Buoyed by Supreme Court, will U.S. church help LGBT Africans?

U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court building

On the same day when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize same-sex marriages, the progressive U.S.-based Episcopal Church is considering whether to extend its work for justice to LGBT people in Africa.

The church’s General Convention, now under way in Salt Lake City, Utah, will decide whether to authorize not only same-sex blessings in United States, but also expanded support for LGBT advocacy in Africa.

Resolution A051 asks the Episcopal Church to strengthen its existing relationships with progressive African scholars and activists who are working for recognition of LGBT rights and for the repeal of anti-gay laws.

Church members and others have begun to recognize that in Nigeria,  Uganda, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, LGBT activists lose their livelihoods and sometimes their lives for advocating equal justice and equal access to health care for LGBT citizens. These are the types of injustice that those activists fight against:

  • Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda, age 83, was inhibited from celebrating the Eucharist and stripped of his pension by the Anglican Church of Uganda for welcoming LGBT people at worship services and counseling sessions.
  • Front page of Rolling Stone in October 2010.
    Front page of the now-defunct Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone in October 2010.

    Activist David Kato of Uganda was murdered three months after his picture and that of Bishop Senyonjo appeared in a listing of “Top Homos” on the front page of a local tabloid under the heading “Hang Them.”

  • The home of the Rev. Macdonald Sembereka of the Anglican Church in Malawi was firebombed because of his activism.
  • Journalist Eric Lembembe of Cameroon was murdered for his activism.
  • Attorney Michel Togué of Cameroon received death threats targeting his family because he accepts LGBT clients. He moved his wife and children to safety in the United States and returned to Cameroon to continue his work.
  • Activist George Freeman and two colleagues in Sierra Leone fled to Spain, abandoning their anti-AIDS work and their advocacy of human rights for LGBT people, after receiving death threats and being attacked by groups of men wielding pieces of broken glass and boards with nails protruding from them.

Police raids and mob attacks are facts of life for LGBT rights organizations in Africa.

Break-in at the offices of attorney Michel Togué left them in disarray. Confidential information was stolen. (Photo by Eric O. Lembembe)
A 2013 break-in at the offices of attorney Michel Togué left them in disarray. Confidential information was stolen. (Photo by Eric O. Lembembe)

Police have repeatedly raided the headquarters of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. A mob ransacked the offices of Alternatives-CI in Ivory Coast. An arsonist set fire to the offices of Alternatives-Cameroon. Vandals attacked the offices of CAMEF in Cameroon, leading their landlord to evict them. CAMEF leader Bill Simbo fled to the United Kingdom for safety.

Yet many African activists bravely continue their work, and many rely on their faith to give them strength to do so. That was evident in Kenya in 2014, when a discussion of the Bible’s “clobber passages” – often cited by anti-LGBT conservatives – was one of the most popular sessions at a secular conference for African activists. Dozens of Anglicans, former Anglicans, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Muslims crowded into the room and were told the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story about lack of hospitality, not about homosexuality.

In this context, the Rev. Sembereka, among others, calls for the adoption of Resolution A051 to encourage the church “to stand with the downtrodden” and to move forward, away from sins of commission and omission of the past and present.  The resolution, he says, “has my support as one of the clergy who feel unsupported even by progressive Episcopal churches and clergy.”

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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