Jewish Groups Stand Up for LGBT Rights in Africa

In the Sochi spotlight, Russia’s anti-gay blitz has drawn international scrutiny. But some Jewish groups have their eye on troubling developments in Uganda.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Kenyan LGBTs stage a rare protest against Uganda's tough stance on homosexuality, Nairobi, February 10, 2014.
Kenyan LGBTs stage a rare protest against Uganda's tough stance on homosexuality, Nairobi, February 10, 2014. Credit: AP
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

NEW YORK– In the months leading up to the Winter Olympics, all eyes have been on Russia. But this scrutiny has focused as much on the startling wave of anti-gay rhetoric, legislation and violence as on the Games themselves.

On Monday, Jewish activists here and in four other cities across the United States staged a Global Day of Action to bring attention to the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender citizens. But their target wasn’t Russia. It was Uganda.

Early in the day, approximately 30 activists met in a coffee shop a few blocks from the United Nations' headquarters. Shortly, they would walk to the Ugandan mission down the street and attempt to deliver a petition, signed by over 500 rabbis, protesting the country’s recent anti-gay legislation. The event was coordinated by the American Jewish World Service, an organization focused on human rights and international development that has worked in Uganda for years.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as the legislation is known, was introduced in 2009 and passed in the legislature in December. One of its most worrisome aspects is its extraordinary scope, targeting not just those who identify as LGBT but also those who support them. This potentially includes health services, which could impact HIV/AIDS care. The bill now sits on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s desk, awaiting his signature.

“Our focus is to do everything we can to put pressure on the U.S. government to stop the Ugandan president from signing the bill,” AJWS president Ruth Messinger told Haaretz before she spoke to those gathered at the coffee shop.

AJWS turned its attention to LGBT issues in Uganda around the time that the legislation was introduced. In the past five years, they have granted over $805,000 to organizations in Uganda that advocate for LGBT and gender rights and provide services to those communities. Last year, they brought a gay Ugandan activist to march with them in the Los Angeles Pride Parade and to speak to Jewish community groups. Until now, they have worked primarily behind the scenes.

“Groups on the ground said, ‘Don’t picket Ugandan embassies, please use quiet pressure,’” said Messinger, explaining that making the issue an international cause célèbre early on could have had an adverse effect on the legislation. The decision to go public now is a “direct response from groups in Uganda.”

Beware of perceived puppets

Unrelated to the Ugandan bill, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on Monday publicly condemned a law passed last month that criminalized homosexuality in Nigeria. The organization’s statement was spurred by a grim article in the New York Times a few days prior detailing the threat to that country’s LGBT community.

“We understand religious and cultural sensitivities,” said Eliseo Neuman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Africa Institute, speaking to Haaretz by phone, “but we think when certain lines have been crossed that infringe on certain rights, we must speak up.”

The developments in Uganda and Nigeria are not new, Neuman points out, nor are they unique to those two countries or Africa in general, as recent events in Russia have made clear. But compared to Russia, public awareness is low and there is no international platform like the Olympics to serve as a catalyst for debate.

In contrast to AJWS, AJC is an advocacy organization with no operations on the ground. It focuses on diplomacy, engaging in conversations with African policy makers and government officials, which Neuman said are often more candid because they are out of the spotlight. But that doesn’t make them easy.

“There are a very strong cultural differences,” he said, “and there is a sense when one weighs in on matters like this, one can be accused of double standards and attitudes redolent of colonialism.”

Unlike in Russia, the complicated history of colonialism in Africa colors cultural issues like LGBT rights, which some on that continent see as a Western import. Thus, the perception of who is setting the agenda matters.

“Empowering grassroots groups in those countries is ultimately the way to go,” said Neuman. “You have to empower them in the right way, in a way that’s authentic and that doesn’t turn them into perceived puppets of external agents.”

This is why AJWS relies so heavily on its local partners in Uganda, whose names, while requested, were withheld for fear of repercussions for building alliances in the West. Still, some of these organizations have reduced their activities in light of the legislation.

“If we’re all out there [advocating] now, it could come back to haunt us,” said the AJWS country consultant in Kampala, identified only as Caroline, in a blog post on the AJWS website. But she also said that the issue has united Ugandan activists with others around the globe and raised an issue that had never before been part of the national dialogue.

A well-known tactic

It is precisely this invisibility – and the lack of understanding that comes with it – that makes the LGBT community such easy scapegoats in any society facing political or economic uncertainty, which is the case in Uganda.

“In a country where there’s a lot of division and concern around government corruption and the economy, people are frustrated with the status quo,” said Gitta Zomorodi, a senior program officer in the international programs division of AJWS. She was in Uganda in November and will return this summer.

Demonization of a minority is a known political tactic to distract from more pressing issues at hand. Jews know this all too well. And many argue that Russia’s sudden and aggressive anti-gay campaign is cut of the same cloth.

At the moment, though, Russia is under a magnifying glass while LGBT rights in Uganda are at a precarious tipping point, largely out of public view.

In the coffee shop near the Ugandan mission, staff members handed out signs that said: “We believe love is not a crime.” As they were being distributed, Messinger spoke passionately. “People who have known oppressions must stand up and be heard when there is oppression somewhere else,” Messinger said.

The group of activists marched into the cold and down the street to the Ugandan mission where it huddled outside and snapped group photos while Messinger and a few others stood in the lobby, demanding to deliver the petition to the ambassador.

About 15 minutes later, Messinger emerged. She said that the mission staff had been “very cordial” but also “very determined that none of us would go upstairs.” The petition was left with a staff member who said she would deliver it to the ambassador. The Ugandan mission has not responded to Haaretz’s requests to confirm whether the petition was indeed delivered.

Jewish activists in New York protest new anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda.Credit: Brian Schaefer

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