Market Street in the evening

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Death of a Ugandan Activist: Mourning, Reactions, and Action

News of the murder of David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay activist who was outed in a Ugandan newspaper last year, has been spreading rapidly across the internet. Many Western news sources have picked up the story (New York Times: Ugandan Who Spoke Up for Gays Is Beaten to Death”), which prompts me to have several thoughts:

This is terrible news – but at the same time, it isn’t news at all. From the LGBT activists I know around the world, I receive news of brutal murders of LGBT people all the time. Jamaica. Turkey. Uganda. I’m glad that David Kato’s tragic death is receiving the media coverage it deserves, but I’m surprised how many people seem surprised to hear that queer people are being murdered. An old activist slogan applies well in this case: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

As this story is discussed in the West, I hope that we can avoid some of the negative clichés that one hears far too often about LGBT rights and Africa. When news of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill hit the international airwaves last year, many Westerners condemned Ugandans (and Africans in general) as uncivilized and ignorant for considering this bill. But in doing so, they missed a crucial fact: much of the homophobia that produced this bill was imported to Uganda from the West. I don’t want to romanticize the past, but historical evidence suggests that homosexuality was tolerated much more in some pre-Christian African societies, than it is today. The missionaries who brought evangelical Christianity to Uganda also brought homophobia.

It’s a great irony: These conservative, virulently homophobic strains of Christianity that are repugnant to the majority of people in the countries that brought them to Uganda (and other African countries), are practiced enthusiastically in Africa. But how can Europeans and North Americans condemn Africans for these beliefs, and forget that the source (and, arguably, at least some of the responsibility) lies with their own countrymen?

I have received over 40 press releases from LGBT organizations around the world about David Kato’s death. Brazil. Kenya. Germany. Chile. England. Nigeria. Spain. United States. The outpouring of grief is overwhelming. David Kato’s work and his courage touched so many people. The world has lost a truly remarkable person, and extraordinarily brave activist.

Amidst the tears, I am glad to see that many of these groups are making the connections between anti-gay evangelical groups in the U.S. and the hostile climate in Uganda.
Sharon Groves of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., wrote:

“Since at least 2009, radical U.S. Christian missionaries have added anti-gay conferences and workshops in Uganda to their anti-gay efforts in the U.S. – and now they’re beginning to ordain ministers and build churches across East Africa focused almost entirely on preaching against homosexuality.

These American extremists didn’t call for David’s death. But they created a climate of hate that breeds violence – and they must stop and acknowledge they were wrong.”

SoulForce of Abilene, Texas, concurs:

“[W]e call upon our colleagues in ministry who have contributed to the rise of homophobia in Uganda and around the world to repent of the kind of preaching and public pronouncement that vilify homosexuality as a sin and that purport to offer “cures” for sexual orientation.”

GetEQUAL DC has planned a “Breakfast Without Bigotry” to protest and expose the anti-LGBT group behind the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.:

“Join LGBTQ folks, people of good will and our religious leaders outside the National Prayer Breakfast as we expose “The Family” — the secretive group hosting it — and their dangerous, gay-hating programs in Uganda, the United States, and elsewhere, made possible by events such as this.”

The HRC has identified Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and Carl Ellis Jenkins, as 3 U.S.-based evangelists who are “stirring up hostility” toward LGBT people in Uganda.

If you wish to sign the HRC’s petition to urging these three to “Stop Exporting Hate,” you may find it at this link.

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Egyptian “Gay Rights Activist,” or Ex-Gay Proponent?

Cover of Ahmed Saad's controversial novel on Egyptian gay men

An article (“Lady Boys: A defense of Egyptian homosexuals?) in today’s English-language version of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent Egyptian newsletter, reviews journalist Ahmed Saad’s new novel, Shab Takaya, about life for gay men in Egypt. Saab is “a self-proclaimed gay rights activist,” though a closer look at his work reveals that his use of the term is questionable.

A little background: Male homosexuality is illegal in Egypt, and punishable with prison terms of up to 10 years. In 2001, 52 men were arrested at a gay discotheque in Cairo and charged with “obscene behavior.” The case of the so-called “Cairo 52,” widely publicized in internationally, became a symbol for intolerant attitudes toward gays in Egypt and, more broadly, the Islamic world.

The book reviewer describes Saad’s book as “the first Egyptian book that seeks to defend homosexuals on the basis of Islam,” but admits that it “offers a complex and seemingly contradictory perspective.” The book’s intention is to “convince its intended audience–heterosexuals in Egyptian society–to sympathize with the plight of Egypt’s homosexuals and put an end to their societal persecution.”

Since Saad’s book has been seriously suppressed in Egypt, it is unclear whether the work will be widely read or have much effect on the way Egyptian society perceives gay men. But if it Saad’s message were to reach Egyptian society, would it be a positive or negative influence?

In some ways, Saad’s book does represent progress, and a significant breakthrough. Saad’s stance is much more compassionate than other responses to homosexuality in Egypt and the broader Islamic world – executing, imprisoning, or ostracizing gays – but Saad’s viewpoint could hardly be characterized as a defense of gay people.

Saad claims that his “merciful approach” to homosexuality is based on the Qu’ran. This approach is, in a word, Repent.

Based on the writings of the Quran, many Muslims believe that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. Saad sees this attitude as a disastrous textual misinterpretation, and reminds us that God only punishes those who refuse to atone for their sins. Instead of condemning homosexuals, Saad told Al-Masry Al-Youm, we must “adopt a merciful approach and help them to repent.”

Nevertheless, the book suggests the possibility that homosexuals may be executed if they refuse to commit to a heterosexual way of life. If you think homosexuals should be persecuted, he writes, “don’t forget that God” waited until “after they refused his guidance to sentence them to death.”

The “merciful approach” that Saad is advocating is that homosexuals should be given a chance to repent – and then, if they don’t, they should be executed.

The article then confirms that Saad does indeed support the execution of homosexuals who don’t repent after they are offered the option of doing so:

Saad explicitly confirmed what the book merely implies. “As the homosexuals of Sodom and Ghomorra were executed because they didn’t heed God’s words, homosexuals should be ‘stoned to death,’ as Islam decrees, if they refuse to reform,” he said.

This hardly seems like the words one would expect from “a self-proclaimed gay rights activist.” The idea that homosexuals can and should change, and that “every gay man deserves a second chance at heterosexuality,” has a twin in the West: the ex-gay movement. (“Ex-gay” programs, most of which are religiously based, attempt to change gay, lesbian, and bisexual people into heterosexuals.)

Does Saad’s stance represent a step in a positive direction for gay men in Egypt? In some ways, yes – he advocates for some degree of social tolerance and compassion. But calling for people to change their sexual orientation is by no means a compassionate approach. If the ex-gay movement in the West is any gauge, religious programs that attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful. Peterson Toscano, a survivor of several ex-gay programs in the United States, describes some of the ways that ex-gay programs can harm people: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationship-wise, financially, sexually, physically, and career-wise, among others. There are also some serious doubts as to whether these programs actually work. In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution condemning “reparative therapy.”

Does Saad, a supposed activist, truly speak for gay men in Egypt? The book review reports that Saad’s book has come under criticism from “homosexuals who believe that the writer’s ideas only serve to further stigmatize them.” This is not surprising – after all, Saad advocates execution for gays who refuse to change. Despite being described as a “gay rights activist,” Saad “said during the interview that there is no such thing as an individual right to homosexuality.”

While Saad’s position on homosexuality is far from affirming, it might still do a small amount of good for gay men in Egypt. The most positive way to view Saad’s stance toward homosexuality might be through the lens of a harm-reduction model, as applied to homophobia: “a set of … strategies that reduce negative consequences of” homophobia.

However, Saad’s recommendations for dealing with homosexuality should come with a warning label: Attempting to change sexual orientation may result in more harm than good. And anyone who advocates for the execution of gay people is not, by any stretch, a gay rights activist.

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Church Shopping.

Today at work, one of my bosses asked me about the course I’ve been teaching this quarter through Stanford’s Student Initiated Courses program. I told him the title — “Religion and Spirituality: LGBTQ Perspectives.” He said that sounded like a fascinating course, and started to tell a story.

“When my wife and I first moved to the Bay Area…” he began, and immediately, my internal monologue started: “Why, when confronted with the mere mention LGBTQ issues, do straight people always seem to feel a need to mention their significant others? Why are they trying to distance themselves from the queerness — do they think it’s contagious?!”

But he took the story in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. When he and his wife first moved to the Bay Area, he told me, they shopped around for a Catholic church where they would feel at home. In one church they visited, they heard a prayer that went something like this: “Dear God, we pray for our Holy Father in Rome. We pray that You may forgive him for the harm he has done to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, and we pray that he may come to understand and accept them.” Wow. Hearing this prayer, my boss told me, he and his wife knew that they’d found their new church home.

In my class this quarter, we’ve been discussing the various levels of tolerance that religious communities have towards LGBTQ people – open and affirming, welcoming, etc. Students have discussed their various comfort levels around participating in religious communities that didn’t entirely welcome and affirm them. But nobody had talked about the inclusion of another group – a group of whom they were not a member – being included, as a prerequisite for their own feeling comfortable in a religious community.

This raises a question about solidarity: For you to feel comfortable in a church (or other community group), are there any kinds of marginalized people/identities [besides your own] who need to be explicitly welcome/included there? If so, who are they? If there’s none, maybe it’s time to re-examine your levels of privilege…

In my boss’ story, I saw the glimmer of a better world, one that’s possible if we follow our highest selves. A world where we would all feel it was important that our various communities (religious and otherwise) not only included and welcomed us, but valued the inclusion of all people – even on issues that don’t directly impact your life – would represent the the best of humanity.

Morals of this story: Solidarity is important. Allies can be amazing. Don’t judge them before you hear them out. And if you’re shopping for a new religious community, be an ally; remember that you vote for inclusion with your feet.

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