I welcome the World Bank’s commitment to gather some empirical date on the real cost of homophobia by commissioning its first study.
It is high time we paid attention to the economic outcomes of deliberately excluding people from contributing to their own destinies through attitudes, laws and barriers to education, health and business opportunities. I am going to share two stories to illustrate how important is the Bank’s foresight in commissioning this research.
How toxic sectarianism in Ireland was transformed
I was born nine years after the Second World War in Northern Ireland. My local parish church still bore the scars of German bombers who targeted our local shipyard. My parents, born at the height of the depression and survived the trauma of global war, worked hard with limited education and sacrificed so much for the next generation.
Belfast at this time was considered one of the most economically deprived areas of Europe and was the seedbed for later sectarian conflicts that took another generation to repair. Unemployment in regions of this divided society was in extremely high yet my generation had the opportunity get free education, a sound healthcare system based on the welfare state.
I was the first member of my family to attend university and travel extensively around a Europe that was divided by languages, religion, monetary systems and cultures. Reconciliation became a subject and practice I became deeply interested in and Europe at this time was a fascinating laboratory. I experienced the Berlin Wall. I saw the tragedy of sectarianism within my own country and the hopelessness that things could change and get better. Yet they did.
The real cost of sectarianism and fear of the other
The personal and economic cost of this sectarianism was also immeasurable. A whole new industry of military and police spending, security paraphernalia, internment camps and prisons for the dissidents and extremists, as well as a parallel “black economy” (drugs and racketeering) among para-military organizations grew up in front of my eyes.
It was clear by the 1980s that an economy of peace now had to compete with an overcome a very lucrative economy of war. The cost to the community, deprived through our own “brain drain” to more peaceful communities was immeasurable.
Thirty years later, we could not have imagined what it was going to take to build a new type of economy that would require a way for different religious and political perspectives to share common ground. It also demanded major investment from the international community with Canada leading the decommissioning of arms, South Africa sharing experiences with our entrenched politicians and the USA’s major investment by President Bill Clinton and George Mitchell to work out a political agreement.
There are parallels to the process needed by key institutions and the international community to transform homophobia as we offer a reframing of LGBT global issues. It is going to need these kinds of international resources to redress the personal and economic cost of homophobia.
What one person can bring to the table, even if LGBT
I shared a little of my early background growing up in Ireland and my early interest in Uganda as a teenager. I was fired from a job in the church for being gay in 1980 and moved to California. I began working in the LGBT and church community building bridges of co-operation.
As an adult and creating the first comprehensive AIDS plan for the State of California in 1987, I found myself in the middle of a community response to a new epidemic that shared much of the characteristics of Irish sectarianism that was now demonizing gay people who needed AIDS-related support. I wanted to see if a model AIDS program I had envisioned would work and spent the next three years setting up the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, which after 25 years serves an eighth of Los Angeles County.
By 1991, pretty burned-out on working in the difficult years of HIV, I met Archbishop Yona Okoth of the Anglican Church of Uganda and we began working together to help create the initial response to HIV that reduced the spread of HIV and began to care for the sick and orphaned. I introduced the Archbishop to many institutions including World Vision and Christian Children’s Fund and we also began working with Hospice Uganda on palliative care models that provided cost effective community based care.
I had the good fortune to introduce morphine for the first time to the Ugandan healthcare system and through Hospice Uganda we had this previously illegal drug introduced to help hundreds of thousands of Ugandans die with dignity and relieved of discomfort. I continued working with Archbishop Okoth’s successor until the late 1990s when the increasing influence of American evangelical anti-gay propaganda began to gain support in Uganda. I continued supporting a bishop who needed money for his AIDS orphans and would later found out one of these orphans was David Bahati, who is leading the efforts in the Ugandan parliament to extend the death penalty and life imprisonment for LGBT people there.
Archbishop of Uganda tried to throw me out
Thirteen years later, I found myself back in Kampala to support the work of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who is the only Anglican bishop in Uganda who has opposed the Bahati bill and gives counseling and services to the LGBT community.
Despite church sanctions, he continues to offer and inclusive and alternative narrative to the whole community and has built up an interesting gay/straight alliance for people who work together on income generating programs, lesbian, straight and transgender women have developed a fashion and crafts business and the AIDS program that is funded through the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
His HIV staff also provides important sensitization training over a two-day period for nurses, health workers, counselors and doctors to de-toxify the decade-long propaganda campaign that has demonized LGBT Ugandans from important health services. The training is very successful and I took part in one of the two-day training s only two weeks ago. Caregivers want to do the right thing and with the information they need they can create a safe and confidential place for EVERYONE, including some of the most vulnerable populations.
So in the context of visiting Kampala, I decided to pay a courtesy visit to the former Archbishop of Uganda, Dr. Henry Orombi, and to talk about what I was doing in his country and to ask for his help. We met briefly at his offices and although he was too busy to see me, he checked out my work through my website and Facebook page and felt obliged to call the church guest house I was staying in to ask them to throw me out.
“What was a man like this doing in Uganda?” His response is important from two aspects and I want you to think about this in your own relationships with LGBT and allies in your own networks. Given my long lifetime relationship with Uganda, the Church of Uganda and the institutions I have helped to resource, all of this history and value was completely overridden by one aspect of my personality.
My being a gay man or working with Bishop Christopher cancelled out everything I ever did in his country or what I may still be contributing to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Why is something so significant to a religious leader that basic values of courtesy, hospitality and listening are so lacking? The stigma of LGBT is so powerful that otherwise warm, intelligent loving people respond only from their reptilian brain.
The good people of the Church of Uganda guest house knew me and did not throw me out but continued to offer hospitality.
Respecting the dignity of every human being
There are many stories like this one that illustrates my core point about valuing the untapped contribution LGBT people can make to the overall transformation of their society if we are allowed by the majority to do so.
A university-trained public health expert who is working with vulnerable populations in another African country and specialized in working to prevent HIV among MSMs, attended to International AIDS Conference last summer. When he returned, he was met with interrogation and torture by the police and he was so victimized by his government and persecuted by the churches that he had to seek asylum in this country. Not only was this a gross violation of human rights but my friend has no institutional protections, from government, from the police, from members of civil society or the World Bank who fund one third of his government’s budget.
The role of American-based faith based agencies who claim to serve everyone need to seriously look at how ALL recipients of their support can become part of their country’s solutions. In the Episcopal church’s baptismal liturgy, there is a series of questions asked of those seeking membership of the church or to their surrogate adult sponsors. The response is clearly a condition of becoming a member of church.
Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will with God’s help
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Pretty clear to me … baptism is about being of value not only to God but to the community. The moral and economic cost to any society that cannot claim this for all its citizens is fast become a huge liability.
Devaluing LGBT people is therefore immoral and makes no economic sense to any country seeking to flourish. I wonder how much real investment the Anti-Homosexuality Bill has cost Uganda as businesses look elsewhere for a stable and inclusive society? A report out this week that the World Bank is cutting off all future aid to Uganda is yet another wake-up call to a country where the economy of hate is becoming just too costly.
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.