Friday, December 23, 2011

Human Rights Leader Frank Mugisha Speaks Out about Anti-Gay Violence in Africa

Yesterday, commenting on Pope Benedict's statement to the synod of African Catholic bishops in 2009, I wrote,  

Benedict himself has, in my view, directly provided Catholic justification for collusion in anti-gay violence in African societies by his statement to the African bishops' synod in 2009 (see ¶24-26), which continues the rhetoric of powerful Western conservative groups that seek to depict "traditional" African culture as male-dominant and anti-homosexual, and which tries to suggest to Africans that anyone raising questions about gender roles or sexual orientation within the context of African cultures is promoting Western values and interfering with "traditional" African culture.  Benedict makes these claims despite abundant evidence that traditional African cultures did not, in fact, either criminalize or stigmatize homosexuality until Western imperial rulers of these nations began to enact legislation taking these steps.

And now today I read the following statements in the New York Times by Ugandan human rights activist Frank Mugisha, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award this year:

Many Africans believe that homosexuality is an import from the West, and ironically they invoke religious beliefs and colonial-era laws that are foreign to our continent to persecute us.
The way I see it, homophobia — not homosexuality — is the toxic import. Thanks to the absurd ideas peddled by American fundamentalists, we are constantly forced to respond to the myth — debunked long ago by scientists — that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. For years, the Christian right in America has exported its doctrine to Africa, and, along with it, homophobia. In Uganda, American evangelical Christians even held workshops and met with key officials to preach their message of hate shortly before a bill to impose the death penalty for homosexual conduct was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in 2009. Two years later, despite my denunciation of all forms of child exploitation, David Bahati, the legislator who introduced the bill, as well as Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem and other top government officials, still don’t seem to grasp that being gay doesn’t equate to being a pedophile.

Two perspectives about the role of the church in African cultures today.  Along with right-wing Christians in America and other places, Pope Benedict seeks to spread the false meme that traditional African culture is anti-homosexual (and male-dominant), and that human rights groups or people of faith who move against the right-wing meme are seeking to introduce non-African Western values to the continent of Africa, in a continuation of imperialism.

But Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan raised in a devoutly Catholic home, sees homophobia and not homosexuality as "the toxic import."  He notes that the religious beliefs and laws to which some Africans appeal today to persecute those who are gay and lesbian are rooted in the colonial era of Western domination.  They're part of the toxic import.

Mugisha collaborated with human rights activist David Kato up to Kato's murder early in 2011.  Kato was bludgeoned to death by a hammer in his home in what is widely believed to have been an anti-gay hate crime.  As Mugisha's Times editorial statement notes, Kato had told him that one of the two would likely be murdered due to their advocacy for the human rights of LGBT persons in a nation whose Minister of Ethics and Integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, a self-described "devout Christian," once infamously observed, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

"Homosexuals can forget about human rights": this is a position that is, in fact, not far at all from the official position taken by the Vatican itself vis-a-vis the human rights of LGBT persons, when the Vatican explains why it refuses to endorse recent United Nations statements recognizing the human rights of those who are gay and calling for international respect for those human rights.

To whom are we to listen, then, about Africa, the human rights of gay and lesbian persons, and the role of the church--Benedict and religious right leaders with whom he is in bed, who are actively fanning the flames of homophobic violence in Africa?  Or Frank Mugisha, who has put his life on the line to struggle for recognition of the human rights of gay folks in Africa, and who is himself African?

For my part, I'm fairly certain which of the two stands on the side of Jesus's vision of the reign of God, in which the first shall be last the the last shall be first, and the mighty cast down from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up.  One perspective has the ring of soulful testimony born out of hard-won experience fighting for what is right.

The other doesn't.

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