Uganda Isn’t Alone in Persecuting Gays

While the world’s attention has been sharply focused on the anti-homosexuality bill now pending before the legislature in Uganda, no one has seemed to notice that Rwanda is not far behind its continental cousin.

The Rwandan parliament is set to vote on a measure to criminalize homosexuality:

On December 16, 2009, the lower house of the Rwandan Parliament will hold its final debate on a draft revision of the penal code that will, for the first time, make homosexuality a crime in Rwanda. A vote on this draft code will occur before the end of the week. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has learned that the proposed Article 217 of the draft Penal Code Act will criminalize “[a]ny person who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice.” If the Chamber of Deputies approves, the draft code will go before the Rwandan Senate most likely in early 2010.

It’s not like this is shocking news on the continent where 38 of Africa’s 53 nations outlaw homosexuality, including Kenya where a homosexual act can land you in prison for up to 14 years. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

Nigeria has a similar bill (to the Ugandan legislation) waiting to reach its statute books and already allows the death penalty for homosexuality in northern states, as does Sudan. Burundi criminalised homosexuality in April this year, joining 37 other African nations where gay sex is already illegal. Egypt and Mali are creeping towards criminalisation, using morality laws against same-sex couples.

The problems are not just on the African continent. Iran regularly condemns people to death for acts of sodomy:

The Courts in Iran have sentenced a number of men to death after they were accused and convicted of sodomy. Under Iranian law, sodomy includes sexual intercourse between members of the same sex, and is illegal. The punishment for same-sex intercourse between two men (Lavaat) is death and between two women (Mosaheghe) is 100 lashes for the first three offenses and the death penalty for the fourth.

For Africa, however, the continued demonization of homosexuality in particular has been encouraged by religious right factions from America. An investigation by Political Research Associates (PRA), and its project director Reverend Kapya Kaoma shows a direct connection between right-wing religious proselytizing on the continent and the rise of anti-gay measures:

Kaoma argues that the US Right – once isolated in Africa for supporting pro-apartheid, white supremacist regimes – has successfully reinvented itself as the mainstream of US evangelicalism. Through their extensive communications networks in Africa, social welfare projects, Bible schools, and educational materials, US religious conservatives warn of the dangers of homosexuals and present themselves as the true representatives of US evangelicalism, so helping to marginalise Africans’ relationships with mainline Protestant churches.

“We need to stand up against the US Christian Right peddling homophobia in Africa,” said Kaoma. “I heard church people in Uganda say they would go door to door to root out LGBT people and now our brothers and sisters are being further targeted by proposed legislation criminalising them and threatening them with death. The scapegoating must stop.”

For that scapegoating to stop, strong opposition must be raised by religious voices not just in America but around the world. We already know that we cannot count on the likes of Rick Warren or even Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams to be leading voices against the persecution of gays and lesbians in Africa or anywhere else in the world. Williams was quicker to speak out against the appointment of a new lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church than he was to speak against the anti-gay bill in Uganda.

Christians in America have difficulty speaking out against injustices close to home, be it poverty, the destruction of the middle class, or anything else that they don’t see as threatening their own immediate safety or security. Speaking out against a measure half a world away seems like an impossible task to get people riled up about – but we must. The religious right is using its influence in Africa to create the society it hasn’t been able to create here – a theocracy where gays and lesbians are disappeared – in very permanent ways. Even among the gay and lesbian community it can be easy to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the struggles of our brothers and sisters overseas. A new report from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) shows that over the past decade, conditions have improved for the LGBT community in America.

Two-thirds of the 36 benchmarks show significant advances, including sharp increases in the number of LGBT Americans protected by nondiscrimination and family recognition legislation at the state level. Less than one quarter of the indicators are negative, and four metrics show little change (either positive or negative).

The report shows that an increasing number of people believe homosexuality to be morally acceptable (49% in 2009, up from 40% in 2000), and while only 39 percent support marriage equality for gays and lesbians, 57 percent support civil unions. Among those supporting civil unions are religious people:

In 2004, a Pew study showed that 60% of Protestants opposed civil unions; that number dropped to 50% by 2009. Catholic opposition to civil unions fell from 40% to 28% over the same period. White Evangelical opposition to civil unions fell the most, from 81% opposed in 2004 to just 58% opposed in 2009.

While we LGBT people in America celebrate our progress over the past decade, we cannot forget that those in other areas of the world struggling simply to stay alive. We must continue to work for full equality of LGBT people around the globe. They are our brothers and sisters, too, and they deserve to live in freedom just as much as we do.

As people of faith, whether we agree on the issue of homosexuality or not, it is incumbent upon each of us to speak out wherever injustice is happening. As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are one body, and whenever one portion of the body suffers, we all suffer. We cannot sit idly by while the gay and lesbian portion of Christ’s body is mutilated and murdered. Doing so constitutes a corporate sin of which we are all guilty.