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Memory, by itself, is not to be trusted. In 1995, I wrote 300 pages about working in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in California and Uganda. It was an exercise in catharsis – to somehow take the story from inside my heart and memory, and externalize it to paper and a computer. I thought it might be edited into a book someday but the principal reason was to share the experience and get it outside of my own reality.
A few months ago I came across a box of papers and the manuscript. I sat down one evening and began to read it. It was amazing how much detail I had simply forgotten. There were vignettes of people who were my heroes and my “thorns in the flesh.” There were political and personal situations I had also forgotten and I could understand more deeply why it is important to journal, to write, record experiences because time will erode or distort them. If the victors really do write and revise history and make or destroy cultures, then the marginalized and the forgotten need to have repositories of memory and stories, before we either forget them or others write us out of history.
Why do we celebrate Gay Pride?
I watched a riveting program recently on PBS on the Stonewall Uprising. Considering LGBT Pride celebrations have become so mainstream in cities all over the world, the historical reality of that particular week in New York is not familiar to most of us.
The documentary described the pervasive shame of being arrested in gay bars, soon to be followed by names appearing in newspapers and destroying relationships, families and careers. Psychiatry created its own form of gay concentration camps where LGBT people were locked away and experimented upon. The anti-gay propaganda films using “experts” could be used by any country where it is illegal to be LGBT and people like Scott Lively would have been hailed as moral leaders and in great demand in this bizarre twilight zone.
Even though these stories are still part of living memory, most LGBT people younger than 25 have no connection to our recent past. Equality is now an expected right and the LGBT community has not been good at “remembering rightly.”
Amnesia is a human condition of concern in the Bible and perhaps our greatest sin. Over generations, collective amnesia could get us all into a lot of trouble. We simply forgot where we came from and can treat others who are now on the margins in the same way others mistreated us. “Remember you were once slaves in Egypt” ... “Remember you were once aliens in a foreign land” becomes a high moral value so compassion and understanding could be demonstrated to the newly arrived. But America has largely forgotten that ancient Jewish advice and it is easy to become lost, hard and cruel and make the same mistakes others made towards us.
A friend once put it this way: “Our job in this present age is simply to dye vivid and wonderful colored threads – to search out and make these threads that others will weave into cloth.” This was very helpful to me knowing there is only so much we can do or be expected to do. In a community that either wants instant gratification and instant success without the seasons of reflective critical thought and maturity, a sense that we may not get it all right in our lifetime but have we done the best we could with the tools we have? Have we really found the most vibrant and beautiful colors and do all we can to make sure these are lovingly passed on to the next generations?
Documenting the global oppression of LGBT people and our allies
I am now seeing what is happening to our LGBT brothers and sisters in communities around the world where there has been no Stonewall Uprising and so names keep appearing in newspapers in global shame. Denial of basic citizen rights and access to healthcare has become normalized. We may be moving into a future where one in two LGBT people by 2050 may be HIV-positive because of what we are doing or not doing now.
Although our ability to share information and experiences has undergone a major evolution so we can communicate and even live and work in more than one region of the world, we are not seeing this translate into any significant change in LGBT focus or overall strategy for global equality.
I am concerned this need for documenting global LGBT oppression is not happening on the scale it needs to be. There needs to be a conscious and deliberate effort to record stories and experiences that do become part of the public record and a reminder of both what we did or did not do in our time. America has largely forgotten about our participation in the oppression of the Jews. Our low numbers of European immigrants during the height of the persecution of Jews and our deliberate disconnect from the events around the Holocaust are well-documented.
We can see similar policies and amnesia at work in our contemporary inability to process LGBT asylum seekers. For every one who can make it out of a life-threatening situation to safety (and there are still not that many) dozens perish in camps and so called “safe houses” waiting for bureaucracy to save them. We see it in the historic record of church and mosque teaching against homosexuality and its horrific impact on the lack of health resources for LGBT people, which is leading to a quiet genocide of young people who are not being given the resources and information they need.
We are not seeing enough public international outcry when LGBT champions go out on a limb and demand something better and simply get killed. In recent years, I can see the difference in the public reaction to the brutal and untimely murder of David Kato. He has become a household name, uttered by presidents and even has a film made about him. When Eric Lembembe was killed in Cameroon, his story barely made the news and he was still buried without any significant investigation. Eric’s story, like David’s, combines the struggle for HIV resources with security, human rights and fighting the religious establishment all at the same time. Kato was an HIV activist long before he became a spokesperson for LGBT rights. David was killed instantly. Eric was tortured slowly. His limbs and neck were broken, and he was burned by an electric iron. Whoever killed him wanted information, a confession, names and addresses, and to terrify this little Cameroonian community that others would be next. Yet, we have not remembered Eric rightly. Until now.
Ensuring Cameroonian activists can record their experiences
On Oct. 18, there will be an important gathering of African civil society organizations to plan for the next meeting of the African Human Rights Commission to be held in the Gambia in West Africa. A report, compiled by a group of concerned citizens and international partners from the faith and human rights community, needs to become part of the public record around the brutal murder of Eric Lembembe and its symbolic message to all African LGBT people and their allies.
The report also documents the violence and intimidation directed toward straight allies working with HIV and LGBT groups in Cameroon. We also have documentation about the negative role of the Cameroonian churches, particularly Catholic Archbishop Tonye Bakot’s Christmas message claiming that gays were committing “crimes against humanity.” Bakot has since been removed from office, but it would be easy to forget the impact these kinds of statements made towards the climate of hatred and hostility organized by the faith community. If these kinds of realities are not documented, they will simply be written out of history.
The Cameroonian LGBT community is once again stepping out in courage and is asking for our support to ensure they can tell their stories. The hope is to not only document Eric’s work and witness, but to demand closure through a full-scale investigation. We hope to have three or four leaders from the LGBT community present for the weeklong meetings costing $2,500 each.
It will be important for other African nations to hold Cameroon accountable for its international commitments to human rights and an investigation needs to begin in earnest. A fundraising campaign started Thursday so readers can make a difference by donating online through an Indiegogo account supervised by St. Paul’s Foundation. $800 were raised in the first eight hours! We coordinated the efforts to raise money for Eric’s funeral, so it is an honor for us to stand in solidarity with our African brothers and sisters. Details of how you can be part of history can be found HERE.
We can remember rightly. Amnesia gets us all in trouble and only leads to more suffering and loss. We look forward to reporting on this two-week campaign and see how each one of us can make a difference not only to the present situation in places like Cameroon, but all over the world.
The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.