Friday, June 03, 2016

Uganda Martyrs raise questions on homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights

Uganda Martyrs (with Saint Charles Lwanga in the center) by Albert Wider (Wikimedia Commons)

Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is June 3.

Forty-five Ugandan male pages refused to have sex with their king after they converted to Christianity -- so he executed them. Many were burned to death on June 3, 1886. These boys and young men were canonized by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, leaving some truths hidden by their halos.

Does the experience of the Ugandan martyrs illustrate a gay king being oppressed and demonized by conservative Christians? Or does it exemplify Christians heroically trying to rescue boys from sexual abuse by a pedophile king? Did Christians teach young African men shame about their own same-gender-loving desires? Or did Christians give the pages a way to refuse rape by a ruler with absolute authority? Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between? How can the story be interpreted so that LGBT Ugandans have equal access to justice... and to God?

The Uganda Martyrs are little known in the West, but they are famous in much of Africa. Martyrs Day on June 3 is a national holiday in Uganda. The story is called “African Christianity’s most celebrated martyr-passion narrative” by religion scholar Kenneth Hamilton. They were canonized in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.

The 45 martyrs were executed in 1886, but they are still important now with Uganda at the center of worldwide debate on homosexuality and the recent release of the film “God Loves Uganda.” The award-winning documentary exposes the role of today’s American evangelical missionaries in persecuting LGBT Africans and promoting a harsher law against homosexuality.

Once again LGBT Christians are caught in the middle as conservative Christians and LGBT advocates offer dueling interpretations use the story of the Ugandan martyrs for their own purposes. Perhaps this uncomfortable position gives a perspective that can shed fresh light on the event. The history doesn’t fit neatly into the usual debates about the church versus homosexuality.

The Uganda Martyrs have been used to instill homophobia and, as Pope Pope John Paul II put it, “to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” The story weaves together homo-hatred, racism, and imperialism that are still affecting the world today. Conservatives play up the sexual angle in salacious detail to win converts, discredit the LGBT-rights movement and promote “chastity.” At the other extreme, LGBT-rights advocates use the story to prove that homosexuality was indigenous to Africa, not a “western import” as the anti-gay faction claims. They tend to ignore the difference between sex and rape, while both sides blur the line between homosexuality and pedophilia.

Ultimately the story leads back to the same questions that people of faith are grappling with all over the world now: How can the church condemn sexual abuse while still affirming the goodness of sexuality, including same-sex relationships? The search for a new LGBT-positive sexual ethics is expressed in books such as “Sex as God Intended” by gay priest and psychotherapist John McNeill and “Sexuality and the Sacred,” edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow.

Today’s understanding of human psychology shows that rape is violence, not sex, and that pedophilia is not homosexuality, regardless of the gender of the child targeted. Christianity has been used to oppress queer people and colonize native peoples, but sometimes it has also provided an escape from abuse and an alternative to heterosexual marriage.

I watched “God Loves Uganda” for the first time in 2014 when it was broadcast on PBS (and released on DVD). Many others have praised the film, so I will focus here on questions that it raised in my mind.

I agree that American evangelicals are whipping up anti-LGBT sentiments in Uganda now to fuel their own power and egos. I also agree that American LGBT activists should be involved to some extent in Uganda to counteract the hate that is being imported. Thanks in part to the film, Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act law was eased so that homosexuality is punished by imprisonment, not the death penalty.

But what do Ugandans really want, apart from all this outside influence? Before Europeans brought Christianity and colonialism, what did the people of Uganda think about homosexuality?

It’s hard to say. I did a lot of research, but reliable answers are not easy to find. Sara Weschler offers the insights of a foreigner working in Uganda in her article, “How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda’s Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse” at

“One problem with Western LGBT activism vis-à-vis Uganda is that it is largely carried out by people who know little about the country beyond its stance on sexual orientation.... Gay rights will come to Uganda, but they will come slowly, and they will come only as part of a wider movement toward social justice in the country.”

Like many progressive reports on Uganda and homosexuality, the movie “God Loves Uganda” doesn’t even mention the Uganda Martyrs. It’s easier to omit the inconvenient truth of male-male sexual exploitation in the past. But no history of homosexuality in Uganda is complete without discussing the Ugandan martyrs killed in1886.

Here is a closer look at what happened. The Uganda Martyrs died at a time of tremendous change and culture clash in Uganda. The first Christian missionaries had arrived there only about a decade earlier in 1877. Arabs introduced Islam to Uganda at about the same time. It was still a few years before the British annexed the country in 1884.

King Mwanga II of Bugunda, now part of Uganda, was having sex on demand with the young men (and maybe boys) who served as his pages. He has been called “Africa’s most famous homosexual.” But maybe his sexuality was more complex. He had wives and children, so he might have been bisexual. He has been labeled a pedophile, but he was still a teenager himself. He began to reign at age 16 and was about 18 at the time of the executions. No matter how old the king’s sex partners were, requiring sexual service on pain of death is more like rape than gay sex between consenting adults. The youngest martyr, Saint Kizito, was about fourteen year old.

Saint Kizito, Uganda Martyr (Wikimedia Commons)

The crisis started when the king’s favorite pageboy, Mwafu, joined others in resisting his sexual demands. The royal pages were members of the elite, the noble sons of chiefs, but they ranked low in the king’s court. Some of them converted to Christianity and started denying King Mwanga the usual “pleasure,” so he rounded up the pages and ordered them to choose between him and Christianity. Only three chose the king. The rest of the pages got the death sentence. A large group ended up being marched eight miles and burned to death on Namugongo hill, where a shrine has been built. When all the killing was done, the victims were 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics, including chief pages Joseph Mukasa (first black Catholic martyr on the African continent) and Charles Lwanga.

“St. Charles Lwanga” by Julile Lonneman (

The earliest accounts report that the king had sex with his male pages, but over the years there has been increasing emphasis on the “sinful demands” and “perversion” of the “debauched” king. Toxic colonial hagiography mixed homophobia with racist fears about the “dark.” uncivilized, heathens of Africa. The dead were quickly nominated as saints, and were canonized as official martyrs in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches.

A helpful queer analysis of the martyrdom is provided by Kenneth Lewis Hamilton, who wrote about the Uganda Martyrs in several scholarly articles and in his Ph.D. dissertation at Union Institute and University. Hamilton identifies himself as “an Afri-guided, postcolonial, queer, ordained, Catholic missioner.” He writes in an article titled “The Flames of Namugongo: Postcoloniality Meets Queer on African Soil?”:

And so, the establishment of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and Anglican Christianity—in Uganda directly coincides with a narrative about transgressive same sex desire. This makes for a provocative beginning for Christian discourse in Eastern Africa; and the subsequent canonization of the martyrs inscribes dark, dangerous desire into the very skin of Christian Uganda. The canonization, indeed, is a preached message; the narrative of the “martyrdom” now becomes part of a canon of new narratives: the ones about sodomy, race, desire and conquest.

The same article concludes:

I want to get more pictures of the martyrs into African chapels and online….I want more pictures of the martyr-boys on our black Catholic walls. These are the bodies and clans that now inhabit the heavens. But they do so like the slaves did: as a subversive presence, smiling in your face, but always ready to revolt and set each other free.

Inspired by these words by Hamilton, I searched the Internet for images of the Ugandan martyrs to accompany this reflection. First I found various icons.  Then I was stunned to discover an actual group photograph of the martyrs themselves, taken about a year before they were killed. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the photo for a long time. And their faces still haunt me.

Some of the future Uganda Martyrs were photographed in 1885, less than a year before they were killed, at Bukumbi Mission in Mwanza (northern Tanganyika). They went there to welcome the new Catholic bishop, Leon Livinhac.

I was doubly surprised that the queer analysis of the Ugandan martyrs in “The Flames of Namugongo” included a prayer from one of my own books, “Equal Rites.”

I wanted to end this reflection with a prayer too. First I looked at the official church prayers dedicated to the Uganda Martyrs, but they focused heavily on Christian faith and even “chastity, purity, and sexual morality.” They didn’t seem suitable for a reflection that seeks to develop a new ethics and spirituality that affirms loving same-sex relationships between consenting adults.

So I bring this to a close with the same prayer that Hamilton quoted from “Equal Rites.” These words were written by Elias (Ibrahim) Farajaje-Jones in his “Invocation of Remembrance, Healing, and Empowerment in a Time of AIDS”:

Yes, we honor you, our sisters and brothers.
Yes, we remember and recognize you have gone before us.
Without you, we would not exist here today.
Through us, you live on from generation to generation, from everlasting to everlasting.
And so we commit ourselves to a spirit of resistance and life.
We raise our light, our lives, our hope, our love, and we say boldly
and without fear, "Never again!" [Equal Rites, page 27]

I give the last word to one of the Uganda Martyrs. These lines are attributed to Bruno Serunkuma, spoken shortly before he was killed:

"A well that has many sources never runs dry. When we are gone, others will come after us."

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Mártires de Uganda plantean preguntas sobre la homosexualidad, la religión y los derechos LGBTI

Related links, queer interpretations and news:

Report: Anti-LGBT persecution increased under Uganda law (Washington Blade 2016)

Colonial Legacies, Decolonized Spirits: Balboa, Ugandan Martyrs and AIDS Solidarity Today” by Kenneth Hamilton (Journal of Bisexuality)

When Sodomy Leads to Martyrdom: Sex, Religion, and Politics in Historical and Contemporary Contexts in Uganda and East Africa” by John Blevins (Journal of Bisexuality)

Uganda Martyrs: Charles Lwanga and Companions (Queering the Church)

The Martyrs of Uganda witness against sexual violence (Daily Episcopalian)


"Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa" by Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken (Editors)

Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS” (book) by Marc Epprecht

Freedom To Love For ALL: Homosexuality is not Un-African” (book) by Yemisi Ilesanmi

American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism” by Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities” (book) by Will Roscoe

Related links, Catholic and standard Christian interpretations:

Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine (official website)

St. Charles Lwanga and Companions (

The Story of the Ugandan Martyrs (America magazine)

The Uganda Martyrs: Their Countercultural Witness Still Speaks Today (The Word Among Us)

African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs” (book) by John F. Faupel (Author)

Related links at Jesus in Love:

David Kato: Ugandan LGBT rights activist (1964-2011)

A saint for kidnapped girls of Nigeria: Josephine Bakhita

Icons of Charles Lwanga and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

This post is part of the LGBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


DeMon Spencer said...

I watched that documentary in 2014 as well. Of course I was outraged and saddened by the homophobia that condoned and excused violence against that country's sexual minority. The interviews of random Ugandans was perhaps the scariest part of the film for me. Violence against lgbt people was discussed openly and very proudly. I'm not sure why the film makers did not include the story about the martyrs. It was important to include that part of Ugandan history because it helps to explain the origins of a lot of the Ugandans homophobic beliefs. It's not an excuse for intolerance and violence at all but it puts it in a context that makes a lot more sense to me. The documentary left you with the feeling that American evangelicals were the only source of the homophobic atmosphere in Uganda that led to the "kill the gays bill". After reading your blog post it seems that takeaway was a little misleading.

Thank you for writing this because having all the facts is the only way we're going to improve the lives of the lgbt people in that country.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, DeMon, for an insightful comment. I just watched "God Loves Uganda" again last week and had the same impression. It oversimplifies the situation by focusing only on American evangelicals. But overall I still found it a compelling introduction to the plight of LGBTQ people in Uganda.

DeMon Spencer said...

I agree that even with it's flaws it was still an amazing documentary and it brought international attention to a part of the world that usually gets ignored by American media. Without it I probably wouldn't have been aware of the kill the gays bill.