(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is en route to a UNAIDS meeting in Geneva where the difficulties of proving prevention and health services to men who have sex with men (MSM) will be the focus of the two-day consultation. Given that he criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries makes it so much more difficult to reach and support these vulnerable populations, he describes how the work is being hampered in Zambia by religious zealots who have targeted one of the leading HIV activists there.)
We are watching yet another tragic scene in the African passion play sponsored by American Evangelical neo-colonialism. Scene Two moves from Uganda southward to Zambia.
Pay attention this week to an important trial on May 15 when HIV activist Paul Kasonkomona will know if he may become Zambia’s future Nelson Mandela. Will the Zambian government send him to prison just because he has publically condemned sexual apartheid? He was arrested a month ago after a controversial television interview where he called for the decriminalization of homosexuality as a necessary step to allow vulnerable populations full access to HIV prevention and care for all Zambians.
The arrest has made Paul a celebrity overnight, and as the world will observe the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) two days after his trial, one wonders what God has in mind for this up and coming young leader?
Mandela’s amazing story is a reminder that where many of us might despair at the systemic global oppression of LGBT people and allies, yet extraordinary people think up extraordinary things while they are wrongfully imprisoned. Africans know this, and great Africans are forged from the shackles of hate and dehumanization like Mandela.
Religious folk know Paul’s namesake and patron of our Foundation dreamt up the “Hymn To Love” in his letter to the Corinthians chained to a fellow human being in jail. Whereas the Christian Right frequently protest that their religious liberty is being taken away from them for fighting the evils of homosexuality, there are far more of us than them in African jails right now.
Future leaders are being forged in the LGBT battle
Who knows where the next Nelson Mandela of Africa may be released from? He may even be a persecuted gay or heaven forbid … a transgendered African queen! Sexual apartheid in the 21st century like racial and economic apartheid in the 20th century has both its regimes and its victors.
Christians had their beginnings in the secret hideaways and support systems of the first four centuries. They presented an alternative society to that of the most powerful state and religion feared and persecuted. Persecution only brought more courageous leaders. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice as many LGBT Africans know. Others went into exile as many of my asylum-seeking friends know. Their belief in a God of justice and unconditional love were a threat to everything in their known world and Jesus was their president, not some dictator who thought he was God. The Kingdom of God was more powerful than any earthly state.
Zambia is the latest state to fail to see the irony in what it is doing by persecuting LGBT people. In a country where it is a capital offense to criticize the president, the imperial church is alive and well and has taken on all of the trappings of the former masters they sought to overthrow. The American evangelicals are determined to create a theocracy somewhere on the planet and if Uganda does not have the balls enough to pass the “Kill The Gays” bill, maybe Zambia can become its prized African pearl?
Why was someone arrested for reiterating what the Zambian government has already committed to doing through signing the UNAIDS Declaration of 2011? Zambia receives millions of HIV prevention and care dollars for ALL their citizens. They agreed to the following principle:
“Note that many national HIV-prevention strategies inadequately focus on populations that epidemiological evidence shows are at higher risk, specifically men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers, and further note,however, that each country should define the specific populations that are key to itsepidemic and response, based on the epidemiological and national context”
If “zero grazing” is a well-supported African policy recommended for heterosexual couples to reduce the spread of HIV, one might imagine monogamy or reducing sexual partners would also apply to LGBT people as well. This is what Paul was advocating for when he was handcuffed and taken to jail. So much for freedom of speech.
This surprising development was then followed by a government call for the arrest of known LGBT people by their neighbors. A gay couple who have been living together and have not appeared on TV advocating gay relationships were reported to the police by their neighbors, dragged out of their homes and forcibly examined to see if anal sex had taken place. They were sent to an already overcrowded jail arrested and now face trial on May 22.
Colin Stewart’s report gives graphic details of how these two innocent citizens were degraded and are now Zambia’s most famous gay couple.
Why the sudden prurient interest in LGBT issues?
Zambian government’s track record
The Zambian government has historically drawn international criticism for its weak record on human rights, particularly for abuses by the police, overcrowded prisons and horrific working conditions of their citizenry in Chinese-owned mines.
The United Nations Human Rights Council’s periodic review for Zambia in 2008 gives some insight into the larger issues the Zambian government now faces. Since then, the government has resisted all international appeals to honor internationally respected human rights protections and the country is still awaiting constitutional reform.
In the past year, the government has clamped down on their opposition, and many opposition leaders have been arrested. The tactic of using LGBT issues as a smokescreen to cover up larger human rights abuses, corruption and political turmoil has already been tried in Uganda by the Musevene government. The current hostile attitude towards the LGBT community (a convenient scapegoat) but it may backfire if the international community sees the link between LGBT abuse and the government’s attempt to deflect attention from its own internal problems. It is a huge political gamble and the government may end up making martyrs and celebrities of these reluctant heroes now attracting international attention.
The other losers may be evangelical Christians who appear to be behind the recent arrests and anti-gay fervor. They are hoping for political capital from the recent incitement to mob hysteria and advocating spying on fellow neighbors. Ironically, like Saul, they are organizing the persecution of those who are different and a threat to their theological outlook. Other organizations that may be aware of the irony of Christians persecuting other Christians holding coats (as Saul did in the account of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr ) while others carry out mob justice. Will others speak out?
Learning the lessons of Uganda
The Zambian churches have historically been advocates for improving the rights of women, people with HIV, prisoners and mineworkers, but the recent clam by the Zambian vice president that gays are now being rounded up and imprisoned is merely to satisfy the country’s evangelicals is disturbing to anyone who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Vice President Guy Scott’s actual statement is not only damning for evangelical religious leaders, but actually undermines years of work by the churches to protect Zambian citizens from government abuse. One wonders of the president’s gamble is to see if he can gain more political support from the country’s Catholics and Evangelicals by appearing tough on gays.
Musevene tried this tactic in Uganda in the 1990s with support from Evangelical Americans but within 10 years had created his own Frankenstein within the Ugandan parliament. Even the Ugandan churches now realize the price they have paid for giving support to a regime that was tough on gays and is now tough on anyone who challenges them, including the opposition parties. Musevene bribed church leaders for two decades with shiny new Land Rovers given personally at the most sacred moment of their consecration as bishops, and the only thing they ended up having in common with him was the eradication of the LGBT community in Uganda. This marriage from hell did not last and the LGBT community is stronger than ever in Uganda. The church realized they were conned and receiving free vehicles from the president has stopped.
Zambia can simply look at the effects of 10 years of anti-LGBT policies, and see how this has improved the overall quality of citizenship for all Ugandans or reduced the spread of HIV. However theologically motivated, homophobia and anti-gay sectarianism establishes a poor precedent in a country that is composed of lots of minority groups and tribal loyalties.
By not supporting freedom of expression and a free press through the arrest of Paul Kasonkomona, the government undermines its own promises to fellow Zambians, the international community and donors to do all in its power to reduce HIV stigma, get to zero infections and zero deaths by 2015. HIV infection rates are 14% in Africa when it comes to MSM and many of them are married and having sex with women as well. Evangelicals may not like this, but surely silencing HIV experts and public health officials is not the long-term answer to this global problem. Evangelicals are being blamed for these men being arrested and they can face prison terms under the law and public attitudes that have largely been shaped by religious leaders. It is only one step away from saying all references to sexual conduct that is not condoned by the majority needs to be made illegal including taking about prostitution, adultery or homosexuality.
Another tactic used in Uganda that may be used in Zambia is to condemn HIV prevention experts for even talking about these issues in public “promotion of homosexuality” is becoming another evangelical taboo and in some countries laws are being created to even forbid these issues to be discussed. Imagine how impossible it is going to become if prostitution becomes something we are actively discouraged to talk about because by talking about it we must be promoting it! I am sure there are evangelicals in Zambia who can agree that this is impossible to enforce and if we legislate for this kind of prohibition while new HIV infections soar.
If Zambia is serious about meeting the goals it agreed to in the international UN Declaration, its government and faith community has to find a way to allow courageous Zambians like Paul K to do his work and not punish or silence him. By putting him in jail, you have given him the best publicity possible and Zambians can reflect on the long term implications of what it means for neighbors to spy on other neighbors and accuse them of whatever will get them arrested … sodomy, promotion of homosexuality, polygamy, adultery, attacking the president or the government. Just to be accused is enough to ruin a person as we are seeing from the latest drama against the gays. Where does it end?
Meeting the Zambian minister of finance
Recently at the Civil Society Organizations meeting at the World Bank I spent some time with the Zambian Minister of Finance Alexander Bwalya Chikwanda. The IMF was having parallel meetings with the Civil Society Organizations where Ministers of Health and Finance from all over the world were discussing how countries could get better value for money in the provision of health services.
We had a long conversation about the measurable success of Clinton Global Initiative’s work in Africa. This $75 billion network brings together non-government organizations (NGOs), businesses and government to solve huge human issues like HIV, better health delivery, food sustainability, etc. The success of the network which transcends political and religious ideologies, is about bringing expertise to the table and allowing the creativity of the spirit to do its work. There is a growing awareness in the World Bank and indeed in many of the partner organizations working together in the Clinton Global Initiative of the human and economic cost of excluding people from the right to their own destinies or their ability to contribute to the well being of their society. For Paul K and the gay couple whose health and wellbeing are now put at risk in a Zambian overcrowded jail, the creative problem solving strategies employed by President Clinton’s Global Network can never “get out of the starting gate.” Who really wants to invest and share in the betterment of a country that locks people up for loving each other or for having the courage to talk publically about difficult issues that may save the lives of other Africans?
The vice president has given the reason for these arrests and named the proponents of this kind of sexual apartheid – to satisfy evangelicals. If I was an evangelical living in Zambia right now I might ask myself some deeper questions about why this is a particularly Christian thing to support and if it is, then who else should the government be allowed to arrest in their homes and lock up? How much is the Zambian people willing to sacrifice allowing this kind of policy to become a normal part of government policy and expenditure? There is a cost to filling Zambian prisons and they do not appear to be any less crowded than they were in the 2008 UN peer review. Freedom House’s report in 2011 gives an overview of the key issues:
Finally, to the average Zambian citizen I would make one more observation. Given the conversations your government ministers heard at the World Bank on “value for money” and from HIV advocates like me and people of faith, it is going to be very difficult to attract the kind of investment needed from the private and donor sectors when we see this kind of waste of energy and talent when Zambians are fighting other Zambians.
We have also seen this play out in Uganda. Musevene has lost 25% of his government budget over the past four years from overseas cuts to aid and the World Bank has just told him Uganda will no longer be funded by their loans. This comes at a time when the Ugandan political leadership of the country seeks to further criminalize their own children and to require charities to report them to the authorities if they are suspected of being gay or promoting homosexuality. Is this really the example and direction the good people of Zambia now want to follow?
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.