The Global War on Gay Rights

Modern-day debates over gay rights and women’s rights are far less about long-standing cultural norms and far more about power and social control. 

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters picket against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the Uganda High Commission on April 4, 2023, in Pretoria, South Africa. Uganda became one of 30 African countries to ban same-sex relationships on March 21. (Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.

On Monday, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed a bill into law that will impose broad punitive penalties on LGBTQ Ugandans:

  • life imprisonment for same-sex intercourse;
  • up to a decade in prison for any attempts to engage in gay sex;
  • three years in prison for minors who engage in gay sex; and
  • execution for “aggravated homosexuality,” which the bill defines as same-sex activity between adults and children or people with disabilities, and same-sex rape. 

The bill also has American evangelical hands all over it. 

Uganda has long been a hub for American religious groups seeking to export conservative Christianity abroad. Conservative American religious leaders and organizations have long had a hand in shaping Ugandan law, policy and strategy, which is part of why the discourse around this bill sounds so familiar. Conservative Ugandan politicians and activists talk about outlawing homosexuality in an effort to promote and protect the sanctity of the “traditional family.” LGBT rights groups, one Ugandan religious leader said, are “recruiting our children into homosexuality.” 

The death penalty section of this bill reflects that basic paranoia. By making “aggravated homosexuality” a distinct crime punishable by death rather just just treating any rape or sexual assault the same under the law, the Ugandan government is sending a message: “Groomers” will be killed. 

This moral panic—that LGBTQ people, and mostly gay men, will prey upon children and even adults to convert them to the homosexual lifestyle—has deep roots in American life. In the 1950s, the Lavender Scare and the federal government’s fear of “sex perverts” resulted in a ban on gay and lesbian civil service employees until the mid-1970s; gay and lesbian federal employees couldn’t receive security clearances until the Clinton administration.

In the 1980s, Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children campaign argued that it was a parent’s right to determine “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up” (sound familiar?), and that laws extending equal housing and employment rights to LGBT people violated the rights of parents and placed children in peril. This crusade was tied to others: the failed attempts to keep American schools legally segregated, and the growing anti-abortion movement. 

We’re seeing a resurgence of this same “save our children” paranoia now in the U.S., as right-wing extremists claim that “groomers” are coming after kids via library books about penguins with two dads and drag queen story hours. Never mind that, as far as I can tell, there have been no recorded incidents of sexual attacks on children by drag queens in public libraries, while there are scores of credible reports of rapes, assaults and molestations of children by religious leaders in churches across the U.S. and the world.

Some of this homophobic resurgence has been led by people who had their brains broken by QAnon, and who were sure that Democrats were part of a vast child exploitation cabal shipping kids around the country in Wayfair armoires and hiding them in pizza parlor basements; and a lot of it has been led by craven bigots who realize that these paranoid lunatics are now their base, and who are uncomfortable with shifting ideas of gender and sexuality, and who see in LGBTQ people a group of easy scapegoats. 

And a lot of this is the push-pull of progress and backlash. Just a few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, in a decision that felt unimaginable only a decade before. Now, the Supreme Court is clawing back rights long understood as fundamental and extended to all Americans, most notably the right to abortion. The far right is emboldened. 

We’re seeing a resurgence of this same ‘save our children’ paranoia now in the U.S., as right-wing extremists claim that ‘groomers’ are coming after kids via library books about penguins with two dads and drag queen story hours.

A Progress Pride Flag is held above the crowd of LGBTQ+ activists during the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s “Drag March LA: The March on Santa Monica Boulevard,” in Hollywood, Calif., on Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023. The march comes in response to more than 400 pieces of legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community that government officials across the United States have proposed or passed in 2023. (Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images)

American politics are rarely confined to American soil. It’s not that Americans invented homophobia or misogyny; we certainly did not. But American dollars are powerful, American advocacy groups are broadly influential, and conservative religious groups (and not just American ones, and not just Christians) continue to extend their tentacles around the world, promoting a right-wing vision of authoritarian governance and the traditional heterosexual family. 

An OpenDemocracy investigation found that 20 U.S. Christian groups focused on anti-gay and anti-abortion politics poured $54 million into Africa between 2008 and 2018—$20 million of which came from one group, and went to Uganda.

Another OpenDemocracy investigation found that 28 U.S. Christian groups spent some $280 million in dark money promoting anti-abortion and anti-gay politics worldwide. 

“They have lost support in their home country. Now they are looking for countries where they can dump their ideologies,” Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan LGBT rights activist, told OpenDemocracy’s Lydia Namubiru. “They do it somewhere else where they feel they have more power.”

You really should read the whole piece, because it puts so many of these component parts together. But to summarize: American evangelical and other religious groups spend big to export their misogyny and homophobia to Africa; they bring conservative African leaders to the U.S. for training programs, and they travel to Africa to do the same. They focus on a familiar set of culture wars issues: opposition to comprehensive sex education; opposition to LGBTQ and women’s rights; and a friendliness toward authoritarian governance, so long as the authoritarian leaders are right-wing. 

We lose the big picture when we think that Trump is a uniquely American phenomenon, or that laws like the one in Uganda are the result of some uniquely African homophobia. They are interconnected.

The first laws against homosexuality in Africa came not from Africans, but from colonial powers. Now, countries that criminalize homosexuality are concentrated in Africa and the Middle East, and are overwhelmingly either conservative Christian nations or conservative Muslim ones. These facts fly in the face of the narrative that homosexuality is “un-African.” Africa is a pretty big place, and there is and has never been no single way of being “African.” That the first anti-gay and anti-abortion laws in Africa were colonial tools should tell you a little bit about how modern-day debates over gay rights and women’s rights are far less about long-standing cultural norms and far more about power and social control. 

Right now, there is a global competition between the forces of human-rights-embracing liberal democracy, and the forces of authoritarianism, religiosity and patriarchy. These are two inherently incompatible ways of being, and for the last few decades, liberal democracy has been on the rise. Now, we’re seeing the forces of patriarchal religious authoritarian rising, too—with Trump in the U.S., with Erdogan in Turkey, with Putin in Russia, and in nations like Uganda. 

Movements for feminism, LGBTQ rights, and human rights are global, too. But we lose the big picture when we think that Trump, for example, is a uniquely American phenomenon, or that laws like the one in Uganda are the result of some uniquely African homophobia. They are interconnected. And the forces at work imprisoning gay men, lesbians and trans people in Uganda are working just as hard to make life unlivable for LGBTQ people in the U.S., and anywhere else they can get a hold on power. 

Up next:

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Jill Filipovic is a New York-based writer, lawyer and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to The New York Times and a former columnist for The Guardian. She writes at and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.