U.S. rights advocates reject African-style quest for rights

The Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga (Photo courtesy of Anglican Communion Office)
The Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga (Photo courtesy of Anglican Communion Office)

American human rights advocates have undercut the work of their African counterparts by insisting on Western-style advocacy of gay rights from African supporters of human rights for all, says a group of prominent religious leaders and human-rights activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

The issue arose this summer when Dartmouth College in New Hampshire chose, then rejected, an African bishop as the new leader of its Tucker Foundation, which “educates Dartmouth students for lives of purpose and ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality, and social justice.”

After he was announced as the new dean of the Tucker Foundation on July 14, the Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga resigned from his position as bishop of Southern Malawi.

In  a message to the Dartmouth community on July 18, Tengatenga said, “I support marriage equality and equal rights for everyone.” He added:

I have risked my life by advocating good and just government. As I told the search committee when I visited Dartmouth this spring, I have expected to die for the past decade because I have dared to speak out against official corruption and in defense of those Jesus called “the least of these.” I joke to my friends that I don’t leave the house after seven o’clock at night because I want to see who kills me.

As the chair of a commission seeking to keep the Anglican Communion from splitting apart of the issue of homosexuality, he said,  “I have tried very hard to represent Africa to the West, especially to the Episcopal Church, and the West to my African colleagues.”

He noted, “Mediators, however, often find themselves in the crossfire.”

The Dartmouth College chapter of the NAACP opposed his appointment in a July 22 letter signed by many student groups and faculty, citing his 2003 opposition to the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.  At the time, Robinson was the Anglican Communion’s first openly gay bishop.  The NAACP also objected to a statement in 2011 that Malawi’s Anglican provinces remained “totally against homosexuality.”

The NAACP letter said the groups were “deeply troubled” by his appointment, despite his “newfound views on marriage equality and gay rights.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Photo via WikiCommons Media)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Photo via WikiCommons Media)

A few weeks after those protests, on Aug. 14, Dartmouth retracted its job offer to Tengatenga, leaving him unemployed.

The college stated that his past comments about homosexuality had “compromised his ability to serve effectively.”

His supporters say that his American opponents are short-sighted, understanding neither the methods nor the language  that human rights advocates such as Tengatenga must use in striving for justice for LGBT people in homophobic African cultures.

In a statement, initially drafted as a letter to The New York Times and published online by the Living Church website on Sept. 2, his supporters said that the Dartmouth decision was a form of “cultural imperialism” that ignores and harms those seeking change in Africa:

The action represents a gross injustice to an individual who would have made an ideal person to provide moral and ethical leadership at the College. It casts serious doubts on what is being learned in American universities when members of those communities fail to distinguish between public positions of institutions and the views of individuals who participate in those institutions.

It reflects badly on western human rights advocates who consciously or unconsciously engage in forms of cultural imperialism that undermine their own success and credibility by demanding proofs identical to their own kind and, in this instance, by also ignoring the voices of Africans and church leaders who have known and worked with Tengatenga in some cases for decades.

Western advocates should learn about the language and the methods used by their African counterparts instead of insisting that Africans adopt a Western approach, Tengatenga’s supporters said:

African rights activists have constantly opposed the Western framing of LGBTQ issues because, even if they are well-intentioned, they create problems for local LGBTQ rights defenders.  Indeed, ignoring local voices on LGBTQ rights only worsens the situation for sexual minorities.  It is one thing to speak about “men who have sex with men” or “women who have sex with women” in America and quite another in Africa, where cultural knowledge would include the realization that sexuality of any kind is rarely discussed openly.

To take the most obvious example—and one that was severely misunderstood in the Dartmouth controversy—gay activists in southern Africa have essentially dropped the word “gay.”  The phrase used on the ground in Malawi is “human rights for all Malawians,” because to speak about “LGBTQ rights” as such would be to add fuel to the flames of opponents for whom gay rights are “special rights,” and therefore indefensible.

The fact that James Tengatenga did not leave behind a record of press releases or public pronouncements—Western forms of activism—does not mean that he was only recently converted to the cause nor that he has not been a loyal and helpful ally to gay activists.  Rather, it means that he has been using the methods of the place in which he was trying to make a difference.

Tengatenga was more bluntly critical of Dartmouth and its NAACP chapter.  He said that the college had “chosen to trust bigotry over truth and justice.”  Of the NAACP, he said:

Of all the groups to take the lead against a black person on flimsy grounds. … So much for the advancement of colored people … It is sad that such an institution can stoop so low.

The current Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, Rob Hirschfeld, said:

Bishop Rob Hirschfeld (right) with his predecessor, Bishop Gene Robinson (Photo courtesy of Episcopal Digital Network)
Bishop Rob Hirschfeld (right) with his predecessor, Bishop Gene Robinson (Photo courtesy of Episcopal Digital Network)

It was a bold appointment considering how politically charged American colleges tend to be. As an alumnus, I have some familiarity of the climate at Dartmouth. Bishop James’s effectiveness, despite his conciliatory work in the Anglican Communion and his powerful statements of openness and support of the LBGTQ community, would also have been complicated by the apparent indefinite role of the Tucker Foundation.

If the Dartmouth College decision took place within the councils of the church, I think we would have benefited from some holy conversation that would have led to a deepening of communion and reconciliation. I would welcome that. We see that such a conversation is probably not what the college administration bargained for in filling this vacancy, so the revoking of the appointment is sad, but understandable. I pray that some healthy reflection will proceed out of this whole event.

One of the statement’s co-signers, the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, analyzed the dispute thus:

The Dartmouth saga is the most recent example of American Christian liberalism paying more attention to the symbols of LGBT equality and inclusion rather than actually in the business of forming new moral paradigms for the 21st century.

Most liberal institutions in the USA including academia and the faith community have not taken the time or spent the resources needed to understand global homophobia. We are not paying attention to our own collusion in building up a new faith-based [and anti-gay] industry supported even by funding from the American taxpayer. Dartmouth’s response is only another example that we are really not listening and are prepared to throw good and resourceful people like James Tengatenga under the bus to protect some public persona that we are somehow more inclusive than we really are. Image trumps substance.

Signers of the Living Church statement include:

The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu
Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town
Anglican Church of Southern Africa

Kapya Kaoma
Visiting Researcher, Boston University
Senior Researcher, Political Research Associates

The Reverend Canon MacDonald S Sembereka
Human Rights Activist and Anglican Clergy (Malawi)

Gift Trapence
Executive Director
Centre for the Development of People (Malawi)

Timothy Mtambo
Acting Executive Director
Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (Malawi)

Victor Mukasa
Human Rights Defender, Independent Consultant, Researcher and Senior International Advisor on the Situation of LGBT Human Rights in Africa

Tarso Ramos
Executive Director
Political Research Associates

The Rt. Reverend Ian T. Douglas, Ph.D.
Bishop of Connecticut
The Episcopal Church

The Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
President and Dean
Episcopal Divinity School
Cambridge, MA

The Reverend Dr. Nicholas Henderson
Bishop Elect Diocese of Lake Malawi, 2005 – 2009

Rev. Canon Albert J. Ogle
St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation

Irene Kacandes
The Dartmouth Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature
Chair, Search Committee for Dean of the Tucker Foundation (2012-13)

Randall Balmer
Chair, Department of Religion
Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences, Dartmouth College

Peter VonDoepp
Director, African Studies Program
University of Vermont

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.


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