ON DECEMBER 20, 2013, the Ugandan Parliament passed the long-debated Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Although it originally proposed the death penalty for a variety of homosexual acts, including the dissemination of pro-gay propaganda, international attention and the threat of sanctions from Western countries convinced Uganda’s parliament and President Yoweri Museveni to replace the death penalty with life in prison. One of the poorest countries in the world with a median age of fifteen, Uganda was expressly chosen by American evangelical groups as fertile ground for their anti-gay agenda. They even refer to the country as “the pearl of Africa,” a cynical repurposing of Winston Churchill’s nickname for Uganda.
In his new film, God Loves Uganda, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams demonstrates how the American religious Right has been on a well-funded and well-organized mission for decades to indoctrinate the Ugandan people with anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-abortion values, one that culminated in the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2013. The film skillfully records people on both sides of the anti-gay divide, both in the U.S. and in Africa, and is remarkable for its detached style, especially considering its horrific and inflammatory subject matter. God Loves Uganda has shown in theaters in many U.S. cities and aired on PBS on May 19th.
Williams has worked in broadcast journalism for several decades and won an Academy Award for his documentary short film “Music by Prudence,” about a severely disabled young Zimbabwean singer-songwriter who fights discrimination and superstition in Africa to become a successful musician and recording artist. I spoke with Mr. Williams by phone in mid-April to discuss God Loves Uganda and the social movement in Africa that it documents.
Jim Farley: Your film documents the efforts by U.S. evangelicals to persuade Ugandan politicians to pass an extremely draconian anti-gay law. Since you made the film, things have only gotten worse. Can you give us a brief overview of the situation in Uganda when you were filming the movie and how things have changed since then?
Roger Ross Williams: Sure. Well, when I was filming, most of the anti-gay Ugandan pastors—they call themselves “anti-gay activist pastors”—were in a very heated campaign to get the bill passed. So there were regular anti-gay demonstrations. They did a two-million-person petition that they delivered to the parliament. There was a huge effort on behalf of some of the pastors in my film to really get this bill passed. And they worked at it, especially Martin Ssempa, a prominent Ugandan pastor who’s played a pivotal role in the crusade to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda. That was kind of his full-time job. Homophobia is his life.
JF: I love his priorities.
RRW: Yeah, he’s made quite a name for himself with it. The LGBT community in Uganda was trying to stop it, so when Martin Ssempa would hold a “pass the bill now” press conference, they would hold a “hate no more” press conference. So it was this sort of back and forth. Also, we began to see some of the results of what the bill could do—the havoc it could wreak on the culture. And not just the gay culture: pastors were accusing other pastors of being gay to bring them down and destroy them.
JF: And Ssempa was one of the people who was doing that, is that correct?
RRW: Ssempa accused Robert Kayanja [one of the most influential pastors in Uganda and head of the Miracle Centre Cathedral megachurch]of being gay. But then it backfired on Ssempa, and he was put on trial for trying to defame Kayanja. He lost, and I followed the trial. I was in court every day. There’s a little piece about it on the PBS website. The movie itself will air on PBS on May 19th. That’s our big broadcast premiere. On the PBS website you can also see The Pastor Wars, which shows the kind of craziness that results from bills like this.
So now, with the bill having passed, it’s like the homophobia of Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet [another prominent homophobic Ugandan minister and self-described key player in the Anti-Homosexuality Bill], and various other pastors is now sanctioned by the state. Then there was a huge national rally to celebrate the passing of the bill, where President Museveni and the members of parliament basically condoned violence against gay people. It was led by Martin Ssempa and held in an airfield in Kampala, which is where they celebrated Uganda’s independence recently. Thousands of people were celebrating the passage of the bill with the same sort of excitement they had when they celebrated Uganda’s independence. It’s insane that it’s gotten to this point.
JF: There were moments in the film when I felt like I was watching a Nuremberg rally. It was very disturbing.
RRW: Absolutely. I totally felt this sort of impending genocide. And you can feel that. It’s the same way they dehumanized the Tutsis. They’re dehumanizing the LGBT community in this sort of witch-hunt. They say things like, they’re worse than animals, they’re worse than dogs. That’s the kind of language I would get all the time from these pastors. What’s happened in Uganda is that the LGBT community has become a scapegoat for everything that’s going wrong in that country. There are all kinds of problems there that Ugandans are really concerned about, but the government wants people to focus their attention on gays and lesbians and distract them with “moral” issues so they won’t focus on a corrupt dictator/president.
JF: The U.S. effort to outlaw homosexuality in Uganda was spearheaded by a Kansas City-based evangelical group called the International House of Prayer, or IHOP. I love the name, by the way. Was the International House of God (IHOG) already taken?
RRW: IHOG, that’s good. They were sued by the International House of Pancakes.
JF: You managed to document hours of IHOP’s speeches and other activities, much of it quite shocking and perhaps incriminating. Why were they so willing to allow you to profile them?
RRW: Well, let me just say that IHOP were not the ones leading the effort to outlaw homosexuality. They’re just one player in a massive effort. Uganda is like the number one destination for American missionaries in the world, and for a number of reasons. IHOP is a medium-sized church, though it has a $30-million-a-year operating budget, 1,000 full-time employees, and a global prayer room that has been broadcasting to 110 countries around the world 24/7 for the last thirteen years. The reason IHOP got entangled in all this is because of the infamous Lou Engle, who was the senior leader there. He got the Pink Brick Award as the most homophobic man in America.
JF: Lou Engle is interviewed in the movie, and there’s footage of him preaching hate in packed stadiums. I found him extremely creepy. I know he’s a charismatic Christian and that fervent speeches are part of his shtick, but watching him preach is like watching Hitler rant.
RRW: He’s a pretty scary figure. He does these massive prayer rallies all around the country. And he prays for three things: stop homosexuality, stop the threat of Islam, and end abortion. And he’s pretty well connected in the Republican Party. He threw Governor Rick Perry’s huge prayer rally when Perry was running for president. He was an adviser to Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich. You can see him on YouTube praying with Bachmann to end Obamacare. He was roommates with Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas. He’s very well connected. And he went to Uganda when all the other evangelicals were running away for PR reasons. Rick Warren was also very involved in Uganda, where he said terribly homophobic things. But he backed away from those statements later, when it became a PR problem.
But getting back to how I got access to IHOP. I approached them because Joanna Watson, who’s featured prominently in the movie, did her missionary training there. She was the person who organized Call Uganda to bring Lou Engle to Uganda. And I just approached them, and they said, well you’re part of the gay agenda. And I said, “I’m not; I’m a filmmaker. I’ve never made a film about anything to do with any gay issues before. And this is an interesting story to me because I grew up in the church. I grew up in a family of ministers. So I understand the power of religion.”
And their response was, “Great, because we’re anti-religion; we are pro-faith. We believe that church and religion can do damaging things.”
JF: What was amazing is that their efforts in Uganda are encouraging genocide, and yet they didn’t seem concerned about how offensive they might appear on film. Or maybe they just didn’t care because they’re doing what they think is God’s work.
RRW: Exactly. And they believe what they’re doing is right. That’s how I convinced them to talk to me. In effect they said, “You’re right. Even if we’re persecuted, we have to stand up for our beliefs.”
JF: So you were initially closeted in Uganda.
RRW: Right. I shot the stuff in Uganda first, while I was closeted, and then I came out. Then I shot the stuff at IHOP, and then I went to Uganda with IHOP.
JF: It must have been pretty scary coming out in Uganda. Did you have someone watching your back?
RRW: No, I didn’t come out in Uganda, I was outed. What happened is that in Uganda someone sent an e-mail to Joanna Watson [of IHOP], who wrote about me in her blog. Then someone sent an e-mail saying I’m a gay man from the gay agenda. And she sort of freaked out and cut me off. She sent the e-mail to all of the anti-gay pastors in Uganda. And one of the leading ones invited me to dinner at his house. All the pastors were there and they surrounded me. They had dogs, too.
JF: Oh my god.
RRW: It was terrifying and crazy. It wasn’t a good situation. Solomon Male, who’s a really infamous pastor in Uganda, was doing all the talking. He said, “We googled you and we saw you. We saw that you’ve won an Oscar. And so we’re not going to kill you. We’re going to—”
JF: Ask for your autograph?
RRW: No, they said, “We’re going to cure you.” And they started praying over me. It was the power of Hollywood, the power of Oscar, that saved my life!
JF: So, have you heard from any of the IHOP people since the movie came out?
RRW: Yes, I have talked to everyone. We flew Jono Hall, the director of media at IHOP, and this guy Stuart Greaves, who was very close with Lou Engle and who went to Uganda with him—we flew them to New York and screened the film for them. I was really nervous, but afterwards we had a four-hour conversation, and dinner. And we talked about the film. It seems it got them thinking a little bit, which is what I wanted to happen. Then we screened the film many times at their international film festival in Kansas City. We invited all of IHOP to come, and a bunch of them did. A woman even stood up afterwards and said she was ashamed of her church. And I’ve been on the radio with Jono Hall, who’s pretty much in denial, saying they’re not responsible; it was Uganda’s choice.
When they go to Africa, they know how much influence and power they have because they’re Americans—and because of the amount of money American conservatives spend in Africa. So they sort of look the other way when Africans bend over backward trying to please them by making homophobia the law.
JF: There was a very telling scene in the movie when David Bahati, the MP who sponsored the gay bill, was boasting on a Ugandan talk show about how donations from Western religious organizations tripled once the Ugandan government said no to homosexuality. So is it just about the money?
RRW: It is about the money. Uganda is a very poor and very corrupt country. These pastors become rich from the money they get from American churches who want to broadcast back to America that Uganda is a success story. I mean, they just passed a law outlawing miniskirts on women! They have a Minister of Ethics who basically enforces these sorts of moral laws. And they raise a ton of money from these churches. So they want to please them. And you have a bunch of American conservatives who are totally frustrated with what’s going on in the U.S., which is lost in sin, while Uganda is the Promised Land.
JF: It’s so cynical. Have there been any sex scandals in Uganda involving hypocritical pastors like we’re used to hearing about here in the U.S.?
RRW: There are. But it’s also a different environment. There’s a healthy tabloid sort of free press over there. Sometimes these pastors end up in a sex scandal—someone gets caught with a male parishioner, for example.
You also get the tabloids like the one that published the names of 200 homosexuals right after the bill was passed. It’s now common for them to publish the names and addresses of people in the LGBT community. The gay activists are total targets. We just brought Clare Byarugaba, an activist in Uganda, over for the Tina Brown Women in the World Summit. Just listening to her stories about her life is horrific. It’s unbearable, because you never know when the police are going to knock down your door, or a mob, or if your neighbor is going to come and beat you to death.
JF: On that score, you shot some footage at the funeral for David Kato, a Ugandan gay activist who was murdered while the film was being made. Was it risky for people at the funeral to be on film?
RRW: I wasn’t there actually. I was at Sundance. The funeral footage was shot by someone else. But David Kato—you know, the tradition is that you have to be taken to your village to be buried, and the village pastor has to preside over your funeral. And the pastor, as you saw in the film, started spouting out all this Sodom and Gomorrah stuff. And then there was sort of a tussle over the microphone and craziness. And the villagers started gathering rocks to stone the gays. So Bishop Christopher, a straight ally, delivered a sermon and put David Kato to rest. Then the gay attendees had to be rushed out of there in cars because the whole world was watching: representatives from embassies all over America and Europe. So they started putting people in cars and getting them out of there before they got stoned.
JF: Wow. Have you communicated with any of the funeral attendees since the bill was passed? How are they doing?
RRW: I spoke with Clare Byarugaba just last week. She just left for Uganda yesterday. I speak to them all the time. Clare is the co-coordinator of Uganda’s Civil Society on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. She’s an amazing activist there. They’re terribly depressed and terribly in fear. Arrests are happening. They’re very careful. I think so far the government hasn’t arrested a prominent activist because it would just be an international incident.
JF: They’re probably leery of making more martyrs for the cause.
RRW: Yes, so now they just arrest normal gay people. The government just did something, a first. They actually raided a clinic in Kampala that is funded by the U.S. government and that provides HIV and AIDS care for MSMs, for men who have sex with men. They arrested employees at the clinic. The State Department put out a statement, because this was a direct attack on the U.S. government, a government-funded program that gives $300 million in AIDS funding to Uganda. Under the law they claim you can’t provide services—anti-retrovirals and HIV care—to the LGBT community because the Ugandan government says the LGBT community is not an at-risk group, because they are not recognized as a group that possesses human rights.
JF: What if a gay Ugandan person wanted to get asylum somewhere? Would that be feasible?
RRW: Tons of people have moved.
JF: Are there ways that people here can help fight homophobia in Uganda?
RWW: What people can do is go to our website, which is at GodLovesUganda.com, and there’s a “take action” page. There are a number of organizations listed, such as All Out. They have a fund for making people aware of what’s happening in Uganda. There’s also the St. Paul’s Foundation, which funds Bishop Christopher and his clinic and the work he’s doing. There’s also Public Research Associates, which is Kapya Kaoma’s organization. He’s in the film and has just published a guide to Americans spreading hate in Africa. See, it’s all about money. If we can cut off their money, that’s what’s going to really make a difference.
JF: Do you think your movie is having an impact?
RRW: Yes. I’ve had many meetings with the State Department, and I was just talking with Samantha Power last week. I think they are paying attention. But their hands are tied, really, because of our military involvement in Uganda. But I think that a lot of the larger aid organizations and faith organizations are paying attention.
JF: What was it like for you, as a gay man, to be over there listening to all this anti-gay hysteria?
RRW: It was hard to hear. I’m a trained journalist; I’ve spent twenty years working for the mainstream media. And I’ve seen it all as a journalist. That’s something you develop: you don’t react. I would sit there and listen to absolutely insane things—that lesbianism causes breast cancer—crazy stuff. I’m just so happy to be able to document it and let people see what is going on over there. I especially want American Christians to see it. We have 1,000 churches that are screening the film. If any change is going to happen, it’s going to happen in the faith community, which I’m hoping will stand up and say, “This is not what Jesus would want.”
JF: My gaydar was going off like crazy as I watched the film. [Spoiler alert.] At one point Joanna Watson from IHOP admits to being an ex-lesbian. Was it just me, or did it seem like quite a few of the homophobic zealots you profiled were self-loathing gays, like J. Edgar Hoover or Roy Cohn?
RRW: Absolutely, yes. Many people have said they know for a fact that Martin Ssempa is gay. He’s in this for the money, and he has a huge youth movement. He throws these Saturday night pool parties at the university. He was the African hip-hop champion and he’s a break-dancer. Let’s just say a lot of people in my film are leading double lives.
JF: But being gay in Africa must be utterly terrifying. I can almost sympathize with these closet cases.
RRW: Exactly. It’s destroying people’s lives. So, okay, deny and destroy your own lives, but to destroy other people’s lives in such a massive way… it’s like they want to make everyone else’s life miserable.
JF: I gather IHOP is hoping to get a foothold in every country on the planet by 2020, or something like that. Where else have they taken hold?
RRW: Oh, they’re all over Africa, and it’s not just the International House of Prayer. It’s a movement of charismatic evangelical churches, and it’s the fastest-growing religious movement in the world. And the reason it’s growing so fast in the developing world—in Africa and Latin America especially—is because people are drawn to the charismatic church: the music, the dancing, the message of prosperity.
JF: The appeal of the Nuremberg rallies. Do you think they’re consciously using the Nazi playbook here?
RRW: Yeah. And it’s interesting you say that, because I think Scott Lively, the infamous Scott Lively, wrote the book The Pink Swastika , arguing that the Nazi movement was really a gay movement, and that Nazi leaders were themselves gay. They always turn things around to be just the opposite. It’s like they realize that they could be seen as a Nazi-like movement, right down to persecution of homosexuals, but they’re going to beat you to it and call you a Nazi. They believe in spiritual warfare. They believe that they must destroy, they must aggressively go after and fight sin, or what they perceive as sin. They believe that will usher in the Second Coming. And that’s what this movement preaches.
They even preach bridalism: you are married to Jesus, like Joanna in the movie. She told me these crazy stories of how Jesus takes her into his bedroom, and it’s all white and there’s a canopied bed. She says, “Jesus loves with such deep devotion.” And she goes on to say how his love is deep, and long and wide. And I’m like halfway out of my seat. That’s bridalism. That’s what Mike Bickle, the founder of IHOP, preaches. There were people at IHOP telling me that they have these camps where they store food, water, and guns in preparation for the end times.
And they believe that they must go after “the seven,” as they call it, the seven mountains of influence: education, the arts, government, business, family, the media, and religion. It’s a massive movement. They’re the ones who have a direct conversation with God. Lou Engle and Mike Bickle, the founders of IHOP, are disciples. So they actually speak to God.
They’re also the ones that put their people in government positions, including U.S. senators. They have an organization in Washington called The Family, the fellowship that puts on the National Prayer Breakfast that every sitting president goes to. Lou Engle’s former personal assistant now runs all the Tea Party rallies. They’re a powerful organization, and they’re fighting a war on earth in order to usher in the Second Coming of Christ. And that’s what you are up against, a lot of power and money.
JF: So, when you came out in Africa, did anyone behave differently in front of the camera?
RRW: Absolutely. I mean everyone was really cautious around me. Jono went to Uganda because he needed to police the missionaries from IHOP. He needed to make sure they didn’t say anything embarrassing. And if you notice I just filmed them. I wasn’t allowed to talk to them directly. I wasn’t allowed to ask them questions because he said they would say things that would embarrass the church.
JF: Oh interesting. Many of the missionaries in the film were quite young. I kind of felt sorry for those kids.
RRW: Yeah, they’re just total victims. I always compare them to the kids that join the military to go fight weapons of mass destruction. They just believe the propaganda. They’re like foot soldiers and they’re just doing the bidding of Lou and the big bosses over there.
JF: So what do you think of the lawsuit against Scott Lively, who’s being sued in U.S. Federal Court by a Ugandan gay group? [The group is using the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to sue Americans in American court for egregious human rights violations. Lively is an extremely homophobic pastor and author living in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has been a major player in the ex-gay and anti-gay movements for decades. Two groups he is affiliated with are listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many people believe a series of anti-gay speeches he and two other evangelical ministers gave in Uganda in March of 2009 inspired David Bahati to propose the Anti-Homosexual Bill to the Ugandan Parliament in November of 2009.]
RRW: I think he’s going to stand trial. It’s going to be fascinating to watch because this has never really happened in America, someone standing trial for the horrible things they’ve done in a foreign country.
JF: Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you can talk about?
RRW: I’m doing a film called Life Animated. It’s based on a book with the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Suskind. It’s about his son, who’s autistic and lost the ability to communicate. He watched endless Disney animated movies, and eventually Ron and his wife realized they could communicate with him by speaking Disney. So they realized he can express himself. He just looks for a moment in a Disney animated film in order to do it. He does all the characters. It’s like he visits the Disney characters and that’s how he expresses himself. And so they all had to become animated Disney characters in order to reach their son.
JF: That sounds fascinating and really moving. Did you approach them with the idea of making a movie?
RRW: No. I knew Ron. I’ve known him for fifteen years. And he’d been telling me that he was working on this. We’ve been sort of collaborating on this for a while. So now we’re finally shooting. The book came out on April 1st. We were just out in L.A.
JF: God Loves Uganda has had a theatrical release, correct?
RRW: Yes, we were in theaters for the last six months. We had a huge opening in New York. We opened in thirty cities around America. And I went to many of those cities. It was shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Jim Farley is an associate editor of this magazine.