Readers’ Thoughts

Published in: July-August 2014 issue.

Sexual Tolerance in 1960s Uganda

To the Editor:

         In “How U.S. Evangelicals Sowed Hatred in Uganda” [“Guest Opinion,” May-June 2014], Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, describes the current sad and often perilous situation for gay people in that country. He mentions the beating death of David Kato, whose life was described in a documentary film, Call Me Kuchu, which was released after his death. Kato was also the inspiration for the widely acclaimed documentary God Loves Uganda [whose director is interviewed in this issue], which speaks eloquently and disturbingly to the situation that Frank Mugisha describes.

         I arrived in Uganda in January 1965 as a member of Uganda 1, the first U.S. Peace Corps group assigned there. It was a heady moment for a bunch of smart, idealistic ’60s college kids eager to serve. We were to teach in secondary schools throughout the country that Winston Churchill once described as “the pearl of Africa.” I was posted to St. Charles Lwanga senior secondary school on an Italian Verona Fathers mission just outside Koboko, the home village of Idi Amin, Uganda’s longtime dictator, in the far northwest corner of the West Nile Province.

         The school was a rigorously academic boys boarding school that prepared students from across northern Uganda to sit for the Cambridge Overseas O Level exams. If there was any homosexual activity in my three years there, I was not aware of it. But in those days in East Africa, it was very common to see men of all ages walking around holding hands, and I must say my heart sometimes fluttered a bit when I saw two of our students strolling around with their fingers lightly touching.

         I soon learned that our school was named for the leader of the Uganda Martyrs, a group of 23 young pages of the kabaka (king) of the principle kingdom of Uganda, Buganda, who were burned at the stake when they converted to Christianity and refused the sexual advances of the king. The fathers at our mission pointed with pride to the boys’ courage and virtue. I thought it was a fascinating and intriguing story, in part because it told me in the past there had been gay sex in high places in Uganda. And I couldn’t help wondering if this famous story of nonconsensual sex meant there was also some of the other kind going on.

         In fact, at the next Catholic mission school down the road there was an Irish priest who was definitely gay. As soon as we realized our shared secret, I would go there on Sunday afternoons and we would drink magenta-dyed Uganda waragi and talk and laugh for hours. He never revealed whether he was sexually active, but one evening he told me that once he was having a drink at the bar of a hotel in Kampala seated next to an articulate, good looking young man who introduced himself as a prince of Buganda. The prince told him that at that same bar an Englishman had offered him money to go to bed with him. He told my friend that he had refused, not because the act was repellent but because the guy offered to pay him.

         So, over the course of my time in Uganda, I came to the conclusion that there were active homosexuals and that the predominant attitude pretty much followed Tallulah Bankhead’s famous advice, “I don’t care what people do, as long as they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses.” Some of my friends were on low-church Anglican Protestant missions, and they suffered because they were all very abstemious and wished they could be martyred like their fellow missionaries in countries at war such as the nearby Congo. But no one ever mentioned any sort of hatred being promulgated towards gays, and I know I was not the only gay member of our group.

         American evangelicals began spreading their homophobic venom in Africa after it became harder to get away with it here in the U.S. I have known about it for years, but it wasn’t until after David Kato’s death that I realized it could be dangerous for me to go back as an openly gay man and visit the country and people I had loved so much. I hope many people will get to see God Loves Uganda. Frank Mugisha and his brave gay companions deserve all the praise, support, and recognition we can muster.

Arthur Moore, Davis, California


If You Want to Discriminate, Go Private

To the Editor:

         Thank you for acknowledging the “public accommodation” factor with respect to state bills that would legalize anti-gay discrimination on “religious” grounds [May-June 2014]. The press can’t be bothered to do their homework, but it is an absolutely critical consideration.

         A public accommodation designation comes with both costs and benefits to the organization. If they want to exercise the rights of an individual, they can be a private organization (such as a club) and legally practice discrimination and bigotry in all kinds of ways. And many such organizations exist all over the country. However, a company that opens its doors to the general public—restaurants, retail stores, hair salons, and so on—is subject to the laws of public commerce, which bar discrimination based upon such characteristics as race, gender, and religion (it varies by state).

         So, if a company doesn’t want to be subject to public commerce law, it can set up as a private organization. Laws that would grant public accommodations the right to discriminate are a contradiction in terms.

Robert West, Washington, D.C.


A Casement Correction (and More)

To the Editor:

         Your May-June 2014 issue contains an unfortunate example of the editorial left hand not knowing what the layout right hand is doing. Your feature writer Jeffrey Panciera begins his commemorative essay by noting accurately the date of Roger Casement’s hanging by the British in 1916, but both the magazine’s cover and the photo credit on page 6 give the date as 1928.

         The correct date for Casement’s execution by the British, August 3, 1916, is not a trivial matter. This happened during wartime for the British, and in the same year as the later Easter Uprising in which many Irish patriots died for the same reasons Casement willingly died. Ireland itself was not at war, whatever else the British Empire was doing. The great majority of the Irish wanted to end Britain’s long occupation and exploitation of their country.

         To achieve their freedom, there were few things the Irish wouldn’t try. At the time, they found precious little difference between the British and German Empires. Whatever else they might have thought about the Germans in 1916, they shared with them a common enemy. In Irish eyes, collaboration with the Germans was perfectly justified, including Roger Casement’s daring, brave conspiracy. This is why his memory is well honored in Ireland today, whatever the English—or homophobic critics—want to believe.

James Tatum, Norwich, Vermont


Silly Sontag

To the Editor:

         Regarding Bruce LaBruce’s “Notes on Camp—and Anti-Camp” [March-April 2014 issue]: The dumbest thing Susan Sontag said in her 1964 essay [“Notes on Camp”] was, and I quote: “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Everyone knows that camp would require that it be a man, not a woman, walking around in a dress made of three million feathers!

David Thorstad, Lengby, Minnesota