ugandans must admit that homosexuality is an internal Ugandan problem. Martin Ssempa, Kyazze’s friend, had a different perspective, Kyazze told me, when I went to see him at his church. “Now, Martin, he believes it is you.”
“Me?” I had worn a suit and tie, a terrible choice on a blazing day. I began to sweat.
Kyazze, a tall, broad man with a slight stoop and a gentle rasp, laughed and patted my hand. “No, not you, Jeff. You Americans.” Kyazze, Pastor Moses Solomon Male, and I were sitting around a table in Kyazze’s office. The Omega Healing Center, Kyazze’s church, was small by Ugandan standards, just 2,500 regulars and a full-time school for 400 students, a spread of one-story classrooms arrayed around a garden spiked with signs reminding students of the righteous path: say no to homosexuality. avoid sex before marriage. A young teacher took my photograph beside the most ambitious proverb of all: always say no to sex.
“What Martin means,” Kyazze continued, “is that the Americans, the Europeans, the Dutch, are under the control of the homo.” That was a curious statement for Ssempa, since he’d received significant support from the United States, most notably at least $90,000 for his church through the federal anti-AIDS program. In 2005 and 2006 he appeared at Rick Warren’s Orange County megachurch. “You are my brother, Martin, and I love you,” Warren’s wife declared from the stage, eyes watering.
Kyazze, with a more modest network of American supporters, worried that Ssempa was too close to the West. “The homosexuals can use your organizations to spread their ways,” Kyazze explained. “To recruit, you see. There are many methods, you know.”
I did; David Bahati had listed several by phone before I came to Uganda. Among the most insidious: iPods. Also, laptops and cell phones. Gay recruiters are said to offer them the way pedophiles entice with lollipops. “But it is technology. So much more seductive,” Bahati had explained. “Always the new thing.”
“The iPad?” I’d asked.
“Yes, this could happen.”
“To me?” One could dream.
Kyazze had bigger trouble in mind. “The homos use UNICEF — this is true! — to attempt to colonize Uganda.” He meant a 2002 pamphlet, “the Teenagers Toolkit,” that had referred to homosexuality as natural. He clapped his hands together. “This is absolutely correct, what I am informing you. But. It is only one half of the story!”
“Yes,” murmured Pastor Male, Kyazze’s sidekick. He was a graying, fine-boned man, given to stroking a stiff, blue-striped tie. “Is it possible that one nationality would have homosexuality and another would not? No. You see, this is an area where we disagree with Pastor Ssempa. We have democracy, and we have science. We have these two powerful weapons and — with God! — we can fight homosexuality. And we know it is here. It is in us.”
Kyazze and Male are nothing if not ambitious. Their main complaint with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is that it is actually too lenient. They see a clause forbidding the media from exposing victims of same-sex rape as evidence of a gay infiltrator within their ranks. Even James Buturo, Honorable Matembe’s successor as Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, and the current chair of the weekly Family meeting in Parliament, is suspect in their eyes. (They don’t think he’s gay, but they wonder whether he’s protecting someone.) Like many Ugandans, both pastors believe the bill’s timing has more to do with a massive corruption investigation.
“First,” said Male, “Buturo does nothing. Then, all of a sudden, ‘We must act right away!’ We said, ‘Please, Honorable, let us be scientific about this. The government must provide funds for a proper study. We must know how many homosexuals there are, where they are. We must be modern in our approach.’ But Buturo said to us, ‘We’re going to kill them, so we don’t have to have this inquiry.’ He knows that if we study it, we will find it in the government!”
What about Bahati? I asked. Both men sighed.
“Honorable is a good boy,” said Kyazze, who, at forty-nine, is thirteen years Bahati’s senior. “But he is too eager. He says, ‘Forget about the inquiry! We must stop them right now.’ He sees the danger. He feels the evil wind of the homosexual. But the eye of the storm and the whirlwind are two different things. What we are dealing with is a moral problem.” The solution required a force greater than law: Christ, transcendent, purifier of nations.
There was a hint of sectarian rivalry in their critique. Bahati, like Buturo, is an Anglican. Kyazze and Male are Pentecostals; when Kyazze goes to America, it’s to preach in working-class megachurches. Bahati prays quietly, eyes closed and hands folded. Male in prayer looks like the bride of Frankenstein, head tipped back, hands rigid, eyes jolted wide by the Spirit. Ethnic differences matter as well. Uganda’s tribes are held together so delicately that last year the government took four radio stations off the air for allegedly inciting genocide. What they’d done, in fact, was simply to report on ethnic rioting, but in Uganda, genocide is not an abstraction. It is a living memory. In the 1970s, Idi Amin murdered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. In the 1980s, a war between dictator Milton Obote and Museveni’s bush army killed hundreds of thousands more. Museveni, once in power, was different. He disposed of his enemies through “accidents” and frame-ups, not massacres. He wasn’t a kleptocrat, but he surrounded himself with thieves — on the theory, apparently, that rich men are peaceful men. Still, he is a dictator, and dictators need enemies. For years, the enemy was a vicious rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the LRA has been reduced to a few hundred child fighters. Enter the homosexual: singular, an archetype — a bogeyman.
“Is the death penalty a good idea?” I’d asked a pretty girl named Sharon at Martin Ssempa’s weekly abstinence rally on the campus of Makerere University.
“It’s good because the Bible condemns it.” She smiled, a flash of neat little teeth, and leaned in close to be heard over the thumping hip-hop.
“Have you ever met a homosexual?”
“I have never!”
“If you met one, would you kill him?”
“It’s hard for me to kill.” That smile. Those teeth. “It is hard for me to do it alone.”
“But together?” She giggled and nodded.
David Bahati is a dapper man, not a dandy but stylish. On the afternoon of our first meeting, lunch at the Serena Hotel, he was wearing a dove-gray suit, a tie of chocolate brown stripes, and an ivory shirt. He’d chosen our table carefully; it was on an elevated platform, in the middle of the room but with a high wall behind him. He could take the corner but still be the center of attention. The maître d’ knew him; the other politicians — identifiable because they were in the restaurant, one of the most expensive in Kampala — wanted to talk to him. He offered them little flutters of his fingers. But for the waitstaff, or an occasional businessman, he’d rise up out of his seat and twist around over the wall behind him, clasping hands with controlled explosions of giggles followed by terse exchanges. People liked him. They were afraid of him. He wasn’t what I’d imagined (a bumpkin, a Tom Coburn, a country mouse come to the city and crying “gay!” at everything that offended him). He was something more compact, tougher: a cannier George Wallace for Uganda.
“David,” I said, “you’re a player.”
He smiled, half-shy, half-pleased, and summoned a waiter with the same flutter he used on his colleagues, ordering for both of us in Lugandan, one of his three languages along with En-glish and his native Rukiga, the language of Uganda’s Bakiga minority.
The restaurant’s interior was white. Windows halfway round. Outside, sculpted greenery, lily pads, spiky trees, tall grasses, like Africa on TV.
“You know, Bob was here,” said Bahati. He gestured to a table behind us. “Bob” was Bob Hunter, the Family’s spokesman on the Anti- Homosexuality Bill, a former official with the Ford and Carter administrations who, working with American politicians, had first established the organization’s relationship with the Museveni regime when it came to power in 1986. Back then part of the goal he’d outlined in two lengthy memos had been to make sure that “the most Christian country in Africa not take the wrong ideological direction,” but he considers himself a liberal and thought that the bill was the wrong way to address homosexuality. He also thought it was a PR problem for the Family.
“We sat right at that table,” said Bahati. The purpose of his meeting with Hunter had been “to mend fences,” Bahati said. In the weeks leading up to the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast in February, gay-rights groups, protesting the Family’s links to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, had asked Obama not to attend. Hunter first told the press that Bahati hadn’t been invited, then that he had but declined. Bahati said neither statement was true. “When Bob talked to me he was talking about the pressure the gay community is exerting on the Fellowship,” Bahati had told me by phone in February. “He communicated his fear that this might cause the destruction of the National Prayer Breakfast. He was trying to control the damage. He has never said, ‘David, what you are doing is a problem.’ What he has said is to discuss the pressure from the gays.”
“We talked about you!” He said Hunter had told him I was not to be trusted, that I was interested in the story just for money. (Hunter denies that this part of the conversation took place.) Bahati giggled, displaying a spray of teeth. A scar down the middle of his forehead gives him the appearance of having a permanently furrowed brow, but when he laughed he sounded like a boy. It was the most reassuring thing about him. Then he clamped his mouth shut, the right side of his jaw pulsing.
Bahati is a man of many influences. He was educated in Uganda, at Cardiff University in Wales, and at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, with financial support from a foundation in Norway. His mother died in childbirth. His father, he says, was poisoned by a business associate three years later. He lived in Kabale, a market town of forty thousand in southwestern Uganda. “I sold things you cannot understand,” he told me. (That sounded dramatic, but what he meant was bananas and cigarettes.)
He won one scholarship after another, and he became an accountant. But he felt God wanted more from him. In 2004, on the advice of two friends who’d studied in the United States at the fundamentalist Family Research Council, he went to America to learn the art of political campaigning at the Leadership Institute, a well-funded school of “political technology” for conservative activists. Young man, a politician he met there — he won’t say who — told him, you need to visit the Cedars, the Family’s headquarters, a white-pillared Georgian mansion in Arlington, Virginia. When he returned home in 2006 and won his parliamentary seat, the first thing he did was look for the Ugandan Fellowship he’d learned about in America.
“God uses instruments to make his purpose be fulfilled,” Bahati said, after we’d filled our plates. “He uses voters to lift somebody up to bring them to where you are. Eh?” Eh — that was his all-purpose word, good for acknowledgment, dismissal, or coercion. I nodded despite myself, confirming his self-anointing. “God puts people in a place. The Bible says in Romans 13 that all authority comes from God.” He pointed his fork at me. “All authority comes from God. Eh?” Nod. “Yes,” he said, smiling, as though I were an apt pupil. “For example, I didn’t champion this issue, homosexuality, for the whole world. I did it for Uganda. That was me. But God!” Bahati pointed up. “God made it bigger. We are going to get the bill through, now or later. And when we do, we will close the door to homosexuality, and open society to something larger.”
That was the crux of the matter for Bahati. To him, homosexuality is only a symptom of what he learned from the Family to be a greater plague: government by people, not by God. The burden is on you, David, his American friends told him. Inhofe’s staff had sent word, he said, and there were others — about half a dozen American leaders who supported his cause. He couldn’t name them, though, because the gays would destroy them. (That’s what they’d told Bahati.) You must fight the battle. “We have talked to a number of conservatives in America who believe that what we are doing is right, and that if we do not close the door to homosexuality at this time, it would be too late for us to breathe,” he told me. “They wish that homosexuality was confronted and fought severely in America.”
There was still hope for Africa. God would use the weak to teach the strong, a Bahati to send a message to America. God had given him a Word, divine insight, five years earlier, on the eve of his first journey to America. Five words, actually, Isaiah 6:8, illuminated for Bahati by Jesus: “Here am I; send me.” The words of the prophet Isaiah to the Lord, the words of the Lord for Bahati; his “prayer team” had used the verse as a campaign slogan. Smartly divorced, that is, from what follows, just two verses later: Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, / Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, / And the houses without man, / And the land be utterly desolate, / And the lord have removed men far away, / And there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.
Prophecy isn’t kind, but Bahati was brave. He knew his bill, if passed — and in Uganda, voters wanted it passed — would lead to a great forsaking, indeed: of foreign aid, the lifeblood of what passes for an economy in a country where job seekers outnumber jobs fifty to one. People would starve. There would be no medicine for AIDS. And it might be worse than that. The dictator was old, his grip was weakening, and war might be coming. It was hard to conceive, after at least 300,000 dead under Amin and as many as half a million lost in the fight that brought Museveni to power, that Uganda would ever return to the slaughter. But they would do what God asked of them, Bahati believed. They would be a God-led nation, a light unto the world. Bahati and a pastor ally whom he’d put on the government payroll said Fellowship groups in the governments of countries across the continent — Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Congo — had requested copies of his bill, or better yet, a personal appearance. The message was spreading, with Bahati as its apostle, suddenly the most famous Ugandan since Idi Amin.
He wanted to bring the message back to the source. “If I came to America, what do you think would happen?”
“I think there would be protests,” I said. In 2010 there’d been protests at the Prayer Breakfast for the first time in five decades just on the possibility that Bahati might show.
“I want to come one of these days and see. What do you think is the best way to come in? Eh?”
“I wouldn’t make it public.”
“Ah! So the best way would be to sneak in?”
“Just go as a regular traveler.”
“But they wouldn’t hurt me?” He claimed to have survived several gay poisoning attempts already. The Family, he’d been told, was also under gay attack. In Uganda the gays used poison; in America, “blackmail.”
How did that work?
He couldn’t explain. The gays, he said, have secret ways.
“Spiritual warfare?” I asked.
“Mm-mmm.” Bahati smiled, pleased that I had invoked the dark side of his faith, the invisible work of the spirit that selects between men of God and those outside His circle. Spiritual warfare is a concept as old as the New Testament, but, through the literalist filter of twentieth-century American fundamentalism, it has taken on magical meaning, imbuing the actions of its believers with supernatural significance. He gestured toward me, my presence in Uganda, and the dining room of the Serena, Kampala’s international stage.
I saw where he was going. “That must mean something’s going on here.”
“Yes. Something . . . ” He paused. “Invisible.” Spiritual warfare, that is, the amplification of angels and their worldly counterparts, American allies. With that power came enemies.
“You believe in the reality of demons?” I asked.
“Do you think homosexuality is a form of demonic possession?”
He giggled. “It is modern witchcraft,” Bahati clarified. Modern witchcraft isn’t a matter of chicken heads or curses, he explained; it’s about information, the suppression or selective release of truths. “It is manipulation for control and dominance.”
And what about the lies he claimed his American friends had told about his invitation to the Prayer Breakfast, his role in the organization, his visits to Washington? Were those “modern witchcraft”? No. What was the distinction? Perspective, thought Bahati. Take a lie and turn it upside down. What do you see?
Bahati giggled again. No. “Unnecessary truth.” Truths, that is, that are too subtle for the public to understand.
The following afternoon, Bahati called me. “Jeff,” he said, “I think we must meet again.” He didn’t explain why, but my guess was that it had something to do with a man named Tim Kreutter. Robert and I were driving back from a three-hour conversation with Kreutter when Bahati called. Kreutter, an American, runs a Family-funded project of youth homes and schools centered around a “Leadership Academy,” created to train a new professional class instilled from childhood onward with the principles of Jesus. That way, Kreutter said, they’ll all be on the same page, Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims and even Jews. Kreutter helps guide Uganda’s delegation to the Prayer Breakfast in Washington and organize its Kampala counterpart. He describes himself as a mentor to Bahati.
But Kreutter was displeased with his protégé’s initiative. Days before he introduced it to Parliament, Bahati had brought his idea for the Anti- Homosexuality Bill to a Fellowship dinner attended by Kreutter and several other international members. When the bill became a political issue in the United States, Hunter declared that the Family’s men in Kampala had cautioned their junior brother against proceeding. Bahati was emphatic in denying this: “No one opposed. Not one.” He’d taken the meeting as a green light to pursue the biblical agenda he thought they shared and that they do share, in principle; it was Bahati’s approach Kreutter rejected. “I know David’s heart is good,” he said. He shook his head. Bahati wasn’t revealing “unnecessary truth” in speaking of his intimacy with the Family so much as unnecessary complications. Kreutter didn’t seem to like strong words: truth, lies, right, wrong. Complex: that’s what he called Bahati’s legislation, which he neither condemned nor supported.
Bahati and I agreed to meet for dinner again the next night. “Why?” Robert asked, puzzled. I said I guessed he liked me. This time, we had the restaurant to ourselves. It was early evening; I wanted to leave time for Ssempa’s Saturday abstinence party at Makerere. There were two items Bahati wished to discuss. The first was a book: he wanted to write one. He had learned so much in his war with the homosexuals, he wanted to “give back.” To America, that is; he wanted my help finding an American publisher.
I tried to make a trade. “Tell me first who the American politicians are who say they’re supporting you,” I said. “The ones who tell you the gays control the media.”
Bahati chuckled. “I can’t tell you this!”
“You’re protecting them?”
He sighed. “I am defending them.” There were times in our conversations when he seemed tempted to name those for whom he suffered. But, invariably, he’d rally by reminding himself of the meaning of love between brothers: “We must protect each other’s secrets, eh? That is what the Fellowship is, men we can trust, take our sins to.”
He told me a story about the East African revival of 1935. It began with a roomful of foreign-educated Ugandan elites in Bahati’s hometown, Kabale, singing foreign songs and declaring themselves the balokole, the saved ones, responsible for the future of their nation. But they made a mistake: they confessed their sins in public. That might be all right for the masses, but not for men to whom God had entrusted power. If a leader revealed his secret lovers, the rabble might take his confession as license; if he admitted he had stolen, even less scrupulous men would use that information against him. Better to let like handle like, leaders tending to one another’s sins behind closed doors. “The best way to kill a snake in the house is not to destroy the house. Eh?”
The second item on Bahati’s agenda was an invitation. “I think, Jeff, that we cannot keep meeting like this.” He waved at the restaurant. “You have come so far to see me. I must, therefore, let you know me. You must come to my house.”
This did not seem like a good idea. “Well, tomorrow is my last day here.”
Bahati threw his hands in the air. “Perfect, then! I am just in time.”
We cut dinner short. I was headed for my abstinence rally date with Sharon, the Makerere college girl who wanted help killing homosexuals. I invited Bahati. “No,” he said, “I cannot go to church tonight. I have some arrangements I must make. Eh? For our brunch tomorrow!” He patted my shoulder. “Who will drive you?”
“Robert,” I said.
“Ah, good. He is a nice boy. I’m glad you two will come together.”
“David,” I said.
“I have your guarantee of safety, right?”
Bahati wasn’t in the least offended. “Of course! I am a Chris- tian. Am I not?”
Later that night, after the abstinence rally, Robert and I went driving. Up along a ridge through a park of tall grass overlooking the city’s skyline, not radiant but merely spotted with lights, like a horizon of stars, and then down along avenues of street fires and mud-hut discos and night-watch churches, where Pentecostal services lasted until dawn. And finally out to a street party amid office buildings and warehouses, shiny sheets of corrugated steel slicing the road off from traffic, men with guns, soldiers and cops, leaning against a maze of fencing thrown up to slow down the entering crowd. Inside there was a stage and a light show and Uganda’s biggest hip-hop musicians and a solid mass of a crowd not really dancing, just throbbing, except for the gay men around whom circles formed. There they’d be joined by the girls who wanted more movement than the stiff-legged weeble-wobble straight boys would offer. We found two girls and I bought us all awful sweetened bottles of vodka and we took refuge in a tiny gay kingdom ruled by two men who seemed obviously queer. Or so I thought. When we left, around 2:00 a.m., Robert refused to believe me when I told him he’d just danced alongside gays. “At the street jam?” he asked, incredulous. “Those boys?” I’d thought their lipstick might have given them away.
Robert was devout on Sundays, more forgiving the night before, antigay like nearly every Ugandan but also troubled by what we’d learned of the Family’s presence in Uganda. “I think they are trying to steal my country,” he said. Tim Kreutter in particular had disturbed him, the calm with which the American had described his academy’s quiet construction of a new elite. “What Tim is doing is owning people, training them and owning them. Even if he wants them to do good things, the principle is corrupting. It is the seduction principle.”
That was the irony of Bahati’s anti-gay fantasies, his vision of homos from Europe and North America trolling the streets of Kampala, trading iPods for blow jobs. It was Bahati who had been seduced, recruited for a foreign agenda, compromised. “Now he is caught in the middle,” Robert said. “They gave him a structure, but they disown him. Let me tell you one thing. When you go to make love to a girl, you buy chocolate, buy flowers, you entice her — in order to use that thing.” To use her, that is. Robert thought of Bahati like a ruined woman in a Victorian novel, no longer belonging to himself but no longer wanted either. He could neither drop the bill nor carry it forward. But there was one play left, a powerful one. The bill he was holding — just the idea of it — was a bomb, and he’d already lit the fuse.
“I don’t know if it’s wise to go see him tomorrow,” Robert said as we left the party. Before we could consider the risks, Robert spotted a photographer he knew, and then another and another, a herd of journalists rushing toward the sheet-metal walls. “Look!” the photographer shouted. We turned and saw a circle of soldiers, in their midst a man down. He was shirtless, perfectly muscled, his skin almost liquid, red and shiny. He was lying on his back, half curled, rolling left then right as soldiers on either side planted their boots in him. Not in a fury; more like a simple rhythm. Tick, tock. Every time a boot hit him he made a noise that sounded like a question. “Eh? Eh?” Like Bahati. “It is sick justice, man,” said the photographer. He took some pictures. “This boy, though, he brought it on himself.” Robert asked in Lugandan what had happened. “Acid attack,” a photographer answered in English, like it was a sad but everyday crime. The bloody man had thrown acid at somebody, supposedly one of the hip-hop stars. The word was that the attack had been some kind of message. Nobody knew what it meant. Tick, tock went the boots. “They say this boy, he was paid,” said the photographer. He crouched to catch the beat from the bloody man’s perspective. “Disgusting,” he said, rising to leave. “Well, I got what I need.”
Robert’s car barely made it to Bahati’s house, a brick villa high up a hill outside Kampala; we needed a heavier vehicle to handle the rutted, red dirt roads. There were no boda-boda drivers in those hills, just big cars with chauffeurs, and houses with servants inside to crank open the great iron doors that guarded each plot, small maps of closely cropped grass in the suburban style within walls topped by razor wire and broken glass. Bahati’s was an especially lovely compound. A hobbit-size portal within the iron gates opened and a servant woman peeped out, clanged it shut, and then swung both shrieking doors open.
Bahati stood above us on a terrace, unsmiling. “Hello, Robert,” he called. We hiked up the hill and the stairs and joined him. “Eh?” he said, gesturing to the view: the red tile roofs of his neighbors interlocking below, steely rain clouds over Lake Victoria beyond. And in the yard, evidence of family: a miniature army Jeep on the grass, a BMX bike ridden into a hedge. The bike belonged to David Jr., six years old; the Jeep was just right for his brother, four-year-old Daniel. Daniel decided to use his iPhone to shoot movies. “Make a movie of me dancing!” he shouted; it was an order. David Jr., a joyful, bucktoothed boy, introduced himself to us not long after our arrival by presenting his father one of my notebooks, lifted from my briefcase while we were in another room. He’d flipped to the page on which I’d written a remark of Bahati’s — “All acknowledgment of homosexuality is defilement” — and had added commentary of his own in a florid script, remarkably neat for a six-year-old: “You are not enabled to view this channel or your account has been suspended.” He’d copied it from his father’s big-screen TV. “Ah, no,” Bahati said, “this belongs to Uncle Jeff.” And so I was made a member of the Bahati family.
We sat in a living room modeled, it seemed, on the Serena: minimalist white with red Scandinavian-modern furniture. Bahati wore a black-and-red soccer jersey and long black shorts. He leaned back and tugged up his shirt, distractedly rubbing his belly, watching international news out of the corner of his eye.
“I do not understand you Americans,” he said, sighing. “Look at a woman like Hillary Clinton, supporting the killing of babies, and then you say no, you should not threaten to punish somebody with death.” He was coming to terms with the possibility that the threat of losing foreign aid — Sweden said they’d cut theirs; Germany would offer Museveni $148 million to muzzle Bahati — would force him to make a deal: no death penalty. He’d have to settle for prison and purges. “Leviticus is very clear. If a man sleeps with a man — punishable by death. If a woman sleeps with a woman — punishable.”
He meant Leviticus 18:22, not clear at all, and subject to debate among biblical scholars: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination. “But if the majority say this clause of death is not necessary,” Bahati continued. “Well.” He gave me a sad smile, no teeth. Under the direction of the dictator and pressure from foreigners — “Even Jesus was betrayed,” observed Bahati — the majority were tiptoeing away from the killing clause, waiting for signs from above. But Museveni was no clearer than Scripture. Go slow, he said to one. Stop the homos! he ordered another. “It’s a democracy,” said Bahati.
He could live with that. His new line was that his bill would deliver not death to adults engaging in consensual gay sex but life — in prison, where they’d be protected from themselves. He had never intended to kill anyone except child rapers, he claimed.
“But David,” I said, “the big clause, ‘aggravated homosexuality,’ only three of the seven varieties punishable by death involve minors.”
Bahati started laughing, rubbing his belly faster. Not one of his little giggles, but sustained laughter. Robert and I glanced at each other, waiting for the joke. It never came. Instead, between guffaws, came a discourse on the “serial offenders” condemned by the bill to death. “A serial offender. A serial! Like, like, a serial killer!” That was even more of a knee-slapper. “It’s a guy who does not kill for good causes. But he is like a, a fun — “
Laughter cut off the last word. He tried to calm down. “No, you see, the law, it’s for adult/minor. If you are a boss. Or a guardian. Or you are known” — this one cracked him up — “just to be molesting kids, you know?”
“That clarifies it,” I said.
“So what I want to call it — ” He stopped, shaking his head, the corner of his eyes watering. “A ‘Safe Family Bill.’ ‘Save Children Bill.’ ”
“Too late!” said Bahati. “No. No. That was actually what many wanted, many thought ‘Anti-Homosexuality’ would be a little stigma, stigma — ” He looked to Robert for help.
“Yes. But I still believe the title of the bill is what we need. We must confront it.”
“But you’re not, are you?”
“Your law is not biblical.”
“The law is biblical — “
“But you’re letting some homosexuals get away, aren’t you? You just quoted Leviticus. You said that if a man lies with a man, he should die.” All of them, that is, no qualifiers. “But your law doesn’t provide for that.”
Bahati chuckled. “Well, Jeff. I was not writing a Bible! I was writing a law. Eh?” He laughed, and Robert and I laughed with him. Our response was an instinct, I think, to provide an embarrassed man cover. “The principles of the Bible only guide you,” he said, nodding at his own explanation. “The fundamental issue is homosexuality is sin. And if it is sin, it must be punished. Now. We live in the world, so we must see how best we can punish these people. Yeah?”
“Yeah. But if you thought there was the political support to follow the law of Leviticus, would that be a good idea?”
Silent, Bahati leaned back into the breeze blowing through the window behind him, the red and green hills of Kampala, steely rain clouds over Lake Victoria. He looked at the ceiling, then at me, and giggled without humor; giggling was, I realized, like a cough for him. “If it was a political possibility?” he said.
“If you proposed a law that said kill all the gays, on sight.”
“It wouldn’t pass.”
“Would it be a good idea?”
His hand dropped to his belly, tugging his shirt up again and making circles beneath his sternum. “I mean,” he said quietly, “if we had an opportunity to implement what is in the Bible, that would be a perfect position.” He paused. “But we don’t live in a perfect world.”
No, just something like a democracy. The Kingdom is yet to come.
“The Fellowship teaches us that we all come together,” he said, explaining that to him the perfect world would not be a theocracy, a word he despised, or a regime of one religion over another. “God does not know whether you’re a Christian or not. He just knows you. And we just need to develop a relationship with Him.” This was open to anybody, Muslim or Jew or Christian. Even a homosexual? Even a homo.
“Yes,” said Bahati, his smile now warm and sincere.
That’s what he had learned from the Americans, he said. Begin with love, end with love. In between, civilization and its laws, its manners. When Bahati told me he was writing not a Bible but a law, I laughed with him because, I think, we were being civil. He had promised me that if I returned after his law was passed, he would have me arrested for promotion of homosexuality; and he understood I was there to tell a story about him that would hurt him. For now we were pretending otherwise. He was my host. I was his guest. We were within what Bahati’s American brothers called the circle of reconciliation.
Then Bahati took up another matter. This was a friendly lunch, after all. Why limit ourselves to homosexuality? We should all get to know one another, exchange views. Our new topic was a bill that would require Ugandan media organizations to be evaluated for “values” and licensed anew on a yearly basis. We discussed it civilly.
Robert was opposed. He saw it as one more vestige of democracy slipping away from Uganda, the end of a semifree press. Semifree? That meant the kind where the worst he had feared for our visit this afternoon was perhaps a brief detention, and even that had not transpired. But if the bill passed, he would never get to be a journalist at all. The Bahatis of Uganda would make that decision for him.
Bahati saw it differently. As an accountant he paid annual dues to professional associations. Doing business with him, you could depend on certain standards. Should Robert be held any less accountable? “The issue is,” Bahati said, trying to see it from Robert’s perspective, “will government exploit this power to suppress the media?” Not to worry. Parliament would establish an independent tribunal. Top men, reasonable men, would hear appeals. Did Robert not trust him?
Robert laughed, incredulous; but he could see it was no longer wise to speak plainly.
Bahati laughed, too, glad for that recognition of their common ground. “What is important, Robert, is for us not to fear to sleep because we will dream bad dreams. Eh?”
Robert looked queasy.
Me, I thought we were still being civil. “I don’t understand, David.”
Robert did. “Honorable,” he said. “Honorable.” But that was all.
There was a pause between the two men, and in the space between them, I suddenly grasped the nature of the recognition Bahati demanded. He was asking us to trust his good intentions. He would be our night watchman.
“You see?” Bahati said, turning back to me. He waved a few fingers at Robert. “They fear to go to sleep because they fear bad dreams.” As if they had a choice. God had already decided for us. That’s what Bahati had learned from the Family. Not religion or law but love, trust, sleep, the killing to come like a dream.
A servant appeared, her eyes downcast, to summon Honorable and his guests to the dining room. Our meal was prepared, the table set.
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.