Exclusive: Biden administration pressed Uganda president on anti-LGBTQ record

During last week's U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, State Department officials challenged President Yoweri Museveni on Uganda's anti-LGBTQ laws and policies, a source tells theGrio.

During last week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Biden administration officials pressed Uganda President Yoweri Museveni on his country’s anti-LGBTQ policies, theGrio exclusively reports.

An anonymous source with knowledge of the high-level bilateral meeting says the exchange occurred on Wednesday, Dec. 14, between Museveni — a notorious figure who has criminalized homosexuality — and State Department officials, including the U.S. undersecretary for political affairs.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda meets Prime Minister Theresa May during the London Conference on Somalia at Lancaster House on May 11, 2017, in London. (Photo by Hannah McKay – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The meeting notably took place just a day after President Joe Biden signed a bill enshrining marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples into federal law for the first time in U.S. history before a crowd of more than 5,000 attendees on the White House South Lawn.

The intent of last week’s U.S.-Africa summit was to build stronger ties with African leaders and discuss collaborative ways to address issues like trade, food insecurity, and combating the effects of climate change. However, the U.S. government meeting with Museveni had a “really strong focus on LGBTQ matters,” the source tells theGrio.

In 2014, President Museveni infamously signed into law an anti-gay bill that criminalized gay marriage and sexual intercourse between the same sex. Perpetrators of the law would face up to life sentences behind bars. At the time, President Barack Obama cautioned the bill would be a “serious setback for all those around the world.” The anti-gay law was later annulled; however, homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda.

The source who divulged details of the Biden administration’s bilateral meeting with Museveni said that when challenged on his anti-LGBTQ record, the Ugandan president pushed back and described LGBTQ+ persons as “awful” and pivoted that religious leaders in his country are “fully against them.” Still, Museveni told U.S. officials that he would stop arresting LGBTQ people. 

When asked by theGrio to comment on the meeting with President Museveni, a State Department spokesperson said, “The Biden-Harris Administration has placed promotion of respect for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons — and all persons, as part of strong, inclusive democracy — at the center of its foreign policy.” 

The official added, “The United States will continue its efforts to advance democracy and promote respect for human rights and commends the members of civil society in Uganda working at the forefront to raise awareness and seek an end to ongoing human rights abuses.”

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to fellow leaders during the group photo at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on Dec.15, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Dr. David J. Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Black LGBTQ+ advocacy group, commended President Biden in a statement to theGrio for his administration “using the opportunity to address [Uganda’s] horrific anti-LGBTQ+ laws.”

“Many Black Americans wish to travel to our homelands in Africa, but bills that seek to criminalize or murder gay people make it impractical,” said Johns. “Uganda is one example of African nations punishing their people using anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and laws introduced by white colonizers seeking to weaken our communities and justify intra-community stigma, separation, and subjugation.”

Johns said the NBJC hopes the Biden administration’s bilateral meeting with President Museveni will “facilitate more conversations about and actions that result in improved opportunities for African descendants everywhere. We’ve been separated from our cousins long enough — homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia shouldn’t extend it.”

Bishop Joseph Tolton, who leads the Pan-African advocacy group, Interconnected Justice, also gave credit to the president and his administration who he said really “deserves its props.”

“I’m really grateful that the administration did not back away from pursuing that conversation in this kind of closed-door back room, off-the-record setting,” Tolton told theGrio. “I think it shows that the U.S. really has been faithful around the promotion of LGBTI rights globally as human rights and that that is a moral commitment that we have abided by, and I think it should give Americans comfort.”

The history of homophobia runs deep in Uganda, and in the years since Museveni signed the 2014 anti-gay law, homophobic rhetoric has continued to be espoused by Ugandan politicians. The environment has been so hostile for LGBTQ+ populations that it created fear among members of the community of showing up at voting polls ahead of its 2021 elections. LGBTQ+ activists said they worried that they would be harmed physically.

Ugandan men hold a rainbow flag reading “Join hands to end LGBTI (Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Intersex – called Kuchu in Uganda) genocide” as they celebrate on Aug. 9, 2014, during the annual gay pride in Entebbe, Uganda. (Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

When more than 50 people were killed in a clash between police and protesters over the arrest of opposition leader and then-presidential candidate Bobi Wine, President Museveni blamed groups funded by foreign LGBTQ+ rights organizations, according to Reuters.

“Some of these groups are being used by outsiders … homosexuals … who don’t like the stability of Uganda and the independence of Uganda,” Museveni said at the time.

Tolton said the deep political opposition to LGBTQ+ people is largely due to the influence of a far-right religious movement known as dominionism. He described it as an ideology of “setting up a Christian kingdom” in which a nation “puts laws in place to get rid of the sin.”

“The first sin that they were gonna go after was homosexuality, and that’s how the anti-gay bill was established,” he explained. What’s more, Museveni’s wife, Janet Museveni, is said to be at the forefront of this movement. 

“That theological idea is part of the reason that Uganda was adopted as the laboratory for this idea of a Christian theocracy, and they have a best friend in the First Lady Janet Museveni,” said Tolton. 

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (C) walks with First Lady Janet Museveni (R) and Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga (L) after delivering the state of the nation address in front of Members of Parliament and diplomats in Kampala, Uganda, on June 6, 2018. (Photo by NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI/AFP via Getty Images)

A similar movement has taken form in the United States, largely led by a white evangelical Christian movement. Controversial policies adopted by Republican lawmakers, like Florida’s anti-LGBTQ law known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, have their own origins in the far-right Christian movement. Similar to Florida, where politicians have justified anti-LGBTQ policies as an attempt to protect children, Tolton said in Uganda, similar laws have been defended to support the narrative that LGBTQ+ people are “coming for your kids.” 

“They call them recruiters in East Africa and in Uganda, and in America, the word that they’re using is groomers,” explains Tolton. “It’s all coming from the same source of a global movement of Christians and dominionists, who are also white supremacists … and they’re creating this kind of trauma around the world and have continued to.”

Tolton believes the collective work of U.S. government officials and progressive Black religious leaders can begin to push back against oppressive, anti-LGBTQ+ laws and policies both domestically and abroad. 

“There is a huge opportunity for Black Americans to really take and own our power around influencing and shaping U.S. foreign policy toward Africa and Black republics,” he explained. “There’s a constituency base here in America that’s pushing our government, and the government has taken the right moral stand in that regard.”

The recent challenge of President Museveni, he said, shows that even as the Biden-Harris administration works to establish better economic partnerships with African nations, it will still prioritize its commitment to fighting for human rights.

“I think it should also suggest to the rest of the world that despite our own internal issues, there are still principles that we stand on and that we think is important for us to articulate,” said Tolton. “I think it was very courageous.”

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