The American religious right and the anti-LGBTQ movement in Uganda: Family Watch International, Sharon Slater and the ‘Entebbe conference’

Sharon Slater, FWI representatives and President Museveni at the Ugandan State House, 1 April 2023.
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On 31 March last year, the Ugandan town of Entebbe brought together parliamentarians from over Africa for the first “African Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Family Values and Sovereignty”. In his opening speech, Uganda’s Minister of Information and National Guidance, Chris Baryomunsi, set the tone: “What we see today, again, is how colonialism still comes in different forms; where cultures, behaviors, customs, which are alien to us, Africans, are being imposed, and definitely are posing a lot of disruption to the African family, to our culture, to our behaviors, to our values, to our efforts. And the question is: do we still accept this and view it the way we are traded as commodities, as slaves?”. His speech would be followed by many others all framing the debate in similar terms and specifically emphasizing the threat of the LGBTQ movement, describing it as Western cultural imperialism again being forced upon Africans.

Ten days earlier, on the 21 of March, the Ugandan parliament had passed its latest anti-gay bill. The legislation was one of the strictest in the continent, imposing a life sentence for consensual intercourse between same-sex adults and proposing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ (such as offenses involving minors, drugs or alcohol). The ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, meanwhile, became an offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The bill received wide-ranging support from across Uganda’s state and society, including from churches, politicians and others. Soon after, on 29 May, the bill – including the above provisions – was signed into law by President Museveni

The conference was intended to build on this momentum and attract other African countries to the cause, and they appear to have found a receptive audience; MPs and youth representatives from at least 18 African countries were present. The approach seems to be working: During the conference a Kenyan MP promised that Kenya would follow suit; and soon after, a bill identical to the Ugandan one was submitted to the Kenyan parliament.

Although the conference and Uganda’s recent legislation share a stated aim of ‘countering foreign influence’, questions can be asked about the role of foreign influence in the law, and particularly for the conference. In this piece, I’ll analyse the role of the American Religious Right in both: whereas the involvement of these has widely shown for Uganda’s earlier (2009-2014) anti-gay legislation, this is much less the case of the current version of the law. In doing so, the piece will pay particular attention to an American organization called Family Watch International (FWI), which positions itself as a defender of the traditional family and advocates for conservative positions on a range of issues, in particular opposing homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and comprehensive sex education.

The American religious right and Family Watch International

With the fight against LGBTQ rights becoming an increasingly lost battle in the United States and Europe, Africa is seen as “the last frontier for conservative Christianity”. A 2020 investigation by Open Democracy found that US evangelic groups have spent “at least $54m in Africa since 2007”. It equally showed how the American religious group the Fellowship Foundation between 2008 and 2018 “sent more than $20m to Uganda alone”.

Indeed, the American religious right found a fertile ground for their anti-LGBT message in Uganda, and much attention has been given to the role of American evangelicals in Uganda’s efforts to pass anti-gay legislation fifteen years earlier: in 2009, a draft anti-gay bill was passed before parliament, which eventually was passed into law in February 2014 (but ultimately ruled invalid by Uganda’s constitutional court 6 months later). It has been shown how the American religious right played a role throughout this process – for example through the organization of meetings, or funding. Particularly important was the Scott Lively – the author of the 1995 book ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’ – who, at least from 2002 onwards, worked with key-players in the Ugandan anti-gay movement. This eventually led the Ugandan organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and the American Center for Constitutional Rights to file a lawsuit against Lively in the US. These dynamics were much less visible in the current buildup to the law. That was, until the Entebbe conference, where the involvement of the American Religious Right, and particular of Family Watch International (WFI) became documented in various media.

FWI primarily operates at the international level, lobbying states and politicians in order to influence legislation on sexual and reproductive rights. It is active at the United Nations, where it holds consultative status and lobbies for conservative positions regarding comprehensive sexuality education, gender and LGBTQ issues, and other targets of the American religious right. It has also been vocal in its fight against international agreements making reference to sexual and reproductive rights, and frames the latter, and LGBTQ rights in particular, as part of a culturally imperialist project. Its campaigning takes many forms, including making headline-grabbing statements such as the one describing a partnership agreement governing aid and trade between the European Union and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states as an “aggressive sexual-social recolonization of ACP countries by Europe through many deceptive provisions”. FWI also describes the “US and other Western governments and UN agencies” as “blackmailing developing nations to accept controversial rights in the guise of fighting AIDS”.

One of FWI’s central activities is the organization of conferences, in particular the ‘Global Family Forum’, at which it trains and briefs UN delegates on how the UN system is being “manipulated by sexual rights activists to promote the sexual agenda”. Programs involve mock negotiations around gender, sex education or various other human rights issues, and the conferences attract a diverse range of participants. According to FWI, its first conference, which was held in 2011, included “26 UN staffers from 23 different countries for a two-day conference on how to resist UN initiatives on sexuality”. In the words of Gillian Kane of IPAS, the organization prioritizes the cultivation of links with “individuals who can influence policy”, and in particular “stakeholders in the executive and legislative branches of government”, rather than wasting “time with small players”.

In doing so they’ve established a large number of collaborations with influential figures and bodies from across religious and political boundaries. The group actually rejects being labelled as part of the Christian right, insisting that they are instead a “non-denominational, nonpolitical group [who will] partner with anyone who believes in the value of family”. Their actions back this up, with the group showing willingness in the past to collaborate with actors whose human rights bona fides are, to put it mildly, contested. During the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2010, for example, Slater joined Iran, Syria, and Qatar to organize an event on motherhood.

FWI is a Mormon organization, with e.g. the President (Sharon Slater) as well as the Executive Director being Mormons themselves. Mormon organizations have shown willingness to form international alliances with other religious groups in order to spread their agenda. In the past this has included lobbying against the rights of women or LGBTQ citizens in campaigns which united conservative Christians and Muslims against liberal secularists. FWI fits into this tradition by collaborating with Muslim groups including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose representatives regularly participate in FWI’s Global Policy Forum. Slater herself also participates in OIC events including a panel debate organized by the OIC’s Human Rights Commission in December 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she spoke in a panel with Saudi and other OIC dignitaries about the “Right to Family Life”. The debate resulted in an outcome document which “strongly rejected [the discussion of] the so-called right of LGBTQ individuals to practice their way of life as a human rights issue”.

How does FWI build its influence?

FWI is a remarkably small organization with only a handful of employees, and its activities are centered almost entirely around Sharon Slater.[1] It is Slater who travels the world, constantly attending numerous conferences and advocating for FWI’s causes. The organization is not particularly well funded either- a review of FWI’s tax filings, which it submits under its legal name, Global Helping to Advance Women and Children, for example reveals its most recent total declared revenue – that of 2020 – to be no more than $262,235. The money does not go towards a large payroll, either; it was only in 2014 that the organization offered its first paid position, on a part-time salary.

Limited funding notwithstanding, FWI has been able to exercise much influence in its field of focus, in large part thanks to the international network they have established across Africa and elsewhere over the years. These collaborations are central to their functioning and influence. One key partner is the Nigerian Foundation for African Cultural Heritage (FACH), with whom FWI has long organized a range of conferences, including co-organizing the Global Policy Forum since its beginning in 2011. FACH also was the co-organizer of the Entebbe conference.

FACH describes its mission as “the preservation and promotion of African cultural values” over what it describes as “values and ideologies that run counter to African pro-family and pro-life values”. The foundation’s directors, Theresa Okafor and Sonnie Ekwowusi, are active opponents of LGBTQ rights in Nigeria and throughout Africa, with Okafor on record saying that LGBTQ rights are “another ploy to depopulate Africa’. She has collaborated closely with Sharon Slater for several years, not only frequently speaking at FWI events but also regularly inviting Slater to visit Nigeria. In a keynote to the Nigerian Bar Association Conference, Slater is reported to have warned delegates that “fictitious” sexual rights such as same-sex relationships threatened their own religious and parental rights.

Importantly, Okafor is the regional director for Africa of the World Congress of Families (WCF), another influential organization on the religious right. The WCF, itself designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, also justifies its advocacy against LGBTQ rights on the basis that it is protecting the natural family. Okafor, who was named WCF’s Natural Family Woman of the Year in 2014, has publicly emphasized WCF’s role in empowering anti-LGBTQ movements in Africa.

WCF also occupies an important place in the work of FWI and Slater, who describes experiencing a political awakening while attending the WCF in 1999. “Before attending my first World Congress of Families in Geneva in 1999, I had never been involved in a cause. That experience changed the direction of my life”, she said, and FWI was founded soon afterwards. Slater speaks at practically every annual global WCF conference, as well as many of their regional conferences. For example, in 2017 alone, publicly-available data shows Slater spoke at WCF conferences in Nigeria, Antigua, St Lucia, Hungary and Malawi.

It is this particular mix of WCF and FWI conferences and engagement that plays an important role in the encouragement of anti-LGBTQ sentiment and legislation across Africa. Both FWI and WCF are reported to have played an important role in the establishment of Nigeria’s 2012 anti-LGBT and anti-abortion laws, including through the WCF 2009 meeting in Nigeria. A similar scenario played out in Ghana, where WCF organized a conference in November 2019 officially on the topic of the ‘African family’, but in reality addressing similar issues, such as ‘LGBT’ and safeguarding ‘traditional values’. Sharon Slater was one of the speakers at the conference. About a year and a half later, in 2021, a stringent anti-LGBT bill was introduced in the country.  According to the coalition pushing the bill, the coalition was” affiliated to the World Congress of Families and then the UN Family Caucus with lots of international friends.” In October 2022, when FWI organised an ‘African Family Policy Conference’ in Utah, the event was attended by one of sponsors of the new law.

Lastly, Slater also has a number of links to Uganda. She’s the chair of an orphanage in the country, which has FWI’s legal entity, Global Helping to Advance Women and Children, listed as its overall funder and owner. The group is politically connected too; in 2002 Slater invited Janet Museveni, wife of the country’s autocratic President Museveni, to give the keynote speech at the World Congress of Families conference in New York, on abstinence-based programming in Uganda. In a 2008 article published on the organization’s blog Slater also explicitly mentions the Ugandan ambassador to the UN as an ally in their ‘pro-family work’ at the UN. Slater also participated in a pro-family training event in Uganda in August 2021 organized by Human Life International, another anti-LGBTQ organization. In 2018, FWI wrote a 51-page “Analysis of Uganda’s National Sexuality Education Framework: Ten Areas of Concern.

Martin Ssempa, one of the most vocal anti-gay activists and a driving force behind Uganda’s 2014 anti-gay law, was long listed as FWI’s Africa coordinator, with the organization’s website describing him as an “internationally renowned family activist”. FWI ended their association with Ssempa when they became aware of his support of a proposed law in Uganda which called for the execution of citizens who engaged in “aggravated homosexuality”. The decision appears to have been a tactical move to distance them from the bill, which prompted substantial international outcry. Many dispute FWI’s claims of distance from the previous and current bills. Ugandan LGBTQ advocate and Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) Frank Mugisha argues that “behind the scenes she’s heavily involved in the anti-gay legislation; even in the first one, ten years ago, she was heavily involved”. Fox Odoi, the only MP who voted against the recent bill, argues that, “Among the Pentecostals, Sharon Slater is particularly influential […] I know they’re lobbying seriously the President to assent to the bill- both the Americans and the local Evangelicals”. Lastly, it has also been reported that Slater is an active organizer in a private WhatsApp group of over 150 ultra-conservative campaigners in Uganda, which also played a role in the emergence of the anti-gay bill.

The conference in Entebbe: the FWI ‘conference package’ arrives in Uganda

The Uganda conference fits into the pattern of conferences for FWI. Similar to many of its other conferences, the event in Entebbe was co-organized by FACH and involved several figures who frequently feature at WCF or FWI events. But while it was clearly a product of this FWI ‘conference package’, FWl tried as much as possible to mask their involvement before the conference. In a program distributed before the event Sharon Slater uses her maiden name, Deon Ruff, while her husband appears as Greg Scott (instead of Greg Slater). A number of African participants used their real names but omitted their association with FWI. An FWI film, prominently placed in the conference program, didn’t disclose its FWI association.

The reason for this seems to be an attempt to avoid the abovementioned attention to American evangelical involvement, and the risks this entailed. One activist suggests that FWI’s attempts at concealment show that they “were trying to hide, out of fear for being named and shamed, for being associated with the anti-gay policies”.

This also explains as to why, when FWI’s involvement became visible, it published a long response on their website to clarify the “many false news reports” and “disinformation” reported about their activities in Uganda, and to state how it was strongly against the current and previous anti-LGBT legislation, and how it has never been involved in any efforts to this extent across Africa.

Yet, recordings of speeches at the conference, which were shared with me, paint a different picture. Opening speeches by various officials clearly mention and thank FWI as the co-organizer, and Sharon Slater herself was very much present as a central organizational figure at the conference, with one attendee describing her as ‘clearly being in charge’.

In the statement on their website, FWI firmly states how they do not work ‘to change laws in Africa and in other countries (sic)”, instead stating how FWI only helps “countries protect their national children, laws, cultures and values, not to change them”. Again, leaked audio recordings of Slater’s speech at the conference suggest otherwise.  While Slater was particularly careful to avoid references to (anti-) LGBTQ issues in her speech, she was particularly explicit in positioning FWI as a partner capable of assisting with ‘model legislation’ on a range of conservative issues. She offered delegates assistance in drafting legislation in a variety of fields, saying, “We can connect you to our model legislation, positive legislation to protect the family on various issues; on pornography, religious freedom, transgenderism, the family, sex education, parental rights, protection of life”.

The conference also had FWI written all over it, almost literally. A program circulated before the Entebbe conference, which was leaked to me, uses exactly the same layout, template, images, font, and other design elements as the program accompanying a previous FWI conference, the ‘African Family Policy Conference’ held in Utah in October 2022. Moreover, a check of the Word document properties revealed that Sharon Slater herself was the last person to modify it. The modifications were done hurriedly, though, and the program even mistakenly lists its dates as those of the FWI Utah conference. Such mistakes hint at the extent to which the conference was a cut-and-paste replication of previous FWI conferences, both figuratively and literally.

The conference as an anti-LGBTQ platform

In an introductory keynote of the conference, Bishop Lwere, the long-serving head of Uganda’s born-again Pentecostal churches, presented Uganda and the anti-gay bill as the “bullet” helping Africa resist Western imperialism. “If you look at Africa, it’s shaped as a pistol, and Uganda is where the bullet is. Honorable Members of Parliament, you are our pistol; you stand for family, you stand for what you believe, you stand for our sovereignty as Africans.”

Although the title of the conference didn’t refer to anti-LGBTQ issues, much of its proceedings focused on the topic. Speeches explicitly thanked and applauded the Ugandan parliament for the anti-homosexuality act, framing it as a means for protecting African sovereignty and African values. Uganda was widely praised and described as being at the heart of this African resistance through its adoption of the legislation.

The framing of traditional values as a rejection of the “cultural imperialism” of Western countries featured on several occasions, an interesting coincidence as it is also one of FWI’s key points. In the words of Bishop Lwere, the “neocolonialism” which is “blackmailing and threatening” African societies has at its heart the “pagan idea” of a “global superstate where they control everybody”. MP Sarah Opendi, one of the key figures in the promotion of the anti-gay bill as well as a participant in the conference, repeated the same FWI talking points, arguing that foreign support to Africa is “being conditioned”, and that if “not strongly tackled, it will directly impact our African values”.

A second important theme at the conference was the perceived intrinsic immorality of homosexuality. In his speech, Chris Baryomunsi, Uganda’s Minister of Information and National Guidance and a medical doctor, argued that LGBTQ+ is the thin end of a wedge that threatens a variety of dangers, including what he claimed was “[…] ‘transbeast’ (…) That’s somebody born a human being, but he or she believes she should have been an animal, can you imagine? And then they put plus [here referring to LGBTQ+], meaning more are coming”.

Similar statements repeated elsewhere in the conference emphasized the assumed perversity of LGBTQ and associated lifestyles, mirroring a wider moral panic about homosexuality sweeping through Uganda’s state, society and churches. In this context, homosexuality has been associated with adult diapers and incontinence, animal sex tourism, and even rainbows, which were attacked on Ugandan social media in February this year after Uganda’s National Parents Association described them as ‘satanic’, signalling an ‘invasion of homosexuality through manipulation of children’s minds’. In scenes eerily reminiscent of similar cultural conflicts presently occurring in conservative American states, a freshly painted rainbow in a children’s park had to be removed.

In this context it is striking that Slater’s speech didn’t refer to LGBTQ issues- at least, not directly.[2] But the omission did nothing to change the fact that the subtext of the conference in Uganda was clear: it was about resisting LGBTQ, and Slater was explicitly being referred to.

Slater and FWI leave their mark

The day after the conference, the official Twitter account of the Ugandan Government tweeted a picture of conference participants meeting the President, with Sharon Slater and her husband next to him.  The tweet’s text read, “President Museveni calls on Africa to reject promotion of homosexuality”. The President later clarified statement in a series of other tweets and a press conference, describing homosexuality as a “vice” which is “a big threat and danger to the procreation of the human race”. Speaking at a press conference with Sharon Slater and other key figures of the conference, Janet Museveni lauded the Ugandan parliament for “standing up and passing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill” in order to “fight these evils in the world that are being forced on our children”, before going on to promise that “we will win this battle for humanity”.

Although FWI called the above meetings ‘impromptu’ and ‘unexpected’, the influence of Sharon Slater became clearer in the following days and weeks. After the Ugandan parliament approved the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it was up to the President to make a decision about whether to sign it into law or not. At the caucus of his governing NRM party in late April 2023– which was the key-moment where the President communicated his position on the bill – both MP Sarah Opendi (one of the key architects of the bill) and First Lady Janet Museveni mentioned Slater during their speeches, and both specifically referred to Slaters’ points on conversation therapy. Opendi described how “Sharon informed us that currently, in the US and other developed countries, there is medical therapy that is used to actually transform these people into the normal lives that they were before”. Janet Museveni cited Slater’s book titled Stand for the Family, which she said provides a “formula”, a “system, that helps those people to be normal again”.

Conversion therapy has been widely debunked and discredited by the academic and medical community; and various actors including the UN Human Rights Commission have shown how these practices can amount to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The practice remains a key talking point of FWI, however, with testimonies of those ‘cured’ by conversion therapy featuring in FWI’s yearly Global Forum. In the 2011 conference, Slater presented a person she described as a “patient” of such therapy. She claimed that the person “is successfully reorienting from homosexuality to heterosexuality”, before praising the success of such “therapy”. FWI is also a member of the ‘Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality (PATH)’ coalition, which describes itself as “non-profit coalition of organizations that help people with unwanted same-sex attractions”. The conversion issue was also discussed at the Entebbe Conference, where the Minister of information claimed that “homosexual recipients” can be counseled to “turn back and normalize. It is just a deviant behavior which is learnt and which can be unlearnt. That’s why they just do promotion and recruitment”.

After the conference, the ‘Entebbe principles’ were published, a list which re-states and updates FWI’s key demands such as the banning of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, the resisting of international agreements such as the ACP-EU post-Cotonou Agreement, and so on. In summary, despite describing itself as “countering foreign influence” – incidentally this was the title of its closing session – the conference was itself largely a foreign product.

What next?

What does all of the above mean for the involvement of the American religious right in Uganda?

Already before the current law, and the Entebbe conference, it had become risky for American religious actors to involve themselves with the anti-gay legislation in Uganda. As a result of this negative attention, any foreign involvement with the law had to happen as hidden as possible: as shown in this piece, FWI initially tried to hide its involvement in the conference. The aftermath of the Entebbe conference further illustrates that this engagement comes at a cost for American religious actors: The involvement of Slater and Family Watch International generated much negative attention – particularly in the US media, such as through a recent CNN report. This attention pushed FWI very much into defense mode. Through an extended response on their website, they tried to dissociate themselves as much as possible from the law and anti-gay dynamics in the country.

In this context, it is hard to uncover the direct role of FWI and others in writing of the current legislation. However, the above data however suggest that they did play a role in the dynamics around the law, such as the efforts to scale up the impact of the law to other African countries – through the Entebbe conference (which, as was shown, was the ‘FWI conference package’ arriving in Uganda); or by setting the language around the anti-gay debate – such as the use conversion therapy. 

Another way in which the influence of the American religious right will remain present is through individual linkages between key Ugandan actors – a strategy which overall is considered less risky.[3] This for example has been shown for key-players in the previous law, such as (MP) David Bahati or (Pastor) Martin Ssempa; and is also the case for a number of key-players in the current law: Sarah Opendi – the chairperson of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association[4], and Lucy Akello – are key-examples of this. Opposition MP Lucy Akello for example participated in recent conferences of the ‘Political Network of Values’ – such as last year’s ‘Transatlantic Summit’ in New York, which was sponsored by much of the eco-system of the religious right (such as FWI or C-FAM).[5]

As a Ugandan activist summarized in the introductory piece, with regards to the influence of the religious right: “the seeds were already planted; not much water is needed.” While the current presence of the American Religious Right should indeed not be overstated, they still can have a major impact: they are operating in a context which has become particularly receptive to these messages.

Kristof Titeca is Professor of Development Studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His latest book is ‘Nasser Road. Political Posters from Uganda’. Follow him on X at @KristofTiteca.

[1] The most extensive report written on FWI is this 2023 report, written by IPAS and Empower.

[2] Instead she spoke about comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and about a long list of the ways in which UN and other agencies are “all out to assault our children with their sexual agenda” and the ways in which they are trying to “recruit them to their cause” through the ‘multi-headed monster’ of CSE. The speech bombarded the audience with references to extreme sexual acts including bestiality and necrophilia which, Slater claims, are introduced through CSE. The topic of LGBTQ was notably absent, however, even when describing the wide range of tools, from handbooks and documentaries to model legislation, that FWI could offer activists seeking to “protect the family on various issues” from Western influence.

[3] One example of this risk is American Senator Republican Tim Walburg, who was present at the National Prayer Breakfast in Uganda last October, where he spoke in defense of AHA:  “Whose side do we want to be on? Not the World Bank, not the United States of America necessarily, not the UN – God’s side.”  At the same time, this event also proves the above point: it does come at a cost, with Walberg currently facing backlash in the US against his appearance – something which he already referred to in his speech: “This will probably get back to the national media in the United States, and I expect some pushback. But I’m not going to give in.”

[4] As a state minister for health, Akello  wanted to legalize abortion in 2013, and was responsible to draft the bill to this effect. She however changed her position radically on this: In 2018, it was reported how she was the chairperson of the Uganda Pro-life Parliamentary Caucus, advocating against abortion.

[5] In an Instagram video on the occasion of the event, she argues how the family is under attack, and suffering from ideological colonization. In another video of the fourth summit of transatlantic summit of the Political Network for Values, in Budapest in May 2022 (described as a “milestone for collaboration and the creation of pro-family, pro-life and pro-freedom policies around the world”). Also here, she complains about foreign ideological attacks on Africa; and the need to tackle the LGBT agenda. In her intervention, she also mentioned the presence of Sarah Opendi at the event.

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