Uganda’s anti-gay law is a win for Russia’s family values propaganda

Natalia Antelava

 

Friends of the Kremlin have something to celebrate this week. The “good” news is that “progressive” (their headline, not mine) Uganda has passed one of the toughest pieces of anti-gay legislation in the world. 

“The Western values that reek of Sodom are rejected not only by Russia but by an increasing number of countries,” reads this editorial. It goes on to praise not only Ugandan MPs but also Hungary’s Viktor Orban and governments across the Islamic world which “categorically reject” the West’s “Sodomite agenda.” 

The law is a disaster for people in Uganda and across the continent where many are already pushing to follow suit. In Uganda, homosexuality was already illegal. The new law, though, introduces many new criminal offenses punishable by life imprisonment and the death penalty. In a chilling, Stalinist move, it also obliges friends, family and members of the community to report individuals in same-sex relationships to the authorities. 

Thousands of miles away in Moscow, politicians are celebrating a geopolitical victory, which they see as the direct result of years of their hard, methodical work.

It was about a decade ago that Russia began crafting what would eventually turn into a global anti-LGBTQ hate campaign. It began as a domestic political experiment, when Vladimir Putin, faced with growing dissent, looked for a scapegoat. Gay men and women provided an easy target.

Not necessarily a homophobe himself, Putin turned homophobia into a weapon to strengthen his rule. His government gave an unprecedented platform to Russian traditionalists and Orthodox activists to push for anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

In news bulletins, documentaries, talk shows and feature films, Russian state television was suddenly spending hundreds of hours equating homosexuality to pedophilia, and both to the lapsed values of liberal democracy and the West. Russians, indifferent toward homosexuality in the past, were told to have an opinion. The word “homosexual” or “gay” was replaced with “sodomite,” and experts on Russian television regularly announced that homosexuality inevitably led to incest and pedophilia. As my colleague Katia Patin reported in 2016, a once marginal idea that pedophilia was linked to homosexuality was suddenly presented as a scientific fact across the full spectrum of Russian media. 

Once the state media turned homosexuality into a nationwide emergency, Putin stepped in to save Russia. He positioned himself as the protector of traditional family values, both at home and abroad. 

The false juxtaposition of homosexuality with family values became the single most effective weapon of global Russian disinformation. Because who doesn’t love their family? Who doesn’t want their children protected? The message resonated powerfully among traditional communities in Russia but also beyond, turning people wary of homosexuality into true haters and vigilantes. It also gave Moscow incredible access to the Christian right in the United States, influence that would eventually lead to election interference in 2016. 

By 2016, the “LGBT” acronym became shorthand for anyone representing pro-Western opposition in Russia or neighboring countries. Putin had successfully weaponized homophobia to squash political dissent, exert influence on neighboring nations, bash the West and unleash violence in Ukraine. 

From 2014, pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine would regularly tell me that they were defending Ukraine from “Sodom” and the inevitable invasion by “gay troops.” Europe, they told me, stood for “gender fascism” and homosexuality. “Would you want to be forced into a marriage with a woman?” one man asked in this film for the BBC. Arguing seemed futile. 

Almost 10 years on, these global reactions to Uganda’s horrifying law show that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric continues to be a soft power goldmine for Moscow. And now for Beijing too.

Uganda is among 17 African nations that abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine. Of course, their shared anti-gay rhetoric is only a small part of the reason. Russia is a key military partner too. And Moscow didn’t export homophobia to Uganda. Arguably, American evangelicals and Uganda’s colonial past have played a bigger role in paving the way for the passing of this latest law.

But Moscow has played a pivotal role in creating a world in which a country can crack down on basic human rights without worrying about losing face and friends. Days after it was passed, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he’ll be attending the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in the summer.

Just like LGBTQ+ people, women make great scapegoats too. In Italy, rafts of accounts spewing hate against women in politics have aligned themselves with Putin, according to new research called “Monetizing Misogyny” by the women’s rights group #ShePersisted. And in Hungary, India, Brazil, Italy and Tunisia, the growing movement to target and delegitimize female politicians is bolstering anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion agendas. In the United States, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has forced abortion ever higher on the agenda. In Texas, for instance, lawmakers are planning to stop even the spreading of information about abortions, as Coda’s Erica Hellerstein reported. Combine such regressive legislation with silencing, trolling and doxxing women leaders, and it means we’re seeing gendered disinformation fly ever higher on our newsfeeds.

Jeffrey Sachs has recently been using his hard-won reputation as an economist to propel some jaw-dropping conspiracy theories. He is now a darling of Russian and Chinese state propaganda outlets. Recently, Sachs has been appearing on the talk show of Russia’s chief propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, who has called for nuclear strikes against NATO countries and suggested wiping Ukrainian cities from the face of the Earth. Sachs’ global renown lends authority to Kremlin sock puppets like Solovyov. A group of prominent economists have tried to bring their famous colleague Sachs back into the fold of reason. They’ve written an open letter to Sachs explaining why he is wrong. The dozens of signatories include many Ukrainian economists. It is a letter worth reading in full. We’ll keep you posted on whether it has any effect. 

China building its influence across Africa is old news. But we now know a bit more about Beijing’s tactics. New research reveals the systematic cajoling and intimidating of African journalists into printing positive stories about China, the training of scores of African media professionals and the filling of African news feeds with “soft,” happy content about China. These reports, says Arthur Kaufman at the China Digital Times, “highlight the CCP’s growing efforts at disseminating external propaganda” and show how China is increasingly recruiting local figures to contribute to the CCP narrative.