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Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda speaks at UN gathering today

NEW YORK – Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, one of Uganda’s leading voices fighting homophobia in Africa, spoke today at the United Nations.

Bishop Christopher called for global decriminalization of homosexuality as a necessary strategy to deal with new dimensions of the AIDS epidemic.

Seventy countries currently have laws that criminalize the LGBT community while seven countries enforce the death penalty. Uganda would have become the eighth if local and international pressure had not forced the proposed “Kill the Gays" bill to be tabled last month in the Ugandan parliament.

The bishop is no stranger to San Diego, where the St. Paul’s Foundation for Reconciliation, led by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, raises money for his grass-roots activism in Uganda. Ogle accompanied the bishop to New York.

Here are Bishop Christopher Senyonjo’s opening remarks:

1. I attended the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1988 where every bishop in Africa agreed with the statement of Archbishop Okoth “We do not have AIDS in Africa”. Here is an example of the first lesson we learn from AIDS..it is OK to admit we were wrong … but we have to show by our actions that we have learnt from our mistakes and Archbishop Okoth and the leaders who once were in denial, worked hard to reduce infections rates by 50% in the mid-1990s.

2. Twenty years later, what are we now wrong about?

It is wrong to cut AIDS funding and access to drugs and treatment when we know there are more people becoming infected every day. It is wrong to deny funding and education and health to groups of people we may not like or whose lifestyle we do not understand. Less money and more people needing services means more than ever - community based organizations need to work together with governments and donors and the private sector. It is wrong for governments to divide families and communities to compete against each other for less resources or to stigmatize a particular minority group. More than ever, we need governments to encourage collaboration at all levels. This means everyone needs to be at the table..men, women, sex workers, Lesbian Gay and Transgendered people, IV Drug Users, ..all of the people that many people of faith find hard to talk about…but we need to admit our strategies and laws and religious attitudes do not yet support these people to come to the table. If we exclude them, as we now do, the virus will win.

3. We need to decriminalize homosexuality globally. Further we need to remove laws that criminalize sex workers because these laws are often used to prevent education and services being given to these stigmatized populations. Exterior punishment by the state and policing public morality has failed as our principal global strategies to stop the spread of AIDS. We need to help people move from secrecy and shame of who they are and what they do to take responsibility for protecting themselves and their loved ones from HIV. How can gay people or sex workers take responsibility for their health when we criminalize them and do not allow them to have the same education and health services that the majority population takes for granted? It is only through creating a “gay/straight alliance” that we can win the battle against this prejudice. We have to defeat the prejudice before we can defeat the virus.

So, my opening remarks – let’s learn from our mistakes by doing things differently Everyone needs to be at the table without prejudice and learn to share resources more effectively and third to stop punishing and begin to empower people to take responsibility for their own lives.

Three recommendations

First, we must move aggressively to decriminalize homosexuality.

The criminalization of homosexuality remains the most significant barrier that needs to be dismantled to reduce the spread of AIDS. We need to make our laws and agreements more binding. We need to ask if our laws or beliefs help or prevent the spread of HIV and hinder or support families caring for loved ones. Over 80 countries still criminalize homosexuality and see it as a crime against God and nature. Denying people their humanity puts us all at risk because AIDS spreads fast in the darkness of ignorance.

Second, we must ask everyone to take on the responsibility to respect human rights.

Our lawmakers must create a safe space for conversations where we can share one another’s truths. Every person in this assembly should think about how their personal or institutional beliefs deny or support human rights.

Third, we leaders in the faith community must teach one another to listen and to live with differences.

We must work hard to not to impose our religious values on the whole society. It begins as simply as couple counseling before marriage and, on a larger scale, to respect human rights and avoid scapegoating a vulnerable minority.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us take the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu to heart: “The wave of hate must stop. Politicians who profit from exploiting this hate, from fanning it, must not be tempted by this easy way to profit from fear and misunderstanding. And my fellow clerics, of all faiths, must stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.”