Flanked by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, pop star Ricky Martin and LGBT rights defenders from around the world, South African hit maker Yvonne Chaka Chaka didn't mince words on Tuesday during a major LGBT rights panel at the UN in honor of Human Rights Day.
"I think it's obscene that people are criminalized for loving the same gender," said Yvonne, known affectionately across the continent as the "Princess of Africa." "Gays and lesbians are just like you and me. We are all the same. We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord."
Because they're few and far between, affirming statements from high-profile African figures like Mrs. Chaka Chaka carry outsized influence given the depressing state of play on gay rights across most of Africa -- especially in places like Uganda, where lawmakers are still considering a bill that could punish gays and lesbians with death or life imprisonment. (Those who don't turn in their gay or lesbian friends, family, students or patients within 24 hours could also face three to seven years in jail.)
After the panel Yvonne took a moment to send a special message to Ugandan lawmakers and activists:
(The room was very loud, so the video has English subtitles [on YouTube, click "CC"])
Besides attracting the opprobrium of human rights activists and many governments in the West, not to mention plenty of publicity for fundamentalist Ugandan lawmakers and their allies in U.S. evangelical circles, an interesting side effect of this controversial bill is the extent to which it's rallied an unprecedented number of religious and faith leaders who've spoken out against it. By framing the terms of the debate so starkly ("Gay? Hang them!"), the law and the uproar around it has in some ways created an opening for men and women of the cloth to come out swinging on the side of equal rights.
Just last week mega-church pastor Rick Warren again denounced the law, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu condemned it in a powerful op-ed in Uganda's Daily Monitor, and this Tuesday members of the Ugandan parliament opened their favorite newspapers to find a very special Christmas card published just for them, signed by a number of renowned religious and faith leaders like Anglican Archbishop John Sentamu (Ugandan by birth) and American evangelical Richard Cizik.
"As the Christmas season approaches, we hope Christians everywhere will join together to reject the idea that a bill targeting a vulnerable minority could ever be an appropriate celebration of the birth of Christ," read the full page ads, published by Avaaz.org, the global human rights campaigning organization where I work. (Check out the ad here.)
After the ads ran I spoke with Clare Byarugaba, one of the coordinators of the local network of Ugandan activists, lawyers and others lobbying against the law, in Kampala. According to Clare, besides causing a lot of buzz, the ads also caught the attention of members of parliament and one David Bahati, the parliamentarian who first introduced the bill, and with whom Clare had spoken earlier in the day.
"He was so upset! And now he wants to meet with me next week. It's good. If Bahati is upset, we're doing something right."