Alissa Trotz is editor of the weekly In the Diaspora Column
There has been a spate of letters to the press in recent weeks on the question of sexuality in Guyana, following the report that a group of lawyers will be bringing a constitutional challenge to a law that criminalized cross-dressing and under which seven persons were arrested and charged last year.This is an issue with immense ramifications for how we understand matters of discrimination and equality in our own times. Some have marshaled ‘scientific’ evidence to make the case that homosexuality represents some kind of identity disorder (this vexed question of science will be addressed in a later column), others advise us that they are sending their authoritative opinions on the matter to Bar Associations and Attorneys-General in Guyana and across the Caribbean. Yet others cite religion as the final word that demonstrates irrefutably just how un-natural homosexuality is (this is one of the issues that is being taken up in the court case, in which Acting Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson told the four men charged, that they must go to church and give over their lives to Christ). In fact this is one topic that makes for interesting bedfellows indeed!
Back in 2001, several religious groupings brought tremendous pressure to bear on President Bharrat Jagdeo to withhold presidential assent from an Amendment Bill that was overwhelmingly approved (55-0) by the National Assembly, and that would have outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The Bill was based on recommendations from the Constitution Reform Commission, a body that in fact included representatives from the Christian, Hindu and Islamic communities, all of whom at the time assented to the anti-discrimination recommendation. In a letter written to the Stabroek News on January 26, 2001, Father Malcolm Rodrigues wrote that “Surely God did not make any exceptions in his creation of the human species, which would allow us scope for discrimination! We must remember that apartheid was founded on precisely this sort of discrimination, except that the base was colour of skin rather than sexual orientation.”
On Saturday last, one Stabroek News letter writer (approvingly) noted that homosexuality remains illegal in 29 countries, this in a continent where several Presidents have recently and publicly condemned homosexuality as a foreign import. In Uganda, there are currently attempts to raise the penalty on anyone found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts to life imprisonment, with jail terms as well for those who know but do not ‘report’ homosexual activity. We are expected to see these official pronouncements and acts – which will lead to terror and marginalization for people among us, including family members and friends – as evidence of a robust anti (or post) colonial stance, an instance in which we demonstrate how freed from colonialism we are, how mentally emancipated and independent we have become. In this way of thinking, it is those who oppose homophobia, whether legislated or unofficial, who are accused of being neocolonial. We set aside the inconvenient fact that much of this legislation, which we now seek to extend or refuse to comprehensively dismantle, was put into place under colonial rule. We do not then have to engage in the difficult work of figuring out how and why it is we have so thoroughly internalized colonialism’s divide and rule tactics, and who it ultimately benefits. We do not have to think about how this makes it so much easier to control us, when we learn to police ourselves and each other. We do not have to ask ourselves why we feel we can selectively choose which aspects of mental slavery we need to emancipate ourselves from.
On Friday last, Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Capetown, South Africa, penned a remarkable op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/11/AR2010031103341.html). It was called ‘In Africa, a step backward on human rights’. I remember the incredible opportunity of meeting him in the UK, shortly after the end of Apartheid. It was a small group of us, students from various African and Caribbean countries, and I can still recall our excitement at being in the room with Archbishop Tutu, our sense that the struggle of his people for freedom spoke to us all across our intertwined yet different geographies. The South African struggle represented a refusal of incredible dehumanization during my own lifetime (I will always remember where I was, with friends from St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada and Jamaica, glued to our television for a glimpse of Nelson Mandela as he walked out of the prison that never succeeded in incarcerating his vision and his spirit and his hope). And it is in that spirit that I offer Desmond Tutu’s words that appeared in the Washington Post, in full below:
Hate has no place in the house of God. No one should be excluded from our love, our compassion or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity — or because of their sexual orientation. Nor should anyone be excluded from health care on any of these grounds. In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity.
It is time to stand up against another wrong.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family. But a wave of hate is spreading across my beloved continent. People are again being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms. Men have been falsely charged and imprisoned in Senegal, and health services for these men and their community have suffered. In Malawi, men have been jailed and humiliated for expressing their partnerships with other men. Just this month, mobs in Mtwapa Township, Kenya, attacked men they suspected of being gay. Kenyan religious leaders, I am ashamed to say, threatened an HIV clinic there for providing counseling services to all members of that community, because the clerics wanted gay men excluded.
Uganda’s parliament is debating legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment, and more discriminatory legislation has been debated in Rwanda and Burundi.
These are terrible backward steps for human rights in Africa.
Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear.
And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services. That this pandering to intolerance is being done by politicians looking for scapegoats for their failures is not surprising. But it is a great wrong. An even larger offense is that it is being done in the name of God. Show me where Christ said “Love thy fellow man, except for the gay ones.” Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God.
“But they are sinners,” I can hear the preachers and politicians say. “They are choosing a life of sin for which they must be punished.” My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love?
The wave of hate must stop. Politicians who profit from exploiting this hate, from fanning it, must not be tempted by this easy way to profit from fear and misunderstanding. And my fellow clerics, of all faiths, must stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.