It recently came to light that an aggressively anti-gay evangelical organization called Crossroads Christian Communications Inc is receiving federal funding to do aid work in Uganda – a country currently considering the death penalty for gays and lesbians.
For obvious reasons, this has enraged many Canadians and triggered controversy, but lost beneath all the debates and the politics is the very real and vulnerable queer population of Uganda.
The oppression there is crushing. For our government to unnecessarily send in a group that has openly voiced hatred toward homosexuals is irresponsible and backward. It sends a message that in no way reflects our values and puts an already unimaginably oppressed people in an even more vulnerable position.
And these are not just nameless faces.
These are people like Pepe Julian Onziema, a transgender man who fears things as simple as selling groceries at a kiosk because the owner has threatened to teach him “how to be normal.” These are people like his girlfriend, who trembles at the thought of coming out, or his gay colleague David Kato, who was bludgeoned to death in his home.
The government of Uganda has been working since 2009 to pass an anti-homosexuality bill that threatens same-sex couples with life imprisonment and could potentially include the death penalty. The last thing in the world this country needs is more close-minded, homophobic people in its communities.
Crossroads has called homosexuality and transvestism perversions and listed them along with pedophilia and bestiality. The fact that our government agreed to fund this organization in the first place was irresponsible. That they are continuing to do so even when these anti-gay views have been made public is even more so.
It is also completely out of sync with our national values and law. As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird put it, “Canadian values are accepting, they’re tolerant, they welcome diversity.”
Our queer communities have more rights than most other nations where homosexuality is legal, so when the anti-gay legislation first came before Parliament in Uganda, we strongly condemned it. But it’s easy to talk the talk. Now we’re sending a group that has described homosexuality as a “perversion” and a “sin” into the very country we have denounced for virulent homophobia. It just isn’t logical.
Neither is the argument that all that matters is that Crossroads staff are providing the water and sanitation they’re being funded to provide. Many of those defending the decision to support this organization say the bottom line is thousands of Ugandans who didn’t have clean water before now do.
But that’s not the bottom line. In reality, there are many groups that represent our free and accepting values that could do the same work. To imply it doesn’t matter this group is homophobic insinuates that the people of Uganda don’t deserve the very best help we can offer, and they do.
Canadians need to start demanding more accountability from CIDA, as this is likely not the only group with controversial opinions that is receiving public funding. According to François Audet, director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid, funding from CIDA for religious organizations increased 42 percent between 2005 and 2010, while secular groups saw an increase of just five percent.
"I have the clear impression — and I am not the only one in the scientific community — that behind this, there is a deliberate strategy to finance the groups ideologically close to the actual Conservative government," he told CBC.
Stopping funding now might be difficult since a recent report showed that Crossroads is complying with the terms of the contribution agreement. But we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
When it comes down to it, this is about a lot more than providing water and sanitation in Uganda. This is about showing the queer people of Uganda – people like Onziema and his girlfriend – we will stand beside them in this fight. It’s about showing the government of Uganda that we in no way support the anti-gay bill or any other homophobic legislation. It’s about representing the values we take so much pride in as Canadians and setting an example of tolerance and acceptance.
Rachel Kalbfleisch is a Canadian who has worked in Uganda.