Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian priest, was instrumental in drawing attention to the connection between American anti-LGBT religious activists and the wave of political homophobia in several African countries through research papers he published for the Boston-based organization Political Research Associates beginning in 2009. This week PRA published a new book by Kaoma, American Culture Warriors in Africa documenting in great detail the religious leaders in both the United States and Africa that have contributed to the movements responsible for passing bills like the ones that recently became law in Uganda and Nigeria, as well as suggestions on how American LGBT rights supporters can most constructively support African LGBT activists. He spoke with BuzzFeed about how Americans changed the conversation around homosexuality in Africa.
How do you think Americans are doing at understanding the dynamics of what is driving anti-LGBT laws in Africa?
Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma: One of the biggest mistakes that Americans make is that they believe that in America, you have politicians, while in Africa, we have lunatics. But African politicians are also looking for votes, just like American politicians do. ... Usually politicians use an issue that they think the populace would love to hear. And in Africa, that now is LGBT laws — that's where they think the votes will be.
Are you saying that's because the image of Africans as irrational homophobes validates a long-standing racist stereotype of Africans as backward?
KK: Yes. That's the whole point of my book. ... To think that the Africans are doing something that has never been heard of — it's not fair. Don't just see these things as happening out there. People are saying crazy things about gay people in your own country. The difference between [Ugandan anti-LGBT pastor] Martin Ssempa and [Americans] like Lou Engle or even Focus on the Family, is that here, you can counter their messages. You're able to say, "No, that's not what America stands for." In Africa, unfortunately, there is no counter media, so the voice they hear is only the voice of Martin Ssempa. And when the American conservative media is also beaming in the same messages into Africa, there's no counter messaging from anyone.
You can talk about Trinity Broadcasting, you can talk about CBN, there are many other conservative Christian networks beaming into Africa, and without anyone telling Africans that what you are hearing is not true. Africans give a lot of credibility to anything tagged "Christian." When they hear about [the dangers of homosexuality], they say, "We heard it from this American pastor."
Why is there no one to counter this rhetoric in African media?
KK: The media houses are controlled by people who are loyal to the government, and that is the biggest problem. This is what the politicians want. They want an issue that will distract from the real issue facing their nations, so LGBT rights becomes now a campaign issue.
And now, in countries that have passed anti-LGBT laws, they can't even counter this rhetoric. The laws stop it from even being talked about. Why are those laws being passed? Because they know that human rights groups would come together, and say we have to fight this law. So before they do so, stop it.
Are you saying the politicized homophobia we're seeing in many African countries was entirely the creation of Americans? Homophobia has been a tool of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for decades, long before Americans like Scott Lively came to Africa.
KK: Mugabe's history is interesting, because it began when he started fighting the West in the late 1990s, he started targeting the group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. That's where the battle began. At that time, that organization was led by whites, and at that time, Mugabe was trying to throw the white persons out of Zimbabwe and reallocate land that had been owned by the whites who stayed on after independence from Great Britain. The best enemy he saw was Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. But, there was no discussion then of changing the laws against homosexual advocacy. He used homophobia, but he didn't arrest anyone — not even the founder of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. They were able to protest, they continued to operate.
What has changed since then is the spread of a new narrative about a conspiracy out there of wealthy Americans and some Europeans going into Africa, recruiting young people into homosexuality. They do it through advocacy, through the United Nations, through the schools. This is not a narrative that was heard previously in Africa.
And you argue this narrative was introduced by anti-LGBT activists from the United States? You say a very important catalyst was the fight over the appointment of gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, a move that caused a bitter fight inside the Episcopal Church in the U.S. that spilled over into the global Anglican Communion.
KK: American conservatives were trying to get Africans to stand up against what they considered to be something bad inside the Anglican communion. Christianity is a global religion. It grows with an ideology. And unfortunately the most influential ideology now is coming mainly from U.S. fundamentalists.
People tend to think this just started yesterday. This is not something that happened over night. This is something that was promoted and systematically achieved. In 1910, we had about 10 million African Christians on the continent. In 2010, we have almost 500 million. Who did that? Missionaries. Where did they come from? The Western world. What makes you think that these missionaries who have managed to transform the entire continent, that their ideas don't have influence now?
But are you saying the responsibility for today's anti-LGBT movement lies entirely with Americans? There was a lot of anger directed by American LGBT rights supporters after Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act passed at Scott Lively for his role in sparking the bill with his appearance at an anti-LGBT conference in Uganda in 2009. But the conference was organized by Ugandans. When the bill passed, it was driven largely by the political ambitions of President Museveni and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and the machinations inside their political party.
KK: No one has ever said that the Africans are not responsible. That's why I point to American conservatives and African churches. These two groups, the politicians and the religious leaders, both in America and in Africa, what they are doing is, they are helping each other. The Africans are used to promote the agenda of American conservative Evangelicals, the African conservatives are also helping to push their agenda for what they want to get. So it is on both sides of the coin.
But in all the countries where those laws have been made in Africa, the language sounds the same. I don't know if it's by coincidence that in Nigeria they came up with a similar bill that sounds like the one in Uganda, or the one that has been proposed in Tanzania. The point is that, we should not think that this is just happening because outside groups are not involved. The American Center for Law and Justice, which gave us the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States is operating in Russia, in Europe, in Brazil, in Zimbabwe, in Kenya. Why are they opening offices all over the world? It's because they know they have lost many battles here at home and are winning in foreign lands.
So what would you recommend that LGBT rights supporters in the United States do if they're concerned about homophobia in Africa?
KK: This is another reason that I felt this book was needed, to try to understand some of those things that are going on. It is one thing to jump on the plane and go to Africa, and say we had one good meeting where 40 young people came out as gay. That's OK. But I say, "So what?" Sometimes, because of ignorance, we think we are doing a good thing when we're worsening the situation. And that's what I'm highly concerned about it.
Americans should, like they did during colonialism, like they did under apartheid, start holding their governments and politicians and religious leaders who are having relationships with homophobic African religious leaders and politicians accountable.
Currently people believe they can get on the plane and go and fight in Africa. There is no civil rights movement in the world which has won from outside. It has to come from the inside the nation, where change is needed. My belief is simple. Africans are the ones who should fight this battle on the ground. Americans need to support the work of African activists by holding their own countrymen accountable, and stopping the exportation of homophobia and sexism into Africa.