A few hours after I learned that Donald J. Trump had become the president-elect of the U.S. after running a hate-filled campaign, I rented a car and headed up to Springfield, MA to witness another historical event: oral arguments in the case of SMUG v. Lively at the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.
Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a Ugandan non-profit LGBTI advocacy and network organization, is suing Scott Lively, a U.S.-based attorney and Evangelical minister, for his role in the persecution of the LGBTI community in Uganda.
Since 2007, Lively has been traveling to Uganda sharing strategies and consulting with government officials to systematically strip the LGBTI community of their fundamental human rights. Though draconian British colonial laws criminalizing same-sex relations are still on the books in Uganda, with Lively’s guidance, Ugandan politicians worked to pass laws like the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 to criminalize LGBTI identities and activism, encouraged newspapers to ‘out’ activists and sparked widespread violence.
AJWS has been working to advance the rights of the LGBTI movement in Uganda for over 15 years; both through support to community-based organizations and activism in Uganda and through global advocacy from the U.S. In addition to AJWS’s support of local movements, this case sets an important precedent in the global LGBTI rights struggle to challenge the export of hate.
SMUG v. Lively is a first-of-its-kind, legal challenge that attempts to hold a U.S. citizen accountable for his active role in stripping away the fundamental rights of the LGBTI community outside of the U.S.
SMUG is being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who is trying the case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). This is the very first case to establish under the ATS that persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity can lead to crimes against humanity.
It was incredible to see such strong support for SMUG at the courthouse – rainbow flags, Ugandan and American activists, ministers and allies. The court was packed. And even filled up an adjacent overflow room.
The defense argued that Lively’s first amendment rights to free speech allowed him to promote his homophobic ideologies in Uganda.
However, the hearing highlighted that Lively’s involvement extended beyond sharing his views with peers. He spent over a decade actively consulting and advising key influencers and government officials in Uganda to promote homophobic hate campaigns and to enact legislation to systematically strip Ugandan LGBTI people of fundamental human rights. A campaign he has been taking on the road and around the world: after a tour across Eastern Europe, Lively bragged about his role in Russia’s anti-homosexuality legislation.
The first amendment is a powerful and important right in this country and one we fight for abroad. However, its reach ends when a person’s right to free expression leads to violence or violates another group of people’s fundamental rights.
This strategic litigation will be critical in establishing a precedent for international human rights law and challenging the export of hate by US-based individuals.
On the heels of the U.S. election, there are clear parallels between the export of hate in SMUG v. Lively and the hateful rhetoric during the U.S. campaign cycle.
Trump’s campaign capitalized on distrust and fear through scapegoating. His win and subsequent appointment of white nationalist Stephen Bannon as chief strategist legitimizes the hateful racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic ideas that fueled his campaign.
The progress that AJWS has achieved in partnership with global advocates and activists, and with the U.S. government to advance the rights of LGBTI people is now at risk. We know that these attitudes present real danger for millions of people in the United States and around the world. Trump is likely to reduce funding through U.S. aid agencies, promote discrimination in foreign assistance and government aid, or reallocate funds to organizations that undermine LGBTI rights through supporting practices like conversion therapy and forced anal testing, to name a few.
We cannot allow hate to become normalized. We cannot become overwhelmed. This is a call to action, and time to get to work.
Raviva Hanser is a Program Associate at AJWS.