“They threw my clothes and furniture out from my home. I had nowhere to live but in my car and nothing to eat. My head was spinning – where to go, what to do?”
Only 10 days after the Spirit of 76 initiative was celebrated in Washington, D.C., one of our bright and talented African activists was deliberately targeted by his government for retaliation. His crime: He attended the International AIDS Conference and was sponsored by St. Paul’s Foundation here in San Diego.
He was suspended from his job, deprived of his salary, and lost his home and support base within a week of his return home. Both he and his partner are now homeless and are living in fear of being arrested, subjected to mob violence or being killed.
Only two weeks before, Samuel (not his real name) sat in a conference room at the World Bank and talked about why the bank needs to do more for LGBT people globally. If their mission is to end global poverty, then they have to seriously look at the effects and impact of systemic homophobia upon the lives of millions of invisible LGBT people who are often only a day or two away from living on the streets, deprived of rights and employment.
Well-educated and successful professionals can become street people without the protection of government just for being perceived to be LGBT criminals. The 26 international visitors gave examples of how this happens in education, healthcare and business-all areas where the World Bank is actively working with governments in most of the 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT. No one had significantly made this connection before to such a powerful institution, we were later told. The four World Bank executives took notes and shared some of the bank’s internal processes and wanted this group to help them achieve their mission.
A week is a long time in politics
What was an academic description for Samuel two weeks ago has now become his family’s personal nightmare. The process of dehumanization -- depriving people of the constitutional rights and their ability to earn a living and be contributing members of society is so subtle.
For the past 10 years, Samuel worked hard for a government agency and was climbing the ladder of his professional field. His presence at the International AIDS Conference and concern for access to health and rights for LGBT people globally, cost him and his partner, the thin plank they were standing upon dividing normalcy from chaos. A government agency yanked it away and they both plunged into the abyss of “non persons.”
The battle for identity
This is precisely why 26 people came to Washington in the first place – to make sure governments or churches are not allowed to treat LGBT as non citizens or non persons who are not protected under civil or religious law, even the law of loving ones neighbor. Samuel is a practicing Roman Catholic and when the Vatican makes a statement like “Homosexuality is not an identity, merely a set of intrinsically disordered behaviors,” the church participates in the wanton destruction of otherwise creative and loving lives and relationships.
There is usually no interior reflection of the consequences of these irresponsible statements in many of the religious leaders I know who advocate this position without thinking about its consequences. They may be wonderful pastors caring for widows and orphans, the homeless and the oppressed, but when it comes to LGBT people, their own fear allows their shadow side to create the damaging situations they and their organizations are trying to heal.
If religious leaders could begin to make that connection over this issue, we might find ourselves on a different trajectory. Rick Warren or the local Cardinal will merely walk by on the other side and allow a form of institutional bullying to take its course. The underlying and unspoken goal is to make life as difficult as possible for LGBT people in the hope they just stop talking about it, never mind “doing it.” Samuel’s sin, in their eyes, not that he is homosexual but he has the audacity to talk about it and to see it as a part of his identity. Further, he is challenging the government’s policy to deprive LGBT criminals of their constitutional rights and health services. Even worse, he is living with another man.
Even though Samuel is a devout Catholic, he will be hard-pressed to find any bishop or priest to come out publically and say what the government is doing to him is morally wrong.
Jesus, protect us from your followers
This is one of my concerns from the International AIDS Conference was Rick Warren, the Vatican and most liberal churches were patting each other on the back so much that they did not see the wounded ones like Samuel. After all, the church is caring for so many widows, orphans and the sick that no-one is particularly concerned about a few queers who are going to hell anyway.
The institutional damage of religious homophobia in half the world remained unfiltered by our religious engagements at the conference. It was significant to notice that 40% of our 26 international activists (gay and straight) were practicing Catholics. The church is persecuting its own baptized. The clergy are walking on the other side of the street while the bound and beaten LGBT community pick up fragmented lives.
Samuel and his partner had to literally pick up the pieces of their lives thrown into the street. I cannot imagine what it is like to be hounded in this way while some of the institutions we trust and are even inspired by, walk by on the other side. It is ironic that Jesus deliberately chose clergy as the embodiment of self-absorbed and self-protected individuals who crossed the road to avoid dealing with the beaten man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is from the margins and in surprising places that we will find help and rescue, not from professional do-gooders.
Reformers vs. anarchists
Yet these young people who made up the Spirit of 76 still believe in the institutions that are making their lives hell. They are reformers rather than anarchists. They believe in the power of their stories and in their personal courage to win hearts and minds.
While some people resort to hacking into the Ugandan government’s website as a modern day “Act Up” civil disobedience, others are working from the inside out in the media, medical community, faith movements and through businesses and civil society. They are an inspiration to all of us who usually take so much of our own freedom and ability to thrive professionally for granted.
Only three weeks ago I saw Samuel smiling and hugging some of his new found friends in Washington in a bar where he was just like any other twenty something. How quickly things can change, but his determination to share what we all take for granted in the USA, with his community back home, must get our respect and attention -- even the most jaded and complacent among us.
An emergency fund
Some people want to know how they can help Samuel and his partner. St. Paul’s Foundation wired some emergency money today so they can rent a place to live and buy food, have access to a phone and computer and to reach out to his new found Spirit of 76 network. It was that simple and it made such a difference to their deep sense of personal security.
Samuel wants to regroup, hire an attorney and continue to work for the dignity and rights of all. He wants to get his job back or do something that will be even more significant for the cause he feels so passionate about. I wonder what you or I might have done as we faced a similar ordeal? What disturbs us or provides a teachable moment is in this particular story, for Samuel and for us? I close with the voice of another authentic witness who bonded with Samuel during our time together. She is a lesbian and she lives thousands of miles away from him but listen to her words:
“The Spirit of 76 was for me the coming together of 26 beautiful souls, and people, who work for and with those in countries who are in the margins of society. It means for me a family, a community, and a special bond. The two weeks in DC was an eye opener in so many ways, both as an activist and also in my own personal life. One significant event was the meeting at the World Bank, where Julie Oyegun used a phrase that has become for me, almost a mantra in respect to how I now go about the issues of LGBT people in my country. She talked about “Quality of citizenship” –the rights of every person to be protected under the state’s constitution. The Spirit of 76, has rekindled a fire in me that had been smothered by the seeming inactivity and complacency of the local LGBT community; it has also now opened new opportunities for me to network with other organizations in the country and the region.”
If you want to help Samuel and others you can make a contribution to our emergency fund 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.