Anti-Colonialism and Gay Rights in Uganda

Dr. Jillian T. Weiss, a regular contributor at the GLBT news blog The Bilerico Project , recently posted a thoughtful article, “Understanding Uganda”, in which she explores why gay-rights activism directed at African countries often provokes an anti-colonialist backlash. Since gay people have existed in all societies, and were actually treated better in some African cultures before the advent of Christian missionaries, how is it that gay rights have been successfully branded as a decadent Western import? Weiss suggests that the Christian imperialist roots of African homophobia are now so old that they’ve faded from public consciousness, while secular human rights language is more immediately identified with NGOs run by privileged foreigners. An excerpt:

…Similar charges [of elitism] are leveled against large LGBT rights organizations that are disparagingly referred to by some as “Gay Inc.”, implying that they are out of touch with ordinary LGBT people and seek to promote an elitist and oppressive agenda. Another analogy is imagining a strong force of groups across the United States, well-funded by countries we generally dislike, attempting to put messages in the media that we ought to embrace human rights by giving up American democracy and going with a One-World-Government plan. Of course, these analogies are vastly different from the Ugandan situation, and I don’t mean to compare their specific facts, but only the motivations that can stir dislike even of those espousing human rights.

I recently spoke to an African scholar regarding this issue. While his expertise is in Ethiopia, and in particular the issues of development and sustainability, his knowledge of Africa is useful in this context. I asked him why it is that human rights movements, including the African LGBT rights movement, are viewed as colonialist encroachment on African identity, whereas U.S.-imported evangelical Christian homophobia is viewed as compatible with African identity. To me, it seems a sad contradiction.

His answer made it clear to me that the subtext of the LGBT rights movement for many Africans is that of foreign imperialism, a “Western corruption” not native to Africa. Christianity, to the contrary, despite its origins in missionary activities designed to indoctrinate the “savages” into compliance with European dominance by means of a fatalist philosophy of acquiescence, was introduced so long ago to Africa that its imperialist subtext is completely obscured. Its handlers have deftly messaged it as supporting African autonomy, sovereignty and ownership. They truly believe it is African, despite the fact that, as discussed by Eugene Patron in his Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review article, “Heart of Lavender: In Search of Gay Africa,” Africans have lived without discord with LGBT identities in the past, despite the efforts of Christian missionaries.

The history of post-colonialism is a reaction against oppression of autochthonous rule, particularly the successful attempt to neuter those who might be independent-thinking local leaders. As Matthew Quest has noted, anything that appears to imply effeminacy is often rejected by Africans as smacking of imperialism.

Thus, it is impossible to understand the state-supported open homophobia imported from the U.S. that likely killed David Kato without understanding that rights advocates in Africa are seen as imperialist agents bent on the destruction of a pure and strong Uganda identity independent of the imperialist West. All this is confirmed by the condemnation of Western leaders, ensconcing the homophobic Ugandan leaders with the mantle of defiance against the imperialists.

None of this is meant to excuse or condone the homophobia of Ugandan leaders, or the complicity of U.S. evangelical Christians who stoke these fires while wearing the mask of African independence. But the solution is not going to come from condemnation. This issue is shot through with the same thorny problems raised by the homonationalist movement. Though speak out we must at the murder of a brave rights activist who was unwilling to let his LGBT brothers and sisters continue to suffer, despite the known danger to himself, let us not fool ourselves that heaping condemnation will solve this problem. It adds fuel to the fire….

He, She, Zhe? On Pronouns and Politics

The poet Hank Rodgers, a regular reader of this blog, questioned my use of the gender-neutral pronouns “s/he” and “hir” for Stacey Waite in my recent review of Waite’s chapbook the lake has no saint. I thought our conversation might be instructive to readers who care about transgender issues and etiquette, so Hank has kindly allowed me to reprint an excerpt from our emails here.

…”Ms” was a useful creation, to eliminate an outdated and unnecessary distinction, and, it can be applied universally. But “Hir”? This seems new, and certainly is to me, but it is both unusual and confusing — and is it really necessary? It seems, as my comment says, a “tortured construction”; and an unnecessarily excessive, and in-distinctive “imposition” on the language. Of course there may be times when not distinguishing is exactly appropriate to the circumstances, but “Hir” seems a very “tortured” approach to any such need.

As to any real necessity you might argue for “tortured construction”, Tony Judt is quoted, in a review of his new, posthumous memoir (The Memory Chalet) in the New York Review of February 10, “…I was – and remain – suspicious of identity politics in all forms…”. I’m with Tony, particularly when applied to our language.


Thanks for your thoughtful response. Our discussions always make me think. “Hir” (a hybrid of “his” and “her”) is actually a pretty common gender-neutral pronoun used by transgender and genderqueer people who don’t identify as either male or female. I can’t take credit for it.

I’m not a fan of identity politics either. On the other hand, the English language is inescapably gender-binary, unlike many European languages that already contain a neuter pronoun.

When I call myself “she” and “her”, no one considers it identity politics, it’s just “normal” because our language recognizes my gender. Folks who identify as third-gender are just trying to expand the vocabulary to give them equal access.

Now, I agree that using “s/he”, “zhe”, “hir”, etc. as the default pronoun for everyone, to be politically correct, is excessive and awkward. They sometimes tried to make us do this in college. The modern trend is to alternate male and female examples when writing a nonfiction book (e.g. “Read to your child before HE goes to bed”, then “What to do if SHE has trouble with bedwetting”, etc.).

Gay Ugandan Human Rights Activist David Kato Murdered

Human rights activist David Kato of Sexual Minorities Uganda was brutally murdered on Jan. 26. Previously, Kato had received death threats for his advocacy on behalf of GLBT human rights. The Ugandan government is still considering a bill that would impose the death penalty for homosexual acts; the bill would also make it a crime to know that someone is GLBT and not turn them in. American conservative Christian leaders have been instrumental in drafting and promoting this genocidal legislation. Read more at Truth Wins Out.

Kato worked closely with Other Sheep, a courageous program of ministry to GLBT Christians in the developing world. It was he who invited them to establish a presence in Uganda. Read a tribute to him by Steve Parelli on the Other Sheep blog.

In a 2007 unpublished editorial that he co-authored with Parelli, Kato wrote:

…Integrity Uganda calls upon the Christian churches of
Uganda to reexamine the scriptures in light of the stories
of gay Christians of Uganda, the social sciences and
psychology. But, says Integrity, though the churches of
Uganda may not reexamine its theological position on
homosexuals, they must be clear on its teaching of
fundamental human rights and the liberty of conscience
when it comes to its official policy on gay rights.

The Christian doctrine of the liberty of conscience
teaches that no mere human authority – civil government
or religious institutions – has power to grant or to withhold
from men the exercise of freedom in matters of religion.
Homosexuality is a private religious matter between God
and the individual. Liberty of conscience teaches that it is
the individual’s inalienable right to exercise his judgment
without restraint in religious matters and to give
expression, freely and fully to his religious convictions,
without human dictation or interference. Not all religious
people believe homosexuality is irreligious, ungodly or
sinful. More and more, Christians in South Africa, Nigeria,
the Americas, Europe and other parts of the world are
changing their views on the Bible and homosexuality….

Protestants have historically taught that government is the
government of all the people and that government must
not put into law the doctrines of any one religion.

For government, the question of gay rights is a
fundamental human rights question only and can never
become a theological question. For the church, because
of the Christian doctrine of liberty of conscience, the
church is not to impose upon others its teachings on
homosexuality through government legislation….

I was tempted to file this news item under “Signs of the Apocalypse” because if there is an Antichrist, surely a sign of his reign is the hijacking of “Christianity” to justify killing people because of whom they love.

Book Notes: Stacey Waite, “the lake has no saint”

I’ve been a fan of Stacey Waite’s poetry since I read hir chapbook love poem to androgyny (Main Street Rag, 2007). That collection was both more accessible and more aggressive than hir new work, the lake has no saint, winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series Chapbook Competition. Repeated images of old houses, vines, and being underwater give this book the blurry, yearning atmosphere of a recurring dream, where one searches for the lost or never-known phrase that would make sense of a cloud of memories. Even as Waite offers compelling glimpses of discovering a masculine self within a body born female, womanhood exerts its tidal pull through domestic scenes with a female lover who seems perpetually on the verge of vanishing. S/he kindly shares this sample poem with us.

when an imposition of meaning

naming. kindergarten. i do not like salt water, the class gerbil or writing on the blackboard. i do not like the girls’ line and the boys’ line. i do not like swallowing my gum. i will not tell anyone my middle name. the teacher tells the whole class my middle name.

“it’s ann,” they scream, “we know it’s ann.”

don’t count on it–was what my father used to say to mean no. the trees never mean it. they spit up fire. they sometimes think they can make stars. no one is there to deny them.

Book Notes: Francine Witte, “Cold June”

The men and women who populate Cold June, Francine Witte’s new flash fiction chapbook, don’t have much time. They do desperate, magical, outrageous things to bridge the all-too-ordinary distances between them, the indifference of lovers and the clumsiness of communication. The rare happy marriage can almost survive the world’s end, it seems, whereas for many others, even a trip to outer space won’t rekindle the fire. This chapbook won the 2010 Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award from RopeWalk Press.

Visit Francine’s website to find out about her other poetry and fiction collections. She kindly shares two stories from Cold June below.


Eunice felt worthless, and so she put her arm up for auction on EBay. That way, she could find out her compartmental value, at least. She imagined there must be someone who would need an arm or want or an arm or anyway, not mind an arm. But to be safe, she would keep the arm attached until she had a bidder.

She asked her friend, Hank, to take the picture.

“The arm is still on you,” he said, a bit stupidly. Hank was balloony and humid and was always popping the buttons off his shirts. This really annoyed Eunice, and she kept meaning to end their friendship, but that would leave her with no one.

“Well,” Eunice said, “take the picture anyway, and we can always crop out the non-arm part of me.” Then, she dressed up the arm in tinkly bracelets and painted on a fake tattoo. She turned on the lamp, knelt at the foot of the bed, and sprawled the arm across a glittery, puffed-up pillow. That’s when she looked at Hank’s face, the drool on his mouth corners, the need in his eyes. “I’ve never seen anything more lovely,” he stammered. “It’s like a Cleopatra snake or something.”

“Would you like to place a bid?” Eunice cooed, undulating the arm in the small moon of light from the bedroom lamp.

“I’ll do even better,” Hank said. “I’d like to marry that arm.”

Eunice thought for a moment, imagining the two of them at the altar, Hank in a tux, wobbly man-penguin, and the arm next to him on the floor in bridal white.

“Of course, I’d need the rest of you to keep the arm from leaving me in the middle of the night.”

Eunice looked at Hank, who was looking at her arm in a way he had never looked at any other part of her. But still, it was something. And when Hank leaned over to kiss the arm, and popped every single one of his buttons, somehow it didn’t bother Eunice all that much anymore.


The Way the Vase Got Broken

Was the cat. First, he did his little purr thing, followed by his sinewy arch thing. This was all topped off by his jump thing and then that, was just that.

My wife is one of those women who could live without a vase, but not without a cat, so she didn’t yell in his guilty, Cheshire face.

Sometimes, I’m sure she likes the cat more than she likes me. I know I could never get away with breaking her vase just like that. And I’m also pretty sure that if somehow, this cat were a human cat and not a cat cat, she would divorce me and marry him.

But, in the end, we get along fine, with the cat, but no vase. Though on Valentine’s Day, when I bring her roses, she accuses me of trying to make the cat look bad.

Alegria Imperial: “Spangled Seasons”

This poem by Alegria Imperial, a Canadian writer of Filipino descent, was first published on Rick Lupert’s Poetry Super Highway website. “Spangled Seasons” appealed to me, not only for its musical sounds and distinctive verbs, but because it features some memorable places in my old hometown, New York City. Visit Alegria’s blog jornales for more poetry and meditations on the writing process.

Spangled Seasons

Under hazed New York
spheres, spring sousing Riverside, earlier
cocooned in the Moor shedding off
mover’s trip, bundled molehills against
walls –once sparks we strung
onto a nebulae over
nights on Federal Hill—you and
I trudge on.

Trails we looped
between Chesapeake,
Susquehanna and
the Hudson, Venus sputtering
on Pennsylvania woods these,
too, we tucked abreast in
memory, if Manhattan
spares us.

Our cherry
noon-s have leaped into infinity
from finiteness; as well warbled
peace from cypress groves at
Inner Harbor, dandelions mirroring
our masquerade, a yucca spurting
by the window squirrels flying
a trapeze on pines mocked,

ends of days orioles
griped about—we plucked to
spangle our seasons. Soon mere
revenant: Baltimore winters we
skidded, wincing but
un-bruised. I posed for you
that summer cicadas plunged
into passion deaths, smearing

wind shields Fells Point’s
mists we eluded fogged.
Tall suns now spear
mornings at the Moor, we flex
our years on West Broadway: summers
on a mountain lake maybe, a bowery at
Brooklyn Gardens in the fall, sunset
behind Grant’s tomb perhaps, or by

Shakespeare’s lagoon, divining
on its surface the play
of wind on our

Frannie Lindsay: “The Thrift Shop Dresses”

My delight in thrift shops and tag sales goes beyond bargain-hunting. I enjoy the writerly speculation about the backstory of clothes and knicknacks, and the sense of gratitude to mysterious strangers who left this one-of-a-kind object here for me to find. On a more somber note, after a friend of ours died of cancer last summer, I feel good seeing some of his shirts having a second life in my husband’s closet.

That’s why this poem by Frannie Lindsay resonated with me. The column is reprinted by permission from American Life in Poetry, a project of the Poetry Foundation. Read a sample from Lindsay’s first book, Lamb, on the website of Northampton’s own Perugia Press, a fine publisher of poetry books by women.


American Life in Poetry: Column 304


After my mother died, one of the most difficult tasks for my sister and me was to take the clothes she’d made for herself to a thrift shop. In this poem, Frannie Lindsay, a Massachusetts poet, remembers a similar experience.

The Thrift Shop Dresses

I slid the white louvers shut so I could stand in your closet
a little while among the throng of flowered dresses
you hadn’t worn in years, and touch the creases
on each of their sleeves that smelled of forgiveness
and even though you would still be alive a few more days
I knew they were ready to let themselves be
packed into liquor store boxes simply
because you had asked that of them,
and dropped at the door of the Salvation Army
without having noticed me
wrapping my arms around so many at once
that one slipped a big padded shoulder off of its hanger
as if to return the embrace.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Frannie Lindsay, from her most recent book of poems, Mayweed, The Word Works, 2009, and reprinted by permission of Frannie Lindsay and the publisher. The poem first appeared in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 2009. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Two Poems by Thelma T. Reyna

Poet and fiction writer Thelma T. Reyna’s new chapbook Breath & Bone is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in April. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy; get yours from their New Releases page. (Books are listed alphabetically by author.) She kindly shares two poems from this collection below.

A childhood home marked by mental illness can sometimes be the crucible in which a writer is formed. Perhaps the need to make sense of the impossible hones one’s mental powers to find or invent extraordinary conceptual connections. There’s a fine line between the extreme coping strategy we call madness and the one we call art. That line, I think, is made of self-awareness and self-integration.



Mother plugged up the coffee spout
with foil after dinner
to keep the cockroaches out
  and laid a pile
of patchwork quilts on the chilly floor
for us to sleep on and urinate.
She hung them on the doors
next morning,
colorful, stinky banners hanging
room through room
to dry—rearranging
them next night so the most pissed
would be on the bottom of the stack
and we could sleep without the stench
of too much wetness.

Her black
coffee sometimes had a baby cockroach
drowned in its bitters. Got through the foil, I guess,
damned little fool,
got through the plug to mess
her brew, as we messed her quilts—
growing kids lying shoulder to shoulder
on the floor,
growing older,
still peeing, still wrapped in each other’s arms
to keep warm.


How She Died

Who knew it would be like this?
Strong woman, monster lady, mover of monoliths,
she liked to say, not mountains, but monoliths.
Tough momma since thirteen: monster lady, she
called herself, woman who built our house,
hands cooking dinner for seven when the
   hammer stopped
pounding and the sky purpled. Tough cookie
a man, welts hidden, legs scarred.

But in the end she moved molehills. Her brain
dumped her, one side crumpling, wetting, when
   the going got
too tough too long, the other side pumping her
   to be strong.
The wet one won.

With time, her visitors, airy visitors, came
in pairs, night or day, perched in corners,
   smirking in
the dusk. They took off their heads, she
   said, and
sat beneath her dining table. Her cloudy
eyes shooed them away, trembled when
   they moved
near her wooden knees. She cursed at them,
momma, made them know she wasn’t ready yet
   for death.

With time, others waited outside windows, came
softly in the brazen light of day, stood by her
   sheets, floated
by her stone hands from a far-off time beyond
recall. These she’d truly loved. Her brain burst one
day in a wetness of recognition. Who could’ve
known she’d die this way? Who could’ve
   guessed love
would take the monster?

Two Poems by Kenyan Writer Stephen Partington

Happy 2011! I thought I’d start off the new year with these poems by Kenyan writer Stephen Partington, containing a tale of new birth and a message of hope for a more peaceful world. They’re reprinted by permission from his collection How to Euthanise a Cactus (Cinnamon Press, 2010).

This collection was one of four books chosen by the influential magazine The Africa Report for their Best Books 2010 feature. (One of his fellow honorees was Nelson Mandela.) The editor’s review states: “The political crisis in Kenya triggered by the botched 2007 elections seems to have caught talented young writers off guard. As prose writers search for their voices, it has been the poets who have confronted the crisis and tried to find meaning through it. Partington’s new collection is a towering manifestation of poetry’s strident return to the literary mainstream. Using media accounts of the violence, Partington points a disturbing finger at the living who remained silent and took sides—and took sides in order to silence.”

Praise Poem

We praise the man who,
though he held the match between
his finger and his thumb,
beheld the terror of its tiny drop of phosphorus,
its brown and globoid smoothness
like a charred and tiny skull
and so returned it to its box.

So too, we hail the youth who,
though he took his panga on the march,
perceived it odd within his fist
when there was neither scrub
nor firewood to be felled,
so laid it down.

An acclamation for the man who,
though he saw the woman running, clothing torn,
and though he lusted,
saw his mother in her youth,
restrained his colleagues
and withdrew.

We pay our homage to the man who,
though his heart was like a stone
and though he took a stone to cast,
could feel its hardness in the softness of his palm
and grasped the brittleness of bone,
so let it drop.

We laud the man who,
though he snatched to scrutinise
the passenger’s I.D.,
saw not the name – instead, the face –
and slid it back
as any friend might slide his hand to shake a friend’s.

And to the rest of us,
a blessing:
may you never have to be that man,
but if you have to,


Present at the Keelhauling

Kenya, late December 2007
For Sophie Mwelu Partington

What could so tiny a sailor have done
to deserve such punishment?
Did you fall asleep on deck, steal lemons,
I stand here like some bleeding heart lieutenant,
at a loss until

the doctor pulls you sternly round your mother’s keel,
and here you come, full-bloodied,
slick as kelp, so much the doctor cannot hold you,
ribbed and gulping with the joyful joy of lungs.

Ten toes, ten fingers, you’re
statistically sublime.
Mum’s little stowaway for nine long months,
and just for now,
this instant as I swaddle you with all my hugs,
you’re mine.