SMUG v. Lively and the Disturbing Trend of US-Based Anti-LGBT Hate Groups Abroad

Last Tuesday, a Massachusetts federal court recognized American Christian extremist Scott Lively’s actions in Uganda as clear human rights abuses in the ruling on SMUG v. Lively. Though the case was dismissed on technical grounds, Judge Michael Ponsor found that through attending and presenting at anti-LGBTIQ conferences in Uganda since 2002, Lively “aided and abetted efforts (1) to restrict freedom of expression by members of the LGBTI community in Uganda, (2) to suppress their civil rights, and (3) to make the very existence of LGBTI people in Uganda a crime.” After explaining that the ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell restricted US jurisdiction to only those actions committed on US soil, the Springfield District Court judged emphasized that “summary judgement is appropriate for this, and only this, reason.”

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the umbrella organization of LGBTI rights groups in Uganda and plaintiff in the case, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) that represented them, have lauded SMUG v. Lively as a landmark case not only for Ponsor’s recognition of Lively as a dangerous anti-LGBTIQ extremist but also for the legal precedent the case has set. In 2013, Lively’s motion to dismiss the case was struck down on the grounds that persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity are crimes against humanity subject to international law, groundbreaking recognition upheld in the 2017 ruling.

Though Lively claims homosexuality is an export of the West targeting children as “recruits,” the West’s real export is anti-LGBTIQ hate propagated by an increasingly large group of US-based hate organizations. Lively’s campaign in Uganda, which has been cited as a strong influence in the creation of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act--which initially proposed the death penalty for homosexuality--is not the only one he has carried out, nor is the east African country the only international target.

In 2006, Lively founded the anti-LGBTIQ hate group Watchmen on the Walls with Latvian pastor Alexey Ledyaev and went on a 50-city tour of Russia and former Soviet republics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, eight of the nine countries he visited have since considered bans on “homosexual propaganda,” and five have bills for such bans pending or passing. While Lively takes credit for the surge in anti-LGBTIQ sentiment in Russia and eastern Europe, other Christian Right groups have been operating in the area and beyond.

While some groups have created programs specifically for propagating anti-LGBTIQ hate abroad, like the International Organization for the Family (IOF) spurred by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), others have joined the World Congress of Families (WCF), a project of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. The WCF relies on funding from its mostly US-based member organizations, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council and hosts an annual “Olympics of social conservatism” in cities like Geneva, Mexico City, Madrid, and more.

Though their popularity and credibility are on a decline in the US, these hate groups have found traction abroad. As Christian groups, they are supported by Christian leadership in other countries, like Ledyaev in Latvia or Martin Ssempa in Uganda, who organize speeches and presentations before audiences of lawmakers and other influential figures. As hate groups, they warn audiences of the “homosexual agenda” to “convert” children to homosexuality and create a “demographic winter” and the end of civilized society, claim the Holocaust was caused by “homosexuals,” and compare homosexuality to pedophilia. As Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian priest who observed one of Lively’s first talks in Uganda, noted, many international audiences of anti-LGBTIQ conferences and talks are hearing about these supposed “threats” for the first time, so they accept these hateful, racially-motivated messages at face value. Further, these ideas provide a scapegoat for real concerns like crime, poverty, and disease: LGBTIQ people. They also create a solution: defend the “Natural Family," protect Christian ideals, and recriminalize (or criminalize) homosexuality. When anti-LGBTIQ hate campaigns succeed, the results can mean laws like Anti-Homosexuality Act or India’s revival of a colonial era law banning gay sex.

By acknowledging that aiding and abetting the creation of such laws violates human rights protected by international law, the SMUG v. Lively ruling could be the first steps in holding US-based groups accountable for their actions and for securing the rights of LGBTIQ people in other countries. As CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pamela Spees stated, “the ruling clearly vindicates what SMUG and the LGBTI community in Uganda have known and said all along about Lively and his role in Uganda.” Frank Mugisha, Executive Director of SMUG, said because of that vindication, “we have already been able to hold Lively to account and reduce his dangerous influence in Uganda.” With confirmation that LGBTIQ rights are protected under international law, other groups may be able to bring cases to the US, or potentially to the UN. Increased attention on LGBTIQ human rights abuses could diminish anti-LGBTIQ hate groups’ credibility among international audiences or reduce essential US-based funding.

SMUG was represented by lawyers from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and it is easy to imagine that SMUG would not have received a case, let alone a supportive ruling, if it weren’t for their advocacy. Many LGBTIQ groups can’t turn to their repressive governments for aid, and when the Anti-Homosexuality Act was law, the very existence of SMUG as an organization was illegal.The success of the case in a US court highlights not only the assistance global strategies to promote LGBTIQ rights can provide, but also a new threat to US-based hate groups: often enjoying impunity with friendly governments abroad, US hate groups can be called out for human rights-infringing actions back home.

For now, SMUG states on its website that it is “discussing modalities to appeal the ruling based on jurisdiction and hold Scott Lively accountable for his actions.”

Perhaps its next victory will be receiving legal support in action as well as in word.