Karen Ocamb

CA Rep.: Black Activists Needed to Save Gays in Africa

Filed By Karen Ocamb | August 12, 2014 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Africa, California, God Loves Uganda, Karen Bass, Los Angeles, Uganda

karen-bass-jeff-king.jpgRep. Karen Bass, ranking member of the impossibly-named House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, was greeted warmly by In the Meantime Men's President Jeffrey King on Saturday, Aug. 9, before a town hall meeting at The Carl Bean House in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. It was an afternoon of truth-telling and solution-seeking as the former community activist talked about the historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and how local African-American activists might respond to the spate of anti-homosexuality laws hurting LGBT people in 37 African countries.

At the end of the hour-long discussion, one take-away seemed the most feasible: create a grassroots campaign to bring awareness to and raise money for local LGBT groups in Africa that know how best to respond on the ground.

Bass was introduced by Darryn Harris, a former staffer who is now Assistant Director for Government and Community Relations at UCLA and is considered a young power player among LGBT African-American leaders. Harris heads the Black Los Angeles Young Democrats, which co-sponsored the town hall with In The Meantime Men's X-Homophobia Campaign, Holman United Methodist Church, and the Los Angeles Black LGBT Network.

Harris reminded the audience that Bass founded the South L.A.-based Community Coalition in 1992 and in 2008 was elected Speaker of the California Assembly, the nation's first African-American woman to hold such an exalted position. In Nov. 2012, she was re-elected to a second term serving the 37th Congressional District.

Bass said she's not an expert on LGBT issues in Africa but wanted to share what she's learned. She reported that the "overall thrust" of the White House-organized U.S.-African Leaders Summit was focused on business, good governance, security, human rights, and leadership. But because the official agenda was restricted to invited guests only, more than 100 other activities were organized to include the public, including Bass' Growth and Opportunity in Africa Forum and a panel organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (on which Bass sits as a board member) where LGBT issues such as the criminalization of homosexuality and HIV were discussed. (See video of the event here.)

Bass said what's happening on LGBT issues is "very sad" and appears "to be a pretty orchestrated phenomenon and attack," obliquely referring to the anti-gay evangelical movement -- illustrated in the film God Loves Uganda -- that outraged her.

"This is such an incredible period of time where you have in many countries movements that are trying to take us back centuries. That's never happened before," Bass said. "Whether you're talking about the Taliban, or what's happening in Iraq now or Boko Haram [in Nigeria]... the whole idea of Sharia Law. Obviously, when you have movements trying to move the clock back on a lot of issues, LGBT rights would be dialed back," as well.

Uganda and Nigeria have received a lot of attention, but part of the problem with a response is the lack of understanding of Africa, per se, Bass said. Americans think Africa is a country "the size of Texas," without realizing it is a continent with a total of 53 countries and more than one billion people that can fit the U.S., China, India and other countries within its borders.

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"In terms of the response from the U.S. government, there's a conflict going on. There are people in the State Department who are pushing to either have us cut off relations, cut off foreign aid, or take measures like that toward African countries," Bass said. "Obviously we did not do that," by inviting Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

"We did cancel some funding and we took funding for Uganda and some programs and moved it out of the government to NGOs (non-governmental organizations)," Bass added. "We cancelled military exercises. I talked to the Ugandan ambassador and they are definitely feeling the bite from that."

She then got to the nub of the issue:

"We've been very inconsistent about human rights. Sometimes we're concerned about them and sometimes we're not. We tend to be very concerned about human rights issues and governments that we don't agree with. We tend to not want to talk about it if they are governments we agree with. So in that inconsistency in the political environment that I have to live in, this issue ain't coming up, OK? So on my committee, it's not happening. And I sit on the committee of human rights, but this is not a human rights issue that warrants a hearing."

But Bass said, the Congressional Black Caucus has been "very active," though without publicity. And the Democratic Caucus cares. "But there isn't a vehicle in which to bring this up in Congress overall, as long as the Republicans are in charge and the Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party."

Holman pastor Kevin Sauls (below) asked the question that would dominate the discussion: How do we as activists--as people of faith--respond to this so it's in the long-term interests of our brothers and sisters on the continent, so they are empowered and protected?

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein emphasized that the laws have a terrible ripple effect as well:

AHF has 48,000 patients in Uganda and more than 150 staff. We have many MSM patients. And it's really had a devastating impact - not only in relation to discrimination and persecution of men who have sex with men but because it endangers healthcare workers because the law required them to turn people in. Actually, an American-based agency was raided and people were arrested. So would the United States grant asylum - our organization helped one individual get asylum in the Netherlands but - [a Uganda tabloid] published the names with pictures of 100 people. Would those people be eligible for asylum?

Bass said she didn't know. "But the good thing is that wouldn't have to come before Congress. Congress doesn't want to grant asylum to five-year-olds who walked from Central America here." Bass said she'd find out more about that.

kevin-sauls-karen-bass.jpgBut Bass emphasized that "an entire panel of activists" at the Summit "were opposed to cutting off aid." So she pulled aside two LGBT activists to get their perspective:

I don't think we always know what to do. We just do this knee-jerk thing--we need to tell the government what to do or cut off the money or yada yada. And they were like, 'Could you guys please chill!' They said, 'When you wage campaigns to cut off aid--do you realize you're targeting us? Because then the people in the villages will say--the aid got cut off because of you guys.' That kind of blew me away. I had my concern about aid, but I certainly didn't think about it that way.

So they said, 'Look we know how to organize in our own community. Could you please get us resources for our grassroots groups?'

The activists then described how bigger, well-connected groups get funded and smaller groups "don't get anything at all."

One of the women, from Kenya, also explained how they used "guerrilla tactics" with state legislators to prevent an anti-gay law from being introduced. "If they used major confrontational tactics, they would have ginned up the side they were trying to prevent, and the law would have gone through," Bass said the woman told her. "

So I think it's important that when we look at the anti-LGBT laws, we also look at them in the bigger context of a bunch of laws that are coming down that are as crazy as they can be," citing as an example the law passed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that changed the legal age for marriage for a girl to eight.

ITMTM President Jeffrey King pointed out that a screening of God Loves Uganda raised $290, which they Western Unioned to a gay man in Uganda. But where are the faith-based groups and affirming churches? Is there a hub for them in the White House, as there seems to be for the anti-gay evangelicals?

That was a point the two Ugandan lesbians also raised with her, Bass said. "Would you guys please take care of your own place and stop sending these people over here?" Bass noted that in the film, one person openly says, 'We lost [in the U.S.] so now we have to go over and save Uganda.'

"I really think there has been a level of silence on that. The White House does have a lot of faith-based initiatives in a lot of categories, but I'm not sure about that." Bass said she'd find out.

Bass said she asked the women to talk to other LGBT African activists and put together a position paper "and tell us what it is we should do? We need to get instruction from the people effected by this. What is the best U.S. response? Tell us what it is?"

In the meantime, Bass said she is checking with the National Endowment for Democracy, which funds NGOS, to see if they are doing anything. (NED's website needs updating.)

Bass then suggested a response:

[I]f you think about a campaign that could be done--that could raise awareness that these grassroots groups even exist, that they're going about it their way, based on their specific situation--if there was a lot of awareness around that and people were directing energy and dollars towards supporting them--one thing we know--it doesn't take a lot of money. That $250 was a lot of money in an African context.

And how wonderful would that be because we could send money that doesn't have strings attached. It's unrestricted money for them to do with what they choose to do. Because that's the other complaint they had. When you look for funding, it's programmatic, so we will give you funding to distribute condoms but nothing else. So they want money that is unrestricted so they can build their organizations.

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Rep. Karen Bass with Jewel Thais-Williams, the "mother" of the black LGBT community in L.A., the founder of the historic Catch One Disco, and of the alternative healthcare clinic, The Village Heath Foundation.


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