Scott Lively made international headlines after an incendiary 2009 visit to Uganda during which he urged leaders to fight the “gay agenda.” Soon after, a member of the country’s Parliament submitted a bill calling for the execution of some homosexuals. Ugandan activists are now suing Lively for persecution—a crime against humanity. So what’s next for the Springfield pastor? He’s exploring a run for governor, of course.
Photos by Christopher Churchill
On the morning of January 7, nearly 200 people lined up outside the federal courthouse in Springfield, eager to watch the controversial anti-gay evangelical pastor Scott Lively squirm in front of a judge. The day was sunny and warm. As snow melted on the steps, LGBT advocates passed out fliers and held multi-colored cardboard signs above their heads that read, “Gay rights are human rights,” “Persecution is a crime,” and “Lively is deadly.” Off to the side, about 20 of Lively’s supporters huddled together.
A squat, 54-year-old barrel of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Lively had been summoned to court that morning for a preliminary hearing, after having been sued by a group of Ugandan activists for persecution, which international law defines as a crime against humanity. The group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, claims that as part of a decade-long campaign, Lively had conspired with Ugandan government officials and community leaders to deliberately persecute homosexuals in the country. The suit drew special attention to a high-profile visit that Lively had made to Uganda in 2009, which, it alleges, “ignited a cultural panic and atmosphere of terror that radically intensified the climate of hatred in which Lively’s goals of persecution could advance.” Lively was propelled into the international spotlight not long afterward, when a bill was introduced into the Ugandan Parliament that demanded execution as the punishment for some kinds of same-sex relations. “We must exterminate homosexuals,” one member of Parliament thundered at the time, “before they exterminate society.”
Inside the Springfield courthouse, it took more than an hour to herd everyone through security. It was a mob scene, comparable to a celebrity murder trial. The courtroom itself was not nearly large enough to hold the crush of visitors, so the authorities opened up two overflow courtrooms, where those not able to view the action in person could watch it on closed-circuit TVs. One security guard on duty that day told me he’d never seen as large a crowd at the courthouse.
Wearing a dark suit, Lively knifed his way through the crowd and into the courtroom with his attorneys. A protester shouted, “I am the person you want to kill. How does that make you feel?” Later, Lively told me that he’d slept well the night before. “The Bible predicts that Christians would sit in seats like this and have to face these kinds of things,” he said. “I’m not surprised, and I’m ready to do whatever the Lord has for me to do.”
Lively made his controversial trip to Uganda in March 2009, during which he hammered home a single idea to which he has devoted much of his life: that homosexuality is evil, dangerous, and against God’s will. Homosexuality was already illegal by the time of his visit, and in Kampala, the capital, he found a ready audience for his message. He says that he met at length there with leading government figures to discuss the issue; that he addressed it in newspaper interviews, two radio shows, and a one-hour live program on national television; and that he delivered talks about the “gay agenda” at churches, schools, and universities around Kampala. Homosexuals, he declared at one talk, are predators and pedophiles who hunt down children to turn them gay—and worse. “You can’t stop [them] from molesting children,” he said, “or stop them from having sex with animals.”
A YouTube video survives of Lively delivering one of his Kampala talks, a keynote address at an anti-gay conference held from March 5 to 7 at the upscale Hotel Triangle. He had been invited by the Family Life Network, a Ugandan organization led by the prominent pastor and community organizer Stephen Langa, who Sexual Minorities Uganda claims in its lawsuit has been a “co-conspirator” of Lively’s since 2002. Wearing dark slacks and a white shirt, Lively introduced himself to a crowd of religious leaders, government officials, police officers, parents, and teachers.
“My name is Scott Lively,” he began. “I have a brother and a sister who went into homosexuality…. I know about these things personally. After 20 years of observing this as my primary emphasis of my ministry…I know more about this than almost anyone in the world.” He then moved on to the meat of his presentation, spelling out the unsavory ways in which the gay movement in Uganda was dedicated to undermining society. Homosexuality, he argued, is a treatable disorder like alcoholism, and can be cured, but left unchecked it would destroy Ugandan life. The message visibly alarmed some in the crowd. “You could tell how afraid they were, that they needed to stop the gay agenda from happening,” says Reverend Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest and vocal critic of Lively’s who was in the audience that day.
Lively spent three days at the conference, and his reach during his trip was extraordinary. The evening of his arrival, he says, he met with more than 50 members of Parliament. He also claims to have spoken privately for 30 minutes with the country’s minister of ethics and integrity. In all, he estimates, he directly addressed about 10,000 people. And then there’s the much wider audience he reached with his media appearances. He was particularly proud of what he’d managed to accomplish at the Hotel Triangle conference. On March 17, while still in Uganda, he boasted online that someone in Kampala had told him that his campaign there had been “like a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda,” and he went on to say that he prayed that this was true.
Changes undeniably did follow his visit. Newspapers printed hysterical headlines (“HANG THEM; THEY ARE AFTER OUR KIDS”) and began publishing names and photographs of people suspected of being gay. Stone-throwing mobs gathered on the streets, and suspects were harassed, beaten, and forced into hiding. Hostility to gays wasn’t new in Uganda, of course, but this was an escalation. Frank Mugisha, a gay man and plaintiff in the lawsuit against Lively, has said that before the conference homosexuals were “looked at as different,” but that “no one bothered them,” whereas afterward, he continued, “people were being reported to the police as homosexuals, were thrown out by their families, or thrown out by the church.”
In this rising climate of anger and fear, anti-gay agitators and concerned citizens began to call for stronger legal action against homosexuals. And the Parliament member David Bahati sponsored what’s now widely known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, which proposed the execution of homosexuals with HIV, those who’d had homosexual relations with minors or the disabled, and offenders convicted more than once of same-sex relations.