They clambered over Washington monuments taking photos of each other. Smiling, hugging their new- found friends to post on Facebook and share with their network of LGBT activists. First the White House, then the Jefferson Memorial and finally they came to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial for the first time. There they were, dwarfed between the monument’s two solid slabs of stone that frame the Potomac’s shimmering horizon. These are our 26 “authentic witnesses” from countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT.
Their constituency is denied access to HIV prevention and health services because they are deemed “criminals” by their governments. The King Memorial struck a deep chord in each one of them. Many live in Africa, with two delegates from Asia and the Caribbean. They have a dream too. They walk between two seemingly opposite worlds, like vast immovable continents of granite. They have come to Washington to join 25,000 people for the XIV International AIDS Conference to be bridges of reconciliation. They are here to tell their stories to us if we can find the time and attention to just listen.
One area of the world is convinced homosexuality is not only un-African and an abomination but if the majority can silence all discussion about these people, everyone will return to being heterosexual (just the way God meant them to be).
Religious leaders in these countries are increasingly lobbying their government to now expand former anti-gay colonial laws to make them even more punitive. It is an experiment in social Darwinism even though most of these faithful do not believe in evolution.
If we do not talk about it and really punish those who do, homosexuality, as a learned behavior, will be healed and disappear. They tell us they don’t hate homosexuals because they really don’t know any and they just want people to be the same as they are. They have no reason to delve too deeply into the mystery we call human sexuality. They fear this mystery in themselves which in reinforced by their clergy on a weekly basis.
Sex is about having children and homosexuals cannot have any so they want to recruit more of them and lure them into this deviant lifestyle, the preachers warn. If the country gets too populated by homosexuals, there is a danger God will destroy their nation in the same way he did Sodom and Gommorah.
American Evangelical missionaries to the Global South have conjured up such a fear of this homosexual global “agenda” that they have created a Frankenstein, over which they are losing control. The monster thrashes about creating draconian laws that become more and more ridiculous and impossible to enforce. Hang the homos, make parents report their LGBT children to the police or face prison themselves.
Laws are even being proposed to extradite homos back to the crazy society from which they fled. The extradition will facilitate healing with a good dose of prayer and imprisonment. This is the reality almost all of our international visitors face every day. However, they present a very different viewpoint. They are themselves rocks of strength and determination. They too have a dream.
After listening to their stories and contexts, I am inspired by the sheer fortitude, courage and genius of our 26 international visitors who have come to spend two weeks with “The Spirit of 76” initiative in Washington. Against all odds they are working for inclusion and access to health services, church altars and the human rights for LGBT people in their countries. They are gay and straight, fresh young activists and older seasoned champions of truth, many of whom have created pioneering LGBT and HIV services for their home communities.
They had never been together as a group but there was a deep bond of trust created immediately as they began to share their work and their stories. Some were Evangelicals themselves while 40% were practicing Catholics. We have an agnostic who wanted to learn more about religion because he wanted to improve relations with the faith community in Singapore where he runs one of the few LGBT programs. We have a Muslim and a few African Anglicans whose churches had condemned them for working with criminals.
Wired for truth
They all worked earnestly today with their laptops and updating friends on Facebook or checking in with their home networks to report on what we were doing as we prepare for the International AIDS Conference on Sunday.
There are also seven official pre-conferences, using the unique opportunity of being in the USA for the first time since the travel ban on people with HIV had been lifted to allow international visitors and experts to come here. From 25,000 to 30,000 people are expected to attend with a common concern their governments may be losing the political will to fund and help stop this pandemic. For every one person who is fortunate enough to have access to retroviral drugs, four people become infected. We can stop the transmission of HIV from mother to child for a few bucks per dose but the big international ethical question is: Why should we bother and who is going to pay for it?
Social Darwinism is alive and well. For LGBT people in particular, the purposeful exclusion from services caused by criminalization in 76 countries creates a 300% higher risk that one can become newly infected. When David Bahati, (author of the Anti- Homosexuality Bill, aka “Kill The Gays” bill, before the Ugandan parliament) quoted Scripture on the Rachel Maddow show -- “The wages of sin is death,” we now know exactly why he wants to keep LGBT people from getting access to HIV information and services. HIV is just another way of getting rid of homos if he is not allowed to hang them as his first bill had proposed. Death from HIV is proof that one’s behavior is not condoned by God. Tragically, HIV claimed Bahati’s parents but he still does not get it.
The Spirit of 76 group had a very powerful exchange of information and experience yesterday at our headquarters at Lutheran church of the Reformation near the Capitol. They had been sharing an innovative training model for increasing awareness and compassion among clergy and how to convince other people of faith that they needed to have dialogue and debate in their congregations and not be afraid to disagree.
A young man told us how difficult it was even to talk about being LGBT. “How can you have dialogue when there is no one to talk with?” He told his fellow Africans. “I had dinner one night with my lesbian friend and two days later I heard on the news how her body was found -- severed in two.”
The religious extremists have taken over the government, so there is nowhere to go or to seek protection. Our Minister has said he cannot provide protection to LGBT people and so you have two options, to pretend you are straight or face what happened to my friend. We live between two immovable realities.
The quality of listening and compassion in this group of leaders towards the LGBT political life is refreshingly “good news” to the progressive movement in this country. We have a lot to learn from these people. The EXTRAORDINARY courage, intelligence, creativity and humor was truly present in this cohort of leaders. They are unstoppable, and victim is not in their vocabulary.
Empowerment for good news
A Ugandan Catholic woman shared how a year-long course paid for by her church has taught her about how to use her power as a woman with HIV who is now also fighting for the rights and dignity of LGBT people.
“How can I do the things I am doing now to make the world a better place, if they wanted to imprison me for being HIV or counseling LGBT people?” For her, by empowering LGBT people in society and in the church, the benefits of their gifts and potential are released to transform our whole society.
LGBT criminalization appears as just another form of shooting ourselves in the foot. As a Catholic, she saw this as poor stewardship of creation. All hands needed on deck to do the work God wants us to do. Bishop Christopher was interviewed by a film crew today and said it clearly. “I welcome the American missionaries to come and bring Good News to help our people. But if you are preaching fear and misinformation, you are preaching BAD NEWS!”
The delegation will also attend a two-day interfaith conference today and Saturday where issues of faith justice and health will be explored. There are numerous other events this weekend with a party at the World Bank and Interfaith service with the Names Project Memorial Quilt at the National Cathedral on Saturday. Some of them will be addressing congregations in Washington and share their stories and tell us what it is like for them when the lunatic fringe of American Christianity is allowed to infiltrate their societies. They will have a unique opportunity to meet with lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill on Sunday and they are targeting some of the most religiously conservative for their visits.
These remarkable witnesses will help me see the International AIDS Conference through different spectacles this year. I will also have the unique opportunity to speak at the conference as part of a panel discussing the effects of law, culture and religion on HIV. They are teaching me a lot.
I thank God for bringing us together. Many, many people have helped to make it happen including supporters from San Diego and California. These authentic witnesses are the bridge between the immovable slabs of stone that we clamber over, taking photos of where we are in 2012 -- we are here, and we have kindred spirits who share the same dream. If you would like to donate to supporting the “Spirit of 76” please do so HERE.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.