Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2009 revisited: two heros for LGBT rights

Most everyone else in the blogosphere who indulged in 2009 retrospectives got them done between Christmas and New Years -- I went to Patagonia. So I'm going to allow myself a few such items over the first few weeks of this year.

On Monday the New York Times ran a major article about how right wing evangelical Christians from the U.S. have stoked an anti-gay panic in Uganda that is putting the lives of LGBT people there at risk. Today the same paper ran an editorial denouncing Uganda's proposed death penalty for homosexual conduct as

barbarism [that] is intolerable and will make [Uganda] an international pariah.

I believe this horrible news has clawed its way into the mainstream in great part because of the self-sacrificing efforts of two women I had the privilege of working with over the last two years. Their initiative also teaches lessons about how campaigns for justice move from fringe efforts to common knowledge.

Uganda probably has its own indigenous flavors of homophobia, but the shape of the beast there has way too much to do with efforts by right wingers to export our culture wars in order to undermine the witness of mainline Protestant churches to a compassionate justice agenda in both the U.S, and abroad. Journalist Jim Naughton documented this complicated story several years ago in Follow the Money. A key aspect has been conservative U.S. Anglicans encouraging (supporting financially) evangelical African Anglican bishops to denounce the (non-existent) threat of gays undermining their independent cultures. Some African bishops, especially those from Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda, have thundered that homosexuality was an imperialist import: they didn't have any queers til the European colonizers came. That's bunk of course, but not uncommon bunk from people who have foreign domination their history.

In 2008 the international Anglican bishops' meeting at Lambeth in the U.K. was bringing together about 800 princes of the church from around the world -- and was expected to be a place where intra-Anglican conflict over homosexuality would figure heavily. Independent TV journalist and writer Katie Sherrod of Forth Worth, TX and Episcopal priest the Rev. Cynthia Black of Kalamazoo, MI knew how to refute the lie that African churches had no LGBT members: they would go talk with African gays on film. This would get around U.K. immigration restrictions that make it exceptionally hard for gay Africans to visit even briefly because they are suspected of seeking permanent political asylum. It was tough to get the project funded and deadlines slipped, but they managed to create a 20 minute preview.

This early effort was a tremendous hit with the relatively small number of people at Lambeth who saw it. Here were African LGBT Christians speaking for themselves. Katie and Cynthia determined they would finish the film in time for the massive General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Anaheim last July. Groups advocating for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church, Integrity and the Chicago Consultation, put enough institutional muscle behind the project to enable another round of filming and some professional editing.

And so, last summer, Voices of Witness Africa played over and over to the 10,000 or so Episcopalians who passed through General Convention. Thanks to Katie and Cynthia's determination, probably 80 percent of them became aware of these articulate African LGBT people.

Meanwhile, the anti-homosexual bill was being cooked up in Uganda. In decades past, such a draconian law would have drawn opposition from significant gay groups, such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Such organizations have labored tirelessly for justice for gays, but they have always struggled to reach outside of a gay advocacy ghetto.

Showings of Voices of Witness Africa to all those nice, mostly middle class, mostly fairly entitled, U.S. Episcopalians last summer created a new base of people who had learned to recognize African homosexuals as sister and brother humans. Many concluded they had some responsibility for the wellbeing of these strangers. They lobbied their church and other churches to speak out against the Ugandan legislation. I have no doubt that when LGBT and other human rights voices sought to raise the alarm about the Ugandan bill, their ability to enlist straight church folks for the cause was greatly helped by Katie and Cynthia's bright idea. That's good campaigning and a kind of heroism for humanity in my opinion.

Here's the trailer for Voices of Witness Africa. [3:00]

I still don't see a distribution plan on the website, but interested readers can email the filmmakers at voicesofwitnessafrica (at) And all of us can continue to try to push whatever influential groups we may belong to into denouncing the proposed Ugandan legislation.

Many retrospectives judged 2009 discouraging in various ways; I intend to get to some of my own disappointments in future posts. But unsung work to increase the reach of justice and compassion such as that Katie and Cynthia undertook in creating their film deserves a lot more notice than it gets. Good developments usually don't just pop up without hard efforts to create the ground work. There are good folks toiling away at such projects, everyday, and we all owe them gratitude.

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