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Meet the American Pastor Behind Uganda's Anti-Gay Crackdown

Scott Lively has stirred up hate from Moscow to Kampala. Watch him in action.

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 5:30 AM EDT

In late February, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the nation's harsh new anti-gay bill into law, he claimed the measure had been "provoked by arrogant and careless western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality." What he failed to mention is that the legislationwhich makes homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison in some caseswas itself largely due to Western interlopers, chief among them a radical American pastor named Scott Lively.

Lively, a 56-year-old Massachusetts native, specializes in stirring up anti-gay feeling around the globe. In Uganda, which he first visited in 2002, he has cultivated ties to influential politicians and religious leaders at the forefront of the nation's anti-gay crusade. Just before the first draft of Uganda's anti-gay bill began circulating in April 2009, Lively traveled to Kampala and gave lengthy presentations to members of Uganda's parliament and cabinet, which laid out the argument that the nation's president and lawmakers would later use to justify Uganda's draconian anti-gay crackdown—namely that Western agitators were trying to unravel Uganda's social fabric by spreading "the disease" of homosexuality to children. "They're looking for other people to be able to prey upon," Lively said, according to video footage. "When they see a child that's from a broken home it's like they have a flashing neon sign over their head."

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Lively is not the only US evangelical who has fanned the flames of anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. As they lose ground at home, where public opinion and law are rapidly shifting in favor of gay equality, religious conservatives have increasingly turned their attention to Africa. And Uganda, with its large Christian population, has been particularly fertile ground for their crusade. Journalist (and past Mother Jones contributor) Jeff Sharlet has reported at length on the Family, a politically connected US-based ministry, which promotes hard-line social policies in the East African nation.

But, according to Ugandan gay rights activists, Lively has played an unparalleled role in fostering the climate of hate that gave rise to Uganda's anti-gay law. "The bill is essentially his creation," says Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a coalition of gay rights organizations. Mugisha's group has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in US federal court, accusing Lively of international crimes against humanity on the grounds that he and his Ugandan allies allegedly conspired to deprive gay Ugandans of basic human rights. "These people had never heard of anything called the gay agenda," recalls Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma. "But Lively told them that these predators were coming for their children. As Africans hearing it for the first time, they believed it was true—and they were burning with rage."

Lively, who is currently running for governor of Massachusetts as an independent, calls the allegations "ridiculous." "Basically, a Marxist law firm in New York City is trying to shut me up because I speak very articulately about the pro-family issues," he says. But video obtained by Mother Jones—including footage of Lively's 2009 presentation and a little-known follow-up meeting where influential Ugandans resolved to petition parliament for a harsh new law against homosexuality—lends credence to the allegations that Lively's fierce message paved the way for the nation's anti-gay crackdown.

Lively has an unusual history for a family-values crusader. A former alcoholic, he spent his late teens and 20s drifting around the country, occasionally sleeping under bridges and begging for spare change. After finding God in a Portland, Oregon, treatment center in the mid-1980s, he joined a conservative evangelical church and took a job as communications director for the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which was loosely affiliated with the then powerful Christian Coalition and was deploying radical tactics to fight abortion and the gay rights movement. In 1992, OCA introduced a ballot initiative with the first faint outlines of the legislative strategy Lively would later deploy abroad. Measure 9, as it was known, barred the state government from offering any "special rights" to gays or "promoting" homosexuality. It also required public schools to treat "homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism" as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse."  

The backlash was fierce. Opponents likened Lively and his colleagues to Nazis and lobbed bricks wrapped in swastika flags through the windows of businesses supporting the measure. OCA's aggressive campaign, likening gays to pedophiles, was also blamed for a steep uptick in gay hate crimes. In the end, Measure 9 was defeated by a 13-point margin. Undeterred, OCA began promoting measures barring special protections for homosexuals on the city and county levels. Lively, who bristled at the Nazi comparisons, also threw himself into studying the Third Reich and eventually grew convinced that gay men—some of whom occupied senior posts in the Nazi regime—were the driving force behind the Holocaust. "Everything that we think about when we think about Nazis actually comes from the minds and perverted ideas of homosexuals," he told an Oregon public access television station in 1994. OCA also began deploying messages reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. One OCA-published cartoon resembled the infamous Nazi caricature showing a Jew manipulating the strings of government and economy. As Deborah Geis and ‎Steven Kruger observed in their 1997 book Approaching the Millennium, the group had merely replaced "the stooped, hooked-nose puppeteer with a fresh-faced gym boy."

These tactics paid off: OCA managed to push through more than two dozen county and municipal ordinances. While the Oregon Legislature later rendered them unenforceable, OCA's efforts kept the issue on the conservative agenda and showed the grassroots appeal of the group's message. In 1994, the organization sponsored another statewide ballot initiative similar to Measure 9. It was defeated, too, but only by a 3-point margin.

After his bare-knuckled legislative battles in Oregon, Lively retreated to California, where he earned a law degree and a Ph.D. in theology. He also became a prolific author. In 1995, he coauthored what would become his signature book, The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party. It argued that gay elements in the Nazi regime tried to wipe out the Jews because their religion condemned homosexuality. And it claimed that gays intentionally spread immorality and corruption so others were "less likely to oppose homosexuality on moral grounds." Pornography, according to this theory, is a "tool of 'gay' social engineering." The rising rates of divorce, substance abuse, disease, and violent crime, are all a "direct consequence of embracing the 'gay' ethic." In subsequent books, Lively laid out detailed tactics for battling this menace—including stressing the supposed danger homosexuality poses to young people. "Public sympathy for 'gays' as victims is not grounded in logic, but in emotion," he wrote. "An effective strategy is to emphasize the issue of homosexual recruitment of children…"

Lively's ideas have proven too radical for the mainstream family values movement, but they've gotten some traction on the far right. Bryan Fischer, director of issues analysis for the influential American Family Association, regularly parrots his arguments linking gays to Nazis. ("Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler," he opined in a 2010 post on the organization's website, "and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.") Lively's theories have also gained currency in foreign countries, including former Soviet republics, where he has helped advance anti-gay legislation. But nowhere has his influence been more keenly felt than in Uganda. During his first visit there in 2002, he spoke at an anti-pornography conference and warned participants that Western cultural Marxists, backed by liberals (such as George Soros), were trying to erode Uganda's independence by attacking family values—a message that played on lingering colonial-era resentments. One of their core tactics, Lively argued, was deploying homosexuals to infiltrate Ugandan society. "The cultural Marxists go into these countries, they buy media and they set up these street activist organizations to recruit," Lively tells me. "I said, 'Okay, this is what's going on here. The way to respond to that is to focus on affirming family values—and discouraging the alternatives.'" Lively, who was used to being heckled, was stunned by the positive reception he received at the gathering. 

"Public sympathy for 'gays' as victims is not grounded in logic, but in emotion," Lively wrote. "An effective strategy is to emphasize the issue of homosexual recruitment of children…"

Later the same year, an influential Ugandan Assemblies of God pastor named Stephen Langa invited Lively and his wife, Anne, back to Kampala for a barnstorming tour. Lively met with lawmakers, lectured at universities, and gave a number of media interviews. He and Langa also hosted an all-day conference with local pastors. The event was closed to the media and the public, but Lively later recalled that the pastors who attended were "very grateful" for his insights "about the way in which America was brought low by homosexual activism."

Following the trip, Lively kept in contact with Langa, whom he calls his "ministry partner," and another influential Ugandan pastor named Martin Ssempa. Both men would ultimately be at the vanguard of Uganda's anti-gay crackdown.

In early March 2009, Lively returned to Uganda at Langa's invitation. Uganda's High Court had recently found that the government overstepped its authority by detaining two gay activists simply because they were gay. In response, a Langa-run group called the Family Life Network planned a three-day conference to expose what he called the "hidden and dark" gay agenda. On the last day, Lively gave a marathon five-hour presentation, which was broadcast on Ugandan television. He claimed that homosexuals were aggressively recruiting Uganda's children and argued that human rights protections shouldn't be extended to these "predatory" figures.

Lively also told attendeesamong them Ugandan cabinet membersthat the gay movement was an "evil institution" that sought to "defeat the marriage-based society" and crush anyone who stood up to its nefarious agenda. At one point, he scrawled "Causes and Types of Homosexual Dysfunction" across the top of a white board and, beneath this, drew a continuum with what he claimed were the various types of gay men. On one extreme sat the transsexuals and transvestites; on the other were what Lively called the "super machos" and "monsters." "The Nazis were super machos," he said. "You also see them in prisons…brutish, brutish, animalistic, men that want to hurt other people…men having sex with boys and other men, usually in some sort of aggressive way."  

Moving on to "the monsters," Lively continued, "They are so far from normalcy that they're killers. They're serial killers, mass murderers. They're sociopaths. There's no mercy at all, there's no nurturing, no caring about anybody else…This is the kind of person it takes to run a gas chamber. " He added that the genocide in neighboring Rwanda "probably involved these guys."  

Lively also likened homosexuality to a disease, and suggested that if Uganda didn't "actively discourage" same-sex relations, the nation's children might soon be throwing orgies and performing oral sex on school buses. "That's what happens when the immune system becomes overwhelmed. The body begins to suffer, disintegrate," he said. "We need public policy that discourages homosexuality."

According to Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who attended the conference as part of an investigation for the liberal think tank Political Research Associates, Lively's remarks landed like a bombshell. "These people had never heard of anything called the gay agenda," he recalls. "But Lively told them that these predators were coming for their children. As Africans hearing it for the first time, they believed it was true—and they were burning with rage."

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