The massive Blue Wave “in which edgier progressives dislodged establishment Democrats” in Massachusetts doesn’t mean we can coast to liberalism when hate is on the ballot. The extremist evangelical pastor Scott Lively, whose past work in Uganda campaigning against LGBTQ people triggered a refugee crisis that continues today, won a staggering 35 percent of the Republican gubernatorial primary vote.
Lively and his (as of this writing) 86,672 supporters show that Massachusetts isn’t immune to the crisis threatening our democracy: a small but vocal core of angry voters willing to embrace demagogues who demonize others. Sometimes the “others” are immigrants. Sometimes they are black, Latino, or Asian people. At this particular moment in Massachusetts, they are people who are transgender.
Between now and election day, millions of dollars will be spent on Ballot Question 3, which asks voters if they want to keep or repeal a 2016 Massachusetts law protecting the civil rights of transgender people in public places like restaurants, retail stores, and train stations. Lively’s success in Uganda is instructive for what it says about the sexual authoritarianism that underlies the concern-trolling of Question 3’s proponents, who conjure up phony threats about predators in women’s bathrooms. To defeat it, we need to understand it.
Lively’s first visit to Uganda, in 2002, to speak at an anti-pornography conference, put him in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the 1970s, Uganda’s population was traumatized by the homicidal dictator Idi Amin. In the 1980s, entire villages were wiped out by AIDS. In the 1990s, American evangelicals helped rebuild the country by paying for the construction of schools, churches, and even Christian broadcast networks. By 2002, as Christopher Stroop, an ex-evangelical scholar and writer, explained to me, being connected with American Christian leaders was “perceived as prestigious among Ugandan pastors and politicians.”
In a 2014 Mother Jones profile of Lively, Mariah Blake writes that Lively, “who was used to being heckled, was stunned by the positive reception he received at the gathering.” If Lively had had a powerful tool available to him like WhatsApp (which has been used to trigger mob violence in India by people forwarding fake stories about child kidnappers) his anti-LGBTQ propaganda might have spread throughout the country in a matter of hours. Instead it took about seven years.
Lively’s success at the anti-porn conference earned him an invitation to come back to Uganda from Stephen Langa, a leading Ugandan Assemblies of God pastor. Langa organized what Blake calls a “barnstorming tour” of the country during which Lively “met with lawmakers, lectured at universities, and gave a number of media interviews.”
Slowly, Lively’s anti-LGBTQ campaign spread from Kampala to the country’s rural villages. On Sunday mornings, Ugandan pastors lectured their congregants. Some actually screened videos of gay pornography during church services to drive home the message that LGBTQ people are depraved. (If you want to see something that is truly depraved, Google “eat da poo poo Africa do not want this sickness” to see celebrity Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa in action. Make sure you watch on an empty stomach, and consider yourself warned.)
Even as Lively’s vicious slurs about LGBTQ people were repeated by pastors and politicians, the community was organizing to fight back. In 2003, the lesbian group Members of Freedom and Roam Uganda formed. The following year saw the founding of the LGBTQ rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda, which is still active today. In 2008, two Ugandan gay activists who had been arrested for their pro-LGBTQ advocacy contested it by claiming that the Ugandan constitution protected them from violations of their “personal liberty.” In December of that year, the Ugandan High Court ruled in their favor.
Within three months of that court ruling — which was an unexpectedly strong finding for the LGBTQ community — Langa organized an emergency conference in response and invited Lively back to Uganda. The audience for Langa’s conference was a who’s who of influential Ugandans, including cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and religious leaders. On the last day, Lively gave a primer on homosexuality that included detailed descriptions of the behavior of gay men who suffer from “too much masculinity.” A video clip of that session shows Lively explaining that such gay men — who he believes led the Nazi Party — are “serial killers, mass murderers … the kind of person it takes to run a gas chamber.”
Lively’s extensive presentation, all five hours of it — which was delivered in a calm, conversational tone as he wielded an oversized marker to illustrate his points on poster paper — was broadcast on Ugandan television. Three weeks later, a member of Uganda’s parliament filed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which called for the death penalty for anyone convicted of being LGBTQ. In a matter of months, as The New York Times reported in a piece headlined “Gay in Uganda, and Feeling Hunted,” hate crimes against LGBTQ people became common. Not long after that, thousands of LGBTQ Ugandans began fleeing the country, seeking refuge in Kenya, South Africa, and the United States.
The crisis continues today. Victor P. Chikalogwe is the acting director of refugee programs for People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, a Cape Town, South Africa-based nonprofit that assists refugees and asylum-seekers. The organization cares for “a community of LGBTI refugees from Uganda who left because of what happened after Scott Lively was there,” Chikalogwe told me. “Most of them now, if they went back, their lives would be in danger.”
The refugees Chikalogwe works with are hardly alone. There are numerous reports of LGBTQ refugees from Manchester, England to Edmonton, Canada currently fighting deportation for fear that they will be killed if sent back to Uganda. A woman in Boston recently lost her deportation appeal and will be sent back to the East African country, a ruling that her attorneys described as a “death sentence.” One of the world’s largest refugee camps, the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, is home to so many LGBTQ Ugandans that they organized a Pride event this past June that drew approximately 600 participants, including LGBTQ refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
The unspoken strategy for dealing with Lively throughout the primary was to ignore him. Gov. Charlie Baker, the incumbent Republican whom Lively was hoping to unseat, refused to debate him. Other than offering the observation at the GOP convention that there’s “no place and no point in public life — in any life — for a lot of the things Scott Lively says and believes,” Baker had little else to say about his primary opponent. The rest of the GOP establishment followed suit.
The absence of a local outcry against Lively during the primary campaign baffles Stroop, the ex-evangelical. “Scott Lively should not be treated as an outlier,” he says. “There’s a danger in ignoring the radical Christian right in general as a force that has no impact.”
John Abdallah Wambere, cofounder of the Kampala-based LGBTQ rights organization Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, agrees. “Because of Scott Lively, the lives of many young Ugandans were shattered. They lost their futures,” Wambere told me.
“Right now in this state there are people who support his [Lively’s] views and ideas. What does that mean?” asks Wambere, who successfully sought asylum in the United States to escape death threats he received after the Anti-Homosexuality Act passed in 2014 and now lives in Massachusetts. “Some of the laws that have been already passed in the state [the transgender civil rights law] are being contested, which clearly shows he has people who agree with his ideas. So speaking out and chastising the residents of Massachusetts is indeed necessary.”
Persuading voters to keep the transgender civil rights law won’t be as easy as you might think given the Blue Wave that swept the state yesterday. Polling shows that the campaign is going to be extremely close. The propaganda pushed by Question 3’s proponents echoes the lies Lively spread in Uganda. It consists of fear-mongering and deeply misleading videos and attributing the criminal behavior of cisgender men to transgender women.
Although Lively is temporarily gone from the stage, he’s been replaced by Geoff Diehl, who won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Diehl does not have the overtly anti-LGBTQ background that Lively does (few people do). But a Venn diagram of their political views — best described as Trumpism — is a circle. Unlike Lively, Diehl will be lavished with attention by the political press, including national reporters eager to portray Diehl as the conservative foil to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Most of it will be of the political horse race variety which will not challenge Diehl’s extreme views on immigration, gun laws, the environment — and transgender people. There is no reason to believe that Diehl won’t try to leverage the fear whipped up by Question 3’s proponents — and even stir some up himself — to bring attention to his longshot campaign.
Fortunately, Massachusetts has no shortage of political, civic, business, public safety, and religious leaders who will speak out on behalf of transgender people in opposition to Question 3. Unfortunately, the voice of the country’s most popular governor is the one that matters the most, and it has been silent on the rights of transgender people.
Baker’s refusal to take Lively on even as the state is gearing up for a civil rights referendum was cowardly. The decision may have reflected Baker’s own ambivalence about civil rights for transgender people. During his first run for governor, in 2010, Baker’s campaign distributed a flier to GOP delegates at the state convention expressing his opposition to the “Bathroom Bill.” In 2016, he was booed off the stage during his keynote address for an LGBTQ business networking event when he refused to answer questions about whether he would sign the transgender rights bill. The group now defending the trans rights law led the campaign for its passage in 2016. While its strategy was multi-faceted, in the end it came down to shaming Baker into signing the bill.
Having failed to speak out against Lively and his odious ideas during the primary campaign, Baker must now speak out forcefully against the campaign to deprive transgender people of their civil rights. If he refuses and Question 3 is passed — with support from all those Republicans who backed him in the primary — he will be as complicit as Lively. For someone who has portrayed himself as a moderate and a uniter, it would not just be a permanent stain on his record, but yet another sign that the Republican Party is the party of Trump, even here in Massachusetts.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.