Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Message of Hope . . . from Uganda

Frank Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Recently he had a powerful op-ed in the New York Times in which he shared what it is like to be gay in Uganda. Frank grew up Catholic, and I find his op-ed very appropriate for the Christmas season. Why? Because despite the horrendous situation for LGBT people in Uganda, Frank Mugisha continues to hope.

"There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realize we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media," Frank writes. "They realize we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them."

I also appreciate Frank's observation that in Uganda, as in other so-called developing nations, it is homophobia — not homosexuality — that is the "toxic import."


Interestingly, Frank Mugisha's words of hope and truth were published the same day that the media reported the comments of Chicago's Cardinal Francis George (right) comparing the gay rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan. Such a comparison has rightly sparked outrage, and there have even been calls for the cardinal to step down.

Writes Fr. Geoff Farrow:

Cardinal George’s comparison of LGBT people who are simply seeking full Federal equality as American citizens with the KKK, a notorious hate group that seeks to deny full Federal equality to minorities, is both an inversion and a denial of the truth. George’s words constitute both a grave injustice and a moral outrage. By vilifying members of a minority group he targets them for prejudice and hate crimes.

A simple apology is insufficient, since an apology is merely a public announcement of one’s personal feelings. I believe that cardinal George is morally required to ask for forgiveness of the LGBT people, their families and loved ones, who he has vilified. His immediate resignation, upon asking for forgiveness, would manifest his sincerity and serve as a reproach to bigotry in our society.

Writing for New Ways Ministry's recently established blog, the excellent Bondings 2.0, Francis DeBarnardo, like Farrow, 'makes the connections' when he observes that the verbal abuse exemplified by Cardinal George’s comments fuel the homophobia that leads to the hateful and violent attitudes and actions that Frank Mugisha and others endure in Uganda. "Cardinal George, and other Catholic leaders, could learn a lot from Frank Mugisha," says DeBernardo.

Indeed they could. For a start they could learn to stop being so fearful and defensive. This would go a long way in preventing them making the types of asinine and erroneous statements we recently heard from Cardinal George. Second, they could take steps to dispel the obvious ignorance that they have of LGBT people. One way to do this would be by taking the time to actually meet and converse with LGBT people and learn about their lives, their relationships, and their current struggle for equality in terms of civil marriage rights.

A Christmas prayer

Good teachers are good listeners. Yet I see no effort whatsoever on the part of the bishops to be in dialogue with LGBT Catholics and those who know and love them – Catholics like Eileen Scallen and her family, for instance. I have absolutely no doubt that if they took the time to enter into such "face to face" dialogue, the bishops would realize that gay people are not out to destroy the church or civilization, that we're not monsters of any type, and that, to paraphrase Frank Mugisha, we are human, we are Catholic, just like them.

That's my prayer this Christmas season and beyond: that this type of enlightenment in the hearts and minds of our bishops breaks through the layers of fear and ignorance that I believe holds them back from being authentic teachers and from being authentically Catholic and authentically human.

Frank Mugisha is a gay man seeking to be true to his deepest convictions about himself. Accordingly, he's a man willing to risk his life for the human rights of his fellow LGBT Ugandans and all who are viewed and treated as "less than." I see in his words and actions something that, for now at least, I fail to see in the words and actions of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church: the embodiment of what Christmas is all about – the emergence, the breaking through of hope, love and truth in and through human life.

Following with added images and links is Frank Mugisha's December 22 New York Times op-ed.


Gay and Vilified in Uganda

By Frank Mugisha

New York Times
December 22, 2011

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced this month that the United States would use diplomacy to encourage respect for gay rights around the world, my heart leapt. I knew her words — “gay people are born into, and belong to, every society in the world”— to be true, but in my country they are too often ignored.

The right to marry whom we love is far from our minds. Across Africa, the “gay rights” we are fighting for are more stark — the right to life itself. Here, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer brutal attacks, yet cannot report them to the police for fear of additional violence, humiliation, rape or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities. We are expelled from school and denied health care because of our perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. If your boss finds out (or suspects) you are gay, you can be fired immediately.

People are outed in the media — or if they have gay friends, they are assumed to be “gay by association.” More benignly, if people are still single by the time they reach their early 20s, what Ugandans call a “marriage age,” others will begin to suspect that they are gay.

Traditional culture silences open discussion of sexuality. I am 29. I grew up in a very observant Catholic family in the suburbs of Kampala. From the time I was old enough to have romantic feelings, I knew I was gay, but we weren’t supposed to speak of such things.

When I was 14, I came out to my brother. Later, when others close to me asked if I was gay, I didn’t deny it. Though some relatives accepted me, I came out to the rest of my family slowly. Some simply chose to ignore the fact that I was gay, or begged me not to tell anyone, fearing I’d shame our family name. Others stopped speaking to me altogether.

Many Africans believe that homosexuality is an import from the West, and ironically they invoke religious beliefs and colonial-era laws that are foreign to our continent to persecute us.

The way I see it, homophobia — not homosexuality — is the toxic import. Thanks to the absurd ideas peddled by American fundamentalists, we are constantly forced to respond to the myth — debunked long ago by scientists — that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. For years, the Christian right in America has exported its doctrine to Africa, and, along with it, homophobia. In Uganda, American evangelical Christians even held workshops and met with key officials to preach their message of hate shortly before a bill to impose the death penalty for homosexual conduct was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in 2009. Two years later, despite my denunciation of all forms of child exploitation, David Bahati, the legislator who introduced the bill, as well as Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem and other top government officials, still don’t seem to grasp that being gay doesn’t equate to being a pedophile.

In May, following criticism from the West and President Yoweri Museveni, the bill was shelved. But the current parliament has revived it and could send it to the floor for a vote at any time. Meanwhile, the bill’s influence has been felt in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, all of which have recently stepped up enforcement of anti-gay laws or moved to pass new legislation that would criminalize love between people of the same sex.

Not all Ugandans are homophobic. Some say there are more pressing issues to worry about than gay people and believe we should have the same rights as anyone else. But they are not in power and cannot control the majority who want to hurt us.

A veil of silence enforced by thuggish street violence and official criminalization is falling over much of Africa. Being a gay activist is a sacrifice. You have to carefully choose which neighborhood to live in. You cannot go shopping on your own, let alone go clubbing or to parties. With each public appearance you risk being attacked, beaten or arrested by the police.

I remember the moment when my friend David Kato [left], Uganda’s best-known gay activist, sat with me in the small unmarked office of our organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda. “One of us will probably die because of this work,” he said. We agreed that the other would then have to continue. In January, because of this work, David was bludgeoned to death at his home, with a hammer. Many people urged me to seek asylum, but I have chosen to remain and fulfill my promise to David — and to myself. My life is in danger, but the lives of those whose names are not known in international circles are even more vulnerable.

Still, I continue to hope. There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realize we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media. They realize we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them.

Standing on David’s shoulders, we are no longer alone. Political leaders like Mrs. Clinton and religious leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu are willing to publicly state that being gay is just one of many expressions of what it means to be human. I call on other leaders — particularly my African-American brothers and sisters in politics, entertainment and religious communities — to come to Uganda, to stand with me and my fellow advocates, to help dispel harmful myths perpetuated by ignorance and hate. The lives of many are on the line.

Frank Mugisha, the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate, is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda.

Recommended Off-site Links:
An Interview with Frank Mugisha, LGBT Freedom Fighter in Uganda
– Darnell L. Moore (The Huffington Post, November 14, 2011).
All Are God's Children: On Including Gays and Lesbians in the Church and Society
– Desmond Tutu (The Huffington Post, June 11, 2011).
Dear Ugandan Christians: Stop Torturing Your Citizens
– Joseph Ward III (The Huffington Post, January 1, 2011).
Christmas Gift from America: Catholics Should Raise Voices to Defend Human Rights of LGBT Persons – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, December 25, 2011).
Breaking the Silence on LGBT Human Rights Violations – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, December 25, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In Uganda, a "Fearless Voice" for Gay Rights is Brutally Silenced
Quote of the Day – December 24, 2011
The Scourge of Homophobia in Economically Impoverished Countries
A Prayer for International Day Against Homophobia
To Be Gay in Iraq . . .
Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East
The Vatican's Actions at the UN: "Sickening, Depraved and Shameless"
The Blood-Soaked Thread
Catholic Church Can Overcome Fear of LGBT People
And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Papa


Anonymous said...

Okay. What do we do? Comparing GLBT rights efforts to KKK: Like accusing the poor of class warfare--or the people who speak out for them. Like blaming women for rape. Like calling MLK racist. God help me accept the things I cannot change...

Anonymous said...

We export things, ideas, culture and language. How we feel about another--feelings, true feelings cannot be exported.

Too often, what we send to other cultures and places, or what we invade with or occupy isn't something we should be proud of. Homophobic politics of the right is another example.

Unknown said...

You're still in a state of denial, Michael. Millions have died and continue to die because of homosexual relations. And you still believe that behavior that kills is something that qualifies one for "equal rights."

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for your comments, Clarence!



Mareczku said...

Another excellent story. Thanks for keeping us informed. Great comments, Clarence. Michael your response to Ray was very good.