Following the showing of the movie God Loves Uganda, we were lucky enough to be joined by Dr. Adriaan Van Klinken and Dr. Susannah Cornwall who were on the discussion panel led by Dr. Katie Edwards. Below is an interview with Adriaan who is an expert in African Christianity and is currently based at the University of Leeds in the Theology and Religious Studies department. Previously he was a Rubicon Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Gender and Religions Research at SOAS, University of London. For more on Adriaan follow this link.
To see the interview with Dr. Susannah Cornwall, follow this link.
How did you feel the discussion panel went after the showing of God Loves Uganda?
First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Hidden Perspectives for organising the screening of God Loves Uganda and the following panel discussion. I have recently been thinking about the possibilities and challenges of queer solidarity in a globalised world, and one of the things I have realised is how important it is to create opportunities where we learn about the situation of sexual minorities and human rights relating to LGBTI people in other parts of the world and come to a better understanding of the issues at stake. The film screening and panel discussion provided such an opportunity and I felt that people were really interested to learn more about the background of the controversies about homosexuality in Uganda and wider in Africa, and also were open to a critical review of the film and its representation of the situation in Uganda and the involvement of the West.
What do you think people took away from the discussion panel?
The discussion helped people, on the one hand, to evaluate the narrative of the film more critically and, on the other hand, to better understand the controversies about homosexuality in Uganda and wider in Africa. The film’s narrative is that American culture wars between conservatives and liberals are being exported to Africa, particularly Uganda, with American evangelicals actively fighting homosexuality and ‘gay rights’ in Uganda and supporting the anti-homosexuality bill. The discussion made clear that the film, with its rather one-sided, stereotypical and homogenising depiction of American evangelicals and their activities in Uganda, actually is part of the same culture wars that it intends to critique. The film’s depiction of the situation in Uganda itself is also one-sided: the film does not explore the debates within Uganda about the bill and about homosexuality and human rights more generally, nor does it show how the bill actually has strengthened and made public the political struggle of the LGBTI community in Uganda and their (inter)national allies for human rights of sexual minorities (for the latter you should see another recent film, Call Me Kuchu). With regard to the bill, the American Christian Right’s moral and financial support may be one of the key factors inspiring and motivating the forces behind the anti-homosexuality legislation, but the dynamics of which the bill is part are much more complex. The local religious support of the bill can only be understood in relation to the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in Uganda and the resulting highly competitive religious field in which the Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches can hardly take a more nuanced position and will rather keep quiet or adopt the anti-homosexual rhetoric. Furthermore, the film does not pay attention to the internal political purposes served by the bill which, it seems, has to detract people’s attention from the government’s poor socio-economic performance. Lastly, the film does only partially contextualise the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the wider controversy surrounding homosexuality in the socio-cultural situation Uganda, like other postcolonial African societies, finds itself in – a situation characterised by the dynamics of modernity and globalisation and the resulting processes of socio-cultural change with all the tensions, ambiguities and fears this entails. One of the aspects not mentioned in the film is that not only conservative American evangelicals export an anti-gay agenda to Uganda, but that some progressive organisations also promote certain Western perceptions of sexual identity and sexual rights in Africa in a way that is not always culturally sensitive and in fact may be counterproductive. I hope that the film and the following discussion helped people to realise that LGBTI lives in contemporary Africa are highly precarious and that the struggle for human rights of sexual minorities in Africa is therefore both urgent and complex.
What are your thoughts regarding the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill?
It is important to keep in mind that Uganda, like many other former British colonies, already had legislation penalising same-sex sexual practices – the penal code it inherited from its former coloniser, Britain. This historical awareness should caution us in the West to present ourselves as morally superior and more developed compared to Africa and to turn to neo-colonialist tactics (such as cutting development aid) in our support of the rights of sexual minorities. The bill that has now passed the Ugandan parliament implies a worsening of the situation of LGBTI people in Uganda (though we are yet to see whether President Museveni will sign the bill into law). I find it particularly painful to see that Pentecostal and other religious leaders welcome the bill as a way to protect and defend Uganda’s character as a ‘Christian’ nation. The fact that the originally proposed death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ has been removed is an important symbolic success for the opponents of the bill in and outside Uganda, but the penalty of life imprisonment with which it has been replaced can hardly be considered an improvement. Even if the bill does not lead to an increased prosecution of people in same-sex relationships by the police, it contributes to an atmosphere in which discrimination against sexual minorities becomes socially acceptable and legally permissible. I am seriously concerned, not only about the human rights but also about the public health consequences of the bill, especially in the context of Uganda’s HIV epidemic. At the same time we need to be careful depicting LGBTI people in Uganda as victims. The whole controversy surrounding the bill has contributed to their political mobilisation and has also generated support from progressive allies in the country, including some religious leaders such as Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Canon Gideon Byamugisha. The passing of the bill will only intensify their struggle, and we have to ask how we as international allies can be of help.
Can you give us a sneaky preview about your upcoming projects or book?
I have just signed the contracts for two books on public religion and controversies about homosexuality in Africa, which I am editing with my colleague Ezra Chitando from the University of Zimbabwe. I am excited about this project, not at least because more than half of the contributors are Africans themselves and are contributing critical pieces about the role of religion in the politics of homosexuality in their respective countries. Ten years ago it would have been very difficult to find African scholars writing about this subject, but now we were surprised by the overwhelming response to our call for papers.
My current research focuses on religious discourses and politics on homosexuality in Zambia, specifically in relation to Zambia’s constitutional status as a Christian nation. With Pentecostal Christianity becoming such an enormous religious and political force in sub-Saharan Africa, I am currently planning my next book that explores sexual politics and Pentecostal nationalism in Zambia and some other African countries. Sometimes people ask whether I work in this area as an academic or (also) as an activist. I believe this is a false distinction as critical scholarship can be a small but vital form of activism.