Global LGBT Recap: Francis’s First Year; Homophobia and Development; African Activists Push Back

The Francis Papacy Turns One: Who Are We to Judge?

Pope Francis was elected a year ago today. His focus on the church’s pastoral role, his humility and preference for a simple lifestyle, and his rejection of the culture-war priorities of his predecessors and many bishops, have been hallmarks of his papacy so far.  The changes he has made have largely been those of rhetoric, symbolism, and style, as opposed to doctrine, leaving room for plenty of commentary and head-scratching over the existence and direction of a “Francis effect” and where it may be headed. FP’s Jean-Louis De La Vaissiere comments that while he has “blown a breath of fresh air through the Catholic Church,” he is “no revolutionary in terms of doctrine.”

Still, he is the Pope, meaning that his words themselves can have a huge impact. In the words of AFP’s De La Vaissiere, “A theme this pope returns to repeatedly is that of mercy, which has had profound implications for the way issues such as homosexuality, divorce and abortion are addressed, even if there has been no change in Church teaching on any of them.” The Vatican has marked the anniversary by publishing an online booklet of quotations by Pope Francis.

Notably, the Vatican’s quote collection does not include what is almost certainly the most famous line of his papacy, his “who am I to judge?” response to a question about gay priests. In a reflection on his first year, Sr. Jeanine Grammick calls those five words, “an unambiguous departure from the harsh language of his predecessors.”   

Pope Francis has provided unexpected exhilaration for LGBT advocates. As Mark Segal, a leading gay activist, observed, “The actual doctrine of the church has not changed, but the message that Pope Francis is sending is more powerful than the doctrines themselves. Francis seems to understand that messages can create instant change, while doctrine can take years. He performs simple gestures as a priest looking after his flock.”

One of the most striking actions taken so far under the Francis papacy was a request that local bishops survey Catholics on a set of contentious issues, including premarital sex, homosexuality, and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. National Catholic Reporter discloses that only about a third of American dioceses appear to have given laypeople the opportunity to respond to the Vatican questionnaire on family-related issues that Pope Francis had asked last October to be distributed “immediately” and “widely as possible.” NCR says about a dozen U.S. dioceses reported the results publicly.

National Catholic Reporter also noted this week that Ireland’s bishops have decided not to publish responses to the questionnaire, even though some other European bishops’ conferences have done so. The decision has drawn protest from the reform-minded Association of Catholic Priests. A 2012 survey commissioned by the group found that 61 percent of Irish Catholics disagreed with the church’s teaching that “any sexual expression of love between a gay couple is immoral” – only 18 percent agreed.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin broke the silence Feb. 27 during a meeting at Holy Cross College, the major seminary in Dublin. Catholic teaching on birth control, cohabitation, same-sex relationships and divorce is “disconnected from real-life experience of families — and not by just younger people,” Martin said.

Many of the survey respondents in Dublin “said that the teaching appears as not practical in relation to people’s day-to-day struggles, being at best an unrealistic ideal. There appears to be a ‘theory-practice’ gap,” he said.

While clearly there was among the respondents “hesitancy, uneasiness and opposition” to same-sex marriage, “many felt that there should be some way of civilly recognizing stable same-sex unions,” he said.

Global: World Bank on Homophobia as Challenge to Development

This week a two-hour briefing at the World Bank examined the economic costs of homophobia and LGBT exclusion, and the role that human rights issues, and LGBT rights in particular, play in economic development and should play in the work of the World Bank. The program and the research being presented were funded by the Nordic Trust Fund, an initiative by the Nordic countries to strengthen the World Bank’s involvement in human rights issues.

Speakers acknowledged the difficulties of quantifying the economic impact on homophobia; their research built on earlier efforts to quantify the economic impact of denying girls access to education in Muslim countries, or excluding the Roma from full participation in European countries.

Dr. Lee Badgett from the University of Massachusetts presented a case study on India, which concluded that the economic costs of homophobia and LGBT exclusion ranged from .1 to 1.7% of the country’s GDP – a figure she said represented the tip of the iceberg because it was based only on labor and health impacts on which data is available. Luiz Loures, deputy executive director of UNAIDS and assistant secretary general of the United Nations, said that exclusion and repression drive people underground and undermine efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, something that has enormous economic as well as human costs. (For concrete evidence of this impact, see this new Mother Jones article about the impact of Nigeria’s law and the accompanying anti-gay violence; the law discourages medical providers from dealing with gay people, and gay people from seeking medical care for fear that the doctor will report them.)

The briefing followed up on recent remarks by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim critical of new anti-gay laws. “Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies,” he said. “Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies. There is clear evidence that when societies enact laws that prevent productive people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer.”

Also on the global front, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice addressed a gathering of heads of U.S. diplomatic missions. She announced that President Obama will be hosting the first-ever U.S. Summit with African heads of state in August, with a focus on issues such as electrification “and our ongoing work to foster peace, food security, health, and democratic progress across the continent.” She addressed the U.S. commitment to human rights as well as the practical limits to that commitment in the world of geopolitics:

“America stands proudly for the rights of all human beings – including women, the LGBT community, and religious and ethnic minorities.  We defend the freedom of all people to live and worship as they choose.  We champion open government and civil society and fight corruption.  We bolster freedom of assembly and a free press….

At times, we are compelled to make tough choices when the immediate need to defend our national security requires us to work with governments that do not share our fundamental commitment to human rights.  No one knows that better than all of you.  We look to you to strike the extremely difficult balance that both preserves critical bilateral relationships and champions the values we most cherish, because our commitment to democracy and human rights roundly reinforces our national security. 

So, even when it is politically difficult, we ask you to find new ways to empower those who are most marginalized in their societies.  In those almost eighty countries around the world where we find laws and policies that persecute or discriminate against members of the LGBT community, we need you to be a clarion voice— to decry laws that would lock people up because of who they love and to find new ways to protect vulnerable members of the LGBT community.  We need you to combat restrictions, also, that close space for civil society.  And, we need you to be the early-warning tripwire where an atrocity is looming so we can strive to prevent it.

Africa: Church Leaders Defend Anti-Gay Laws While Activists Challenge Them

Writing from Kenya for the Religion News Service, Fredrick Nzwili reviews resistance to LGBT equality among Christian leaders in Africa, many of whom portray gay-rights activism as a colonial force.

Consider some of the statements at a news conference last week led by Bishop Arthur Gitonga of the Redeemed Church in Kenya:

“Homosexuality is equivalent to colonialism and slavery,” said one participant.

“We feel it’s like a weapon of mass destruction,” said another.

“It is not biblical and cannot bring blessing to Christians,” said a third.

Gitonga, a powerful East African Pentecostal church official, is among a group of Kenyan leaders who have launched “Zuia Sodom Kabisa,” Kiswahili for “Stop Sodom Completely.” The campaign seeks 1 million signatures to petition legislation to criminalize homosexual acts in Kenya.

Nzwili says that many clergy are grateful to Western churches for sending missionaries and making Christian converts, but feel a sense of betrayal over those same churches moving to accept homosexuality. He also quotes Kenyan religious scholar Abdallah Kheir who says that the new wave of anti-gay activism is less about fighting western colonialism and more a backlash against the push for LGBT equality: “Homosexuality is not new in Africa, but what the faiths are opposing is the open promotion and marketing of the practice in communities,” said Kheir. “Gays and lesbians have been in existence here, but it has never been a problem until recently when they came out into the open.”

This week human rights organizations and activists challenged Uganda’s new anti-gay law in court.  According to the Daily Monitor,

The activists argue that the Anti Homosexuality Act violates Ugandans’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to: privacy, to be free from discrimination, dignity, to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to the freedoms of expression, thought, assembly and association; to the presumption of innocence, and to the right to civic participation.

The Washington Blade reports, “The activists also contend Ugandan parliamentarians approved the measure late last year without the necessary quorum.” At Box Turtle Bulletin, Jim Burroway has a link to the legal complaint.

Luiz Loures, the UNAIDS official who spoke at the World Bank this week, told BuzzFeed’s Lester Feder that UNAIDS is ready to join the Ugandan activists’ lawsuit.

Donor nations need “really to be more selective” in the organizations they fund in countries like Uganda, he said. Millions in HIV-relief dollars have gone to at least one organization that campaigned for Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law last month and provides for sentences of up to life in jail for people caught engaging in gay sex. It also essentially bans LGBT rights advocacy.

Loures said donors should be guided by in-country LGBT movements. “In Uganda today, in Nigeria today, you will find [they are] well organized. They are fighting back, and this should be our reference point,” he said.

More than 20 African civil society groups called on the African Union to resist the spread of anti-gay laws like those in Uganda and Nigeria:

As African civil society organisations whose members live and work to improve the lives of all Africans, we condemn in the strongest terms, the disturbing increase in sexuality and gender-related rights violations and abuses, especially those aimed at women and gender non-conforming people, and people in same sex relations including lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identifying African people….

We also call on the AU Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to make a public statement condemning both the Nigerian and Ugandan laws, and providing African citizens with a roadmap for how the AU Commission plans to address laws that violate gender and sexuality-related rights amongst member states….

We reject arguments made by the heads of state of both Uganda and Nigeria, that consensual same-sex relations are “unAfrican”, and we condemn in the strongest terms the comments of political, religious and cultural leaders who have used similar rhetoric to incite hatred against persons perceived to be homosexual.

We celebrate and echo the strong voices of African leaders who have rejected these claims and who continue to condemn discrimination, violence and human rights violations based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. We align ourselves with all Africans who have spoken out in the face of these unjust laws and who have continued to call for respect for diversity and for all Africans to embrace the African idea of Ubuntu –our shared humanity.

Ugandan ambassador Christopher Onyanga Aparr defended the country’s anti-gay law last week, telling the UN Human Rights Council that sexual orientation is “not a fundamental human right” protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Last week an Islamic court in northern Nigeria ordered four men to be flogged with horsewhips after being found guilty of belonging to a gay club in a secret trial. The group was initially tried in January, when an angry mob surrounded the court and demanded their execution. Last Friday, March 7, was a global day of action against anti-gay repression in Nigeria.

Russia and Ukraine: Division Among Putin’s Anti-Gay Supporters

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine is proving embarrassing to some, but not all, of the religious leaders who have embraced Putin as the savior of Christianity and defender of traditional values against the decadent west. Concerned Women for America announced it would not participate in the World Congress of Families’ summit that in Moscow in September – especially surprising since CWA’s Janice Crouse had taken part in a recent press conference touting the event.

On March 7, Scott Lively, the anti-gay activist who has reveled in stirring up homophobia around the globe, made the case for American decline and Russian ascendancy based on the countries’ attitudes toward Christianity:

It is therefore obvious why America is in decline and Russia is on the ascendancy in the matter of human rights.  America has largely turned her back on God, reorganized her government and culture on a statist model, and is plummeting in a death spiral of moral and ethical degeneracy.  As our collective former (Bible-based) values of self-restraint and personal responsibility steadily decline, external controls and surveillance by the new police state increase. The rule of law becomes the rule of man, and equal justice under law becomes special rights for favored groups.

Conversely, Russia has begun embracing Christian values regarding family issues, albeit imperfectly, in stark contrast to its aggressively godless Soviet past.  Repression in Russia is decreasing as rapidly as it is increasing in the U.S.

The crux of the human rights debate is what it means to be human.  Russia appears to be returning to it’s pre-Soviet understanding that humans are made in the image of God, and that our “rights,” are really duties of respect and care for each other which are imposed on us by Him.  This is why the first principle of both the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights is the protection of the Christian church, from which the very concept of modern human rights emerged.  And this is why the greatest point of conflict between the U.S. and Russia is the question of homosexuality.  (I believe even the conflict in Ukraine is being driven to a large extent by this issue, at least on the part of the Obama State Department and the homosexualist leaders of the E.U.)

Lively is not alone in blaming the Ukraine crisis on pro-gay Europeans.  Right Wing Watch reports that in a column earlier this month, Feder “attacked the ‘Maidan mob’ that had ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and bashed the EU’s ‘willingness to accept same-sex ‘marriage,’ abortion on demand, and anti-religion ethos.’”

Netherlands: Former Right-Wing Politician Launches New Islamic Party 

According to news reports, “Arnoud van Doorn, a former far-right Dutch politician and a former friend of notorious anti-Muslim propagandist Geert Wilders, but later accepted Islam and became a Muslim, has announced his plans to launch a new Islamic party in his native Holland.

The Islamic Party for Unity will be contending for three seats in the upcoming municipal elections on March 19.

Doorn says it was ‘only logical’ for Muslims to have political representation.

“Our standpoints are based on the Islam. We come up for minorities and the welfare of animals,” he said. Asked about what his party’s stance would be on homosexuals, Doorn said that all acts of affection in general were private affairs and thus should be kept private.

Colombia: Open Lesbian Elected to Congress

Angélica Lozano, a former Bogotá City councilwoman, became the first openly gay person elected to Colombia’s Congress. She ran as a candidate for the Green Alliance Party. The Washington Blade reminds us that the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could legally register their relationships in two years if Colombian lawmakers did not pass a bill that would extend to them the same benefits heterosexuals receive through marriage; the Senate rejected a marriage equality bill last year.

Chile: Pro-Equality President Michelle Bachelet Sworn In

In January, we noted the election of pro-equality Michelle Bachelet as the country’s president; her inauguration took place this week. She has been an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, strong hate crimes laws, and the rights of trans people.

Lithuania: Set to Vote on Anti-Gay Propaganda Law

Human Rights First noted that the Lithuanian Parliament is scheduled to vote today, March 13, on a Russian-style anti-gay “propaganda” law. The law includes fines for any public display that defied traditional family values. “This amendment targeted at repressing the LGBT community is part of an alarming trend throughout Eastern Europe, where these bills are contributing to a dangerous culture of fear and violence against LGBT people,” said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord. Human Rights First has published a fact sheet on similar anti-gay “propaganda” legislation being introduced throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Nepal: Equality Activist Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

The Hindustan Times reports that Sunil Babu Pant, “Nepal’s most prominent crusader for equal rights to sexual minorities,” has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Pant founded the Blue Diamond Society, a pro-LGBT group that “is responsible for the 2007 Supreme Court ruling which directed Nepal government to grant equal status to sexual minorities.”

According to Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), gay rights activists Igor Kochetkov from Russia, Frank Mugisha of Uganda and International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association are also among the nominees.

All of them have been nominated by Norwegian MPs Anette Trettebergstuen and Hakon. 

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.

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