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Rev. Susan Russell Headshot

Making Homophobia History

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While the upcoming Olympics have put a spotlight on the increasingly draconian persecution of LGBT people in Russia, it is not breaking news that millions of LGBT people live in literal fear of their lives in many parts of the world.

Africa in general -- and Uganda and Nigeria in specific -- have been hotbeds of anti-gay polemic and politics. Over the last few years, we have seen alarmingly aggressive anti-homosexual legislation taking the disease of homophobia and turning it into state-sponsored discrimination, persecution and victimization.

The connections between the rise of the virulent anti-gay agenda in Africa and the funding, influence and partnership of the American Religious Right has been extensively documented. The recent film "God Loves Uganda" is a notable example -- connecting the dots between the support and funding of American churches for "African outreach" which in turn funds the agenda of those on the ground in places like Uganda and Nigeria focused on fomenting anti-gay hysteria for political gain.

A piece of the puzzle I did not have until I saw this January 24 MSNBC interview with Daily Beast correspondent James Kirchick was the point that in countries torn by sectarian struggles between Christians and Muslims, uniting to "fight the gays" becomes a successful organizing tool, making LGBT people sacrificial lambs on an altar of partisan politics fueled by the fires of religious extremism.

Ironically, the very day I watched that interview, the issue hit very close to home. A clergy colleague from West Hollywood called my parish in Pasadena asking if we were the congregation hosting a fundraiser for Watoto Church -- the Uganda church headed by Pastor Gary Skinner linked to the Bahati "Kill the Gays" Bill. We were not... but it turns out a neighboring Episcopal Church was.

The news spread through the grapevine -- and so did the concern that well-intentioned donors were being invited to support "African orphans" by contributing to an organization with an overtly anti-gay agenda. In response, the church posted this notice on their Facebook page:

[We are] hosting the Watoto Children's Choir to support women who are HIV+ and children in Africa, orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS, war, poverty and disease as described on the choir's website. Our desire is simply to be of help. If the choir is part of a larger organization whose values are not consistent with the Episcopal Church, we will not host them in the future.

Also described on the Watoto Church website -- as pointed out by a Facebook commenter -- is their support for "pro-family legislation that preserves the biblical standard providing security for all members of society" -- language consistent with support for the Bahati Bill. And even a quick Google search of Pastor Gary Skinner provides multiple links to values which are clearly not "consistent with the Episcopal Church." So not hosting them again in the future is a place to start. But where do we go from there?

How about a proactive policy of vetting organizations coming to us for support and making sure that we talk to one another about what we know about their stances on LGBT issues. Let's have each others' backs when it comes to due diligence and not be afraid to take action -- even canceling scheduled events if need be. And let's work together to turn the tide of homophobia around the globe by offering leadership.

Like the leadership we got this week from Gay Jennings, the Episcopal Church's President of the House of Deputies, in her Religion News Service (RNS) commentary, "The church's role in, and against, homophobia across Africa:"

Western Christians cannot ignore the homophobia of these church officials or the peril in which they place Ugandan and Nigerian LGBT people," she wrote. "The legacy of colonial-era Christian missionaries and infusions of cash from modern-day American conservatives have helped to create it.

And we can help un-create it.

Tall order? Of course it is. But so was abolishing apartheid. So was ending segregation. So were votes for women. So let's learn from what worked in those movements and apply it to this one -- coalitions, sanctions, solidarity, perseverance. And people of faith standing up and speaking out. To quote Gay Jennings one more time:

Western Christians cannot fix the homophobia that is currently gripping Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries. We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out. And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach.

We can be the change we want to see -- change that makes millions of LGBT people living in literal fear of their lives in many parts of the world not news, but history.