Anglican leader: How ‘red flag’ words harm LGBT Africans

Bishop James Tengatenga (Photo by Ken Williams, courtesy of SDGLN)
Bishop James Tengatenga at ease in Palm Springs, Calif. (Photo by Ken Williams, courtesy of SDGLN)

In an interview, African Anglican leader James Tengatenga advises Westerners to be careful of their language when advocating for an end to repression of sexual minorities in Africa.  He also discusses the changing post-colonial, post-Cold War politics in which debates over human rights occur in Africa.

Excepts from an article by Ken Williams, editor-in-chief of the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, with Bishop Tengatenga, formerly of Malawi, currently at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.:

Anglican leader James Tengatenga, free to speak, opens up on homophobia

…  Numerous times during our interview, Tengatenga stressed the importance of language in the battle to win over hearts and minds. What works in North America doesn’t work in Africa. What works in western Europe doesn’t work in Africa. Language is crucial to the debate about homosexuality, he says.

Americans and Europeans may be well-intentioned in trying to change the thinking of Africans, but they would be wise to watch what they say. Using words like “gay,” “homosexual” and “LGBT” are like waving a red cape in front of a charging bull. But to utilize words like “MSM” (men who have sex with men) and “WSW” (women who have sex with women) are less explosive. That’s why mainstream international organizations and grassroots groups avoid putting the LGBT into their names. “Sexual minorities” and “human rights” are preferred terms that encompass a bigger tent.

Tengatenga is dismayed by the harsh anti-gay laws passed by Nigeria and Uganda, and under consideration elsewhere across Africa. He blames post-colonial anger as part of the problem, where African independence triggers resentment over attempts by western powers to tell Africans how to think and what to believe. Then there is the matter of desperate despots trying to cling to power in nations struggling with rampant poverty and high unemployment, where politicians collude with religious leaders to find an easy bogeyman to distract from the real problems in society.

“Africa is the site of contest,” he said, noting the rising influence of Russia and China on the continent that had long been dominated by European colonists. “There are a number of things at work. There is new reason for that conflict. Part of it is post-colonial in nature.

“Gay issues is one of the things that have found a common ground …

“Out of all this will come a new alignment. Where is the ‘axis of evil’ – George W. Bush language – and how do you draw it? Islam is also an issue for Christians.”

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

Tengatenga predicts the world will see “strange bedfellows” emerging in Africa over the gay-rights issue.

“What is the actual fight about? Is this the new frontier for another Cold War? Will there be a political realignment based on sex and sexual attitudes?”

He points to the billions of dollars of investments by China in many parts of Africa, claiming not to come with any strings attached. But China wants Africa’s riches, its minerals in particular. He warns politicians that those who lie down with dogs will get fleas … and says that Russian president Vladimir “Putin is miffed that China is the new East.”

Tengatenga concludes the rising influence of Russia and China is a new form of colonialism in Africa.

Gays: The common enemy

Meanwhile, Tengatenga sees the gays as political fodder.

“The common energy [for politicians] is the gay people,” he said. “Nobody cares for the LGBT. They are considered weak and a small minority.
“You flex your muscle by fighting equals. That’s the Jesus story. … Why is the attention there? Why trample on the weak? But when you run out of ideas, you have to find a common enemy.”

As a result, desperate despots demonize LGBT people. They call gays “dogs” and “criminals.” They dehumanize the gays. They know they can say such horrible things with impunity.

“They brainwash the population,” he said. “‘He’s a dog … he’s a criminal.’ So who controls the language? … We are talking about human beings after all.”

The demonization of LGBT Africans and the criminalization of homosexuality will have extraordinary ramifications. Jails and prisons will be overcrowded with people convicted of being gay, where they will be victimized further by others who are incarcerated. People with HIV or AIDS will fear seeking treatment, worrying that they will be labeled as gay or bisexual.

Yet Tengatenga hopes that the healthcare system is where the issue of being gay can open a dialogue and start a debate in homophobic Africa.

Tengatenga also outlines why Africa differs from North America and Europe in coverage of LGBT issues. Most western nations are blessed with freedom of speech and a free press. Television is filled with positive images of LGBT people, and the Social Media outlets brim with LGBT sites that can be accessed by all.

But in most places in Africa, the media are either controlled by the government or independently owned but operating in an anti-gay environment. For many LGBT Africans, they live with few gay role models unlike in the western world. Access to the Internet can also be controlled by the government and LGBT websites can be blocked.

Tengatenga admires and respects the bravery of Africans who come out, despite a hostile climate, as well-known Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina recently did in response to the passage of the anti-gay laws.

Still, he would like to see ordinary Africans to come out, the doctors and the teachers and the postal workers. He acknowledges that the act of coming out would create hardship and that most who come out would likely have to flee their homeland, but the process will be crucial to stoke positive change.

“It would create the possibility of more people coming out, and it would challenge the process,” Tengatenga said.

In many ways, this interview was a “coming out” for Tengatenga as well. He was able to speak his mind for perhaps the first time since leaving the seminary in Texas so many years ago.

The excerpts from this article are published here by permission. For more information, read the full article, titled “Anglican leader James Tengatenga, free to speak, opens up on homophobia,” in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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