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RGOD2: The New Zealand interview

(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle was interviewed by Andrew Whiteside of “Gay Talk Tonight” while on a family vacation in New Zealand. As public attention turns towards the Scott Lively trial in Lively v Sexual Minorities Uganda in Massachusetts on Jan. 7, the Ogle interview gives a comprehensive background on why this trial is important for LGBT rights globally. Lively is charged with “crimes against humanity” for his campaign of propaganda against LGBT people which resulted in Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is expected to be passed this year by the Ugandan parliament.)

Andrew Whiteside: Why did you get involved in advocacy for LGBT people?

Albert Ogle: Well I grew up in Ireland and as an Anglican Irish priest I was actually kicked out for being gay, way back in the ‘80s. So I grew up in a country where it was illegal to be gay and the law was only changed in 1982. And we now have 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT. Half of them are in the British Commonwealth. They are also largely Anglican, so the religious dimension to this struggle is very important.

AW: What are the basic aims of your foundation?

AO: The St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation is looking at how we can both approach the issue of LGBT equality from a policy position, so how do we involve groups like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the religious community. And at the same time, how do we resource emerging groups, grassroots groups that are struggling for health services or are struggling to find employment.

AW: One of the things you do is create gay/straight alliances, how does that work in these countries?

AO: It’s really interesting, when people are working together. There’s a project we sponsor in Uganda – it’s for women. So you have straight women who are often victims of domestic violence. They are taking care of their children, orphans, often because of AIDS. Working alongside lesbians, transgender women. So they create crafts and they have a project we support in the United States.

AW: Are these programs really making a difference?

AO: It really is, because we are finding with LGBT people in places like Africa, you can’t “take out the (one) spaghetti strand” the LGBT piece (from the whole meal). It really is how the village, the whole community is educated about LGBT people. One of the ways we do that obviously is through working together.

AW: Recently you brought 26 people from Africa to meet representatives of Congress and the World Bank. Tell me about that.

AO: It was a wonderful opportunity because the World AIDS Conference was held in the United States for the first time in 19 years. So the idea of having 25,000 people from all over the world. And AIDS is a huge problem still around the world. And if you are LGBT and you are criminalized you do not have access to prevention and care. So we selected 26 people who had a background in HIV, who were gay and straight. They also had a religious dimension. Again, the important thing is whenever these laws are being passed, what we are finding out is the religious community is often “in the front seat”, encouraging politicians to create laws to criminalize them (LGBT) further. So we brought them to Washington and we did a lot of training with them on story telling - so they told these amazing stories. One priest who is a straight ally with HIV, is now expanding his work among LGBT people. His house was firebombed (with children in it) simply because he was trying to reduce stigma. We had those kind of stories told to 11 law makers on Capitol Hill, conservative Christian lawmakers. And they hadn’t heard these stories before. So that was a kind of reconciliation going on. We also had a really interesting meeting with executives of the World Bank. And the World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty. And our people could begin to tell them their stories -how they were excluded from healthcare, were often kicked out of school (so they couldn’t read or write) or couldn’t develop businesses. So the World Bank can (more effectively) engage their governments to say: ‘Why are you discriminating against particular minorities in your community?’

AW: What are your thoughts on the religious Fundamentalists from America who are stirring up a lot of this?

AO: Well it’s largely hidden. We only discovered this, maybe five years ago. A priest in Zambia called Kapya Kaoma uncovered some of the initial findings. What happened in the late ‘90s with the Bush Administration’s Faith Based Initiatives, a lot of money went into religious communities and (it is my belief that) the homophobic underbelly of the (evangelical HIV) message, really went into these communities. And these religious leaders also took Victorian anti-gay laws that were often not being used. For instance in Malawi, the evangelicals convinced people that lesbianism was not mentioned, so Malawi added lesbianism to their anti-gay laws only about a year ago. Uganda is the most famous place because of the (proposed) Anti-homosexuality Bill. And we know that Scott Lively, (an American evangelical pastor) actually went to meet with members of parliament. And we have him on tape saying “gays are responsible for the Rwandan genocide, gays were responsible for the Holocaust, they molest children.” So complete misinformation that was going out from American Christians. And so part of the clean up now, we’ve got 15 years of toxic misinformation all over the world that we now have to clean up.

AW: Former U.S. President Clinton has been involved with your work?

AO: Yes, President Clinton recently gave an (Clinton Global Citizen) award to Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Pepe Onziema, a transgender man from Uganda. It was the first time that the Clinton Initiative actually recognized the importance of LGBT rights. So we are very excited about this incredible network that he has. And basically he solves problems, brings governments, the private sector and NGOs together to solve problems around issues like world hunger, HIV and now he’s including LGBT work.

AW: What are your thoughts on how serious the situation is in Uganda?

AO: Well, Uganda has been helpful because it’s blown smoke into a space and we can now see this very ugly face that is also present in these other 75 countries that , we don’t really see clearly. So Uganda has been very helpful. It’s also been organized, it’s a very powerful civil society coalition. There are progressive faith leaders in Uganda who are speaking out and saying “everybody should be welcome in churches, everybody should have access to services.” So Uganda is a kind of model. My experience with Uganda, I started going there in the early ‘90s. It was evangelical, conservative but it wasn’t homophobic. And this really came to a head about 1998 and it coincides with some of the things I’ve talked about in terms of the AIDS funding from the United States. And you have huge groups like World Vision, $3 billion, the largest development Christian group in the world and they are not coming out against criminalization. They came out against this horrible bill, that I talked about, the Bahati bill. But what’s really going on is that often when the Ugandan government wants to avoid issues of corruption. There’s a big debate right now about corruption of money from Britain that ended up in the bank accounts of government ministers or where oil revenues are going. Right now it’s being debated in parliament. So when the Ugandan government wants a smokescreen for some larger concerns, often this bill is brought back in.

AW: You believe there are other countries that need to be scrutinized?

AO: Well, the Christian Right has been working for many years in most of Africa, in South and Central America, even in places like Eastern Europe and Russia. There are now 11 provinces in Russia that are passing anti-gay propaganda laws, and some people may have heard Lady Gaga and Madonna have been accused of promoting homosexuality. And often the churches are in sync with the government in creating these very draconian laws. For instance just us talking about this stuff, you could be a straight person talking about gay people that would be deemed illegal. So we have about 76 countries, and recently Nigeria, we’ve seen anti-gay laws pass both houses. So Uganda has helped us put a face on stuff that is going on all over the world and people in these countries fighting these laws. There are people in the legal profession from a human rights perspective. There are people from a faith perspective who think that these laws are really harmful. They are often against Catholic social teaching. So we have to help these people to raise their voices.

AW: You speak about “global equality” and that all of us have a responsibility in this area?

AO: Well, you are lucky in New Zealand because you have marriage equality here, and we are still struggling for that in the United States. And what I realized is that when I was working for marriage equality in California for about three years and I was realizing that when I was pushing for marriage equality in California, it was hurting people in Uganda and in the developing world. And the same people who were opposing us in California had more resources, more clout in these countries. So the light bulb went on for me that equality is global and that it doesn’t take a lot. We just have to expand our vision; it doesn’t take a lot to do the hard work of global equality, not only in our own countries, but in these other places.

AW: What do you think it takes to have a happy, fulfilled life?

I think it’s a balance of really knowing what you are good at and where your passion is. And I think a lot of that is just through experience. I look back at my own life and I’ve been a priest. I love being a priest; I think it’s an amazing job. A way that you can connect people, you help people look at the deeper questions of what it means to be human. And to mark the important stages of the human life, at birth, adolescence, marriage and death. So it’s a wonderful and very fulfilling career for me. And the combination of the international dimension which has been very much a part of my work and providing services, grassroots services, I’ve done a lot of AIDS work. So I’m finding now is a kind of “last gig for God.’ If you like, this is a way to combine all the skills and experience I’ve had to do (I think) really important work, and I really love doing that!

You can watch the interview 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.