Last night Rachel Maddow discussed the terrifying bill in Uganda that would make homosexuality punishable by life in prison, and the American religious zealots who influenced the disturbing legislation.
According to CNN, the bill in question would impose a lifetime prison sentence on anyone caught having gay sex. It would impose the death penalty on homosexuals who have sex with minors, or who have gay sex more than once (because obviously, those things are morally equivalent). It would effectively ban HIV/AIDS prevention education, would imprison those who fail to report homosexual behavior, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, would allow people to be executed for having HIV. The bill even mandates that Ugandans who engage in homosexual sex abroad be returned to Uganda for prosecution. A coalition of American Christian leaders have denounced the bill, and human rights groups are asking Western countries to deny aid to Uganda if it passes. But some Americans seem to have helped inspire the bill.
Rick Warren, for instance, told a conference of Ugandan Anglican Bishops last year that the right to homosexuality was not a valid human right, and that "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all." His mentor, C. Peter Wagner, was a direct inspiration for the legislators behind the bill. According to Jeff Sharlet, a professor of religion and media at NYU, the legislator who introduced the Ugandan bill is a member of the fundamentalist group called The Family, which also includes American lawmakers like Sen. John Ensign (known for his impeccable sexual morality).
Then there's Richard Cohen. Cohen claims he is both a former gay man and a therapist (he's not licensed). His book Coming Out Straight was cited as an authoritative text at the conference that led to the Ugandan anti-gay bill, as proof that homosexuality was actually misdirected love for a parent. On Rachel Maddow, he responded to Maddow's claim that he has "blood on his hands."
Throughout the interview, Cohen tries to distance himself from the legislation and appear as harmless as possible. He claims his organization teaches compassion and tells Maddow, "we are for your right and anyone's right to live a homosexual life." Cohen's book claims that gays are much more likely to molest schoolchildren, feeding Ugandan fears of "recruiting" — but Cohen says he's going to excise that quote from the next edition (potentially, after the bill is passed). He says that he's not trying to "cure" homosexuality. And when Maddow points out that his other book, Gay Children, Straight Parents, lists "race" as a risk factor for homosexuality, he claims not to know how that got in there.
Cohen repeats a number of times that he's only interested in treating "unwanted" same-sex attraction, that he thinks people have the right to live as they wish, and that he's against the Ugandan bill. All these things may be true. At the same time, it's hard not to suspect him of double-talk — of saying one thing on a show with a liberal audience and hosted by an openly gay woman, and another to groups of homophobes and zealots. He's not the only one — Warren too has tried to distance himself from the Ugandan bill without condemning it outright. American fundamentalists appear to have learned that there are certain things you can't say in front of American audiences without losing your mainstream cred. However, you can still say those things (like that practicing your sexual orientation is not a human right) overseas, and you can support others who say them — as long as you're not worried about people dying.