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How The Stigmatisation And Bullying Of LGBTI People Is Driven By Churches

Homophobia in all its forms is a major challenge in Southern Africa. And many churches are hotbeds of homophobia.

31/01/2017 04:59 SAST | Updated 31/01/2017 04:59 SAST
Lehlohonolo Maru Mosia / Maneo Mohale

Homophobia has become a site of painful struggle in the churches, in much the same way as slavery, racism and sexism was in the past. This new reflection paper by African Christian scholars and published by the Other Foundation, reflects on how churches can become liberating rather than oppressive, redemptive rather than violent towards homosexual women and men, and transgender and intersex people in Africa. You can read the full report here [PDF]. - blogs editor

Southern Africa, like the rest of the African continent, is grappling with the increasingly visible reality of homosexual and bisexual women and men, as well as transgender and intersex people. Increasing numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organisations and openly LGBTI individuals populate both the public sphere and many people's private lives.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian. Although there are multiple manifestations of the faith, Christianity in the region is largely unreceptive to progress on social issues such as women's empowerment, gender diversity and advances in the understanding of human sexuality. While some southern African Christians have opened their hearts to their LGBTI sisters and brothers in the spirit of an inclusive Gospel, most continue to act in an exclusionary way.

Homophobia in all its forms is a major challenge in the region. And many churches are hotbeds of homophobia.

Their hostility towards LGBTI people not only holds back long-overdue legal and policy reforms in southern African countries but also drives stigma, bullying and violence in the larger society. The resulting shame, social isolation, loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse, family conflicts, unemployment, homelessness, relationship problems, higher rates of HIV infection, violence and sometimes suicide suffered by many LGBTI Africans damage countless lives.

Homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual minorities. Through the powerful influence they have on their congregations, they contribute strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by LGBTI people in the region.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian. Although there are multiple manifestations of the faith, Christianity in the region is largely unreceptive to progress on social issues such as women's empowerment, gender diversity and advances in the understanding of human sexuality. While some Southern African Christians have opened their hearts to their LGBTI sisters and brothers in the spirit of an inclusive Gospel, most continue to act in an exclusionary way.

Their hostility towards LGBTI people not only holds back long-overdue legal and policy reforms in southern African countries but also drives stigma, bullying and violence in the larger society. The resulting shame, social isolation, loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse, family conflicts, unemployment, homelessness, relationship problems, higher rates of HIV infection, violence and sometimes suicide suffered by many LGBTI Africans damage countless lives.

Even in the three countries where old colonial laws on "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" have been repealed, homophobia remains deeply rooted in society.

It may seem surprising that African preachers denounce the African movement for LGBTI equality as a Western neocolonial import but then welcome homophobic and transphobic missionaries from overseas.

Homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual minorities. Through the powerful influence they have on their congregations, they contribute strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by LGBTI people in the region. Some church members do not accept such attitudes. They believe, on the contrary, that God commands them to love and accept others, especially those that society marginalises, rather than spreading hatred.

It may seem surprising that African preachers denounce the African movement for LGBTI equality as a Western neocolonial import but then welcome homophobic and transphobic missionaries from overseas. Less surprising is the fact that across southern Africa the relationship between LGBTI communities and most churches is one of "tension, confrontation, hatred and even violence" (Chitando and Mapuranga). Indeed, the greatest obstacle to the full acceptance of LGBTI people in southern Africa is religiously sanctioned homophobia.

This situation is complicated by the fact that homosexual relations are still criminalised in most of southern Africa with the exception of Mozambique, Lesotho, and South Africa. As well as inhibiting LGBTI activism through fear of the criminal repercussions of 'coming out' as LGBTI, criminalisation reinforces church-sanctioned homophobia by creating the impression that LGBTI persons are enemies of the law and the state as well as of religion.

Even in these three countries where old colonial laws on "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" have been repealed, homophobia remains deeply rooted in society, thanks in large part to the moral influence of the preaching of most churches. As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted in 2011, "a climate of homophobia, intolerance and violence" persists throughout the region regardless of whether homosexuality is criminalised.

The development of organised LGBTI activism in Southern Africa cannot be divorced from the rise of the women's empowerment movement and the African human rights movement generally, both of which became prominent in the 1990s. Of course, LGBTI persons lived in communities in Southern Africa long before this. There is ample evidence showing that most communities knew about individuals whose sexuality differed from the majority well before this time, even before colonial times.

However, the international human rights discourse that became prominent in Africa after the end of the Cold War presented for the first time an opportunity to acknowledge the existence of LGBTI persons and openly promote their human rights. Accordingly, most early LGBTI organisations, such as GALZ in Zimbabwe, formed in 1990, LeGaBiBo in Botswana (1998) and The Rainbow Project in Namibia (2000), started from a base in international human rights discourse.

From the earliest days of African LGBTI activism, there have been Christian LGBTI groups that were inspired by the message of the Gospels rather than by international human rights discourse.
Activists know that religion plays a critical role in the rejection or acceptance of LGBTI persons in southern Africa and that there is a need to engage the churches.

The early association of the LGBTI movement with universal human rights principles originating in the West has enabled conservative churches and demagogic politicians to label LGBTI groups as Western-sponsored groups that promote an unAfrican, secular ideology. This ignores the view that the global human rights movement in fact arose as a result of Western excesses and has been shaped largely by grassroots civil rights, anti- colonial and anti-Apartheid struggles – all supported by most church members.

As South Africa's social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini, put it in her address to a United Nations meeting on sexual and reproductive health and rights in September 2014: "International human rights instruments all stem from essentially western excesses starting with the Peace of Westphalia Treaty in the 1600s that ended 30 years of war and bloodshed in Europe. This was followed by the Charter of the United Nations that emerged from the two World Wars that were fought primarily amongst western countries.

"The other major human rights treaties and instruments also emerged as responses to western colonialism, western racism and the global oppression of women. Let's not forget that it was through global solidarity based struggles against the denial of fundamental human rights in South Africa that apartheid is today a crime against humanity under international law. Human rights are therefore essentially products of southern, including African, struggles against all forms of oppression," she said.

From the earliest days of African LGBTI activism, there have been Christian LGBTI groups that were inspired by the message of the Gospels rather than by international human rights discourse. IAM (Inclusive and Affirming Ministries), for example, was founded in South Africa in 1995. It is one of many faith-based LGBTI organisations that understood the importance of engaging with churches and other Christian organisations on the basis of an LGBTI-inclusive approach.

Such faith-based LGBTI organisations have increased in number, especially over the past decade. They reenact a growing realisation that, in African contexts, it is difficult if not impossible to divorce LGBTI issues from the religious traditions of LGBTI Africans and the communities in which they live.

In fact, almost all LGBTI groups in southern Africa are either faith-based or have an office that promotes dialogue with religious communities. Activists know that religion plays a critical role in the rejection or acceptance of LGBTI persons in southern Africa and that there is a need to engage the churches.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian, but with a strong element of traditional African religion. Statistics on the number of followers of African traditional religions are very diffcult to gather, but in most communities, the two religious traditions are not regarded as mutually exclusive. Many believers live comfortably in both worlds.

Originally, the Christianity of Southern Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, was a product of the "trinity" of commerce, civilisation and Christianity of Imperial Europe. It was brought to Africa by the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires beginning as early as the sixteenth century and reached its peak of influence with the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the subsequent carving up of most of Africa by the major European powers.

As an essentially Victorian colonial discourse, Christianity in Southern Africa has been conservative on most social issues. It has been especially reactionary about sexuality and gender, promoting, with rare exceptions, a heteronormative and puritanical Victorian concept of sexuality as inherently dangerous and sinful and of male and female roles as fixed and hierarchical.

As Sylvia Tamale (2014: 154) notes, "many sexual practices that were acceptable in precolonial... Africa were encoded [by colonial Christianity] with the distinctive tags of 'deviant', 'illegitimate' and 'criminal' through... proselytisation and acculturation."

This fear of sexual and gender 'deviance', most notably of homosexuality and trans* identities, has persisted in some Christian denominations up to now, even in syncretistic churches that blend African traditional beliefs and practices with conventional Christian ones.

Western-mediated Christianity in southern Africa entrenched a sexual discourse that anathematised open discussion of sexuality in families and communities. This was a Christianity that even went as far as deciding which sexual positions were godly or ungodly. African societies that had traditional forums for talking and teaching about sex and sexuality, such as initiation schools, and traditional ways of accommodating different sexual orientations became societies that denied the realities of sexual diversity and associated non-procreative sex with damnation and hellfire.

More recently, a new style of "megastar" preachers renowned for their flamboyant lifestyles, miracle-working powers and extreme social rigidity has become popular. Their success in the religious "market" has pushed other conservative preachers even further to the right. The megastar preachers tend not only to be highly homophobic but also more aggressive in disseminating their views.

From the earliest days of African LGBTI activism there have been Christian LGBTI groups that we inspired by the message of the Gospels rather than by international human rights discourse.

Ever since the emergence of LGBTI persons into the public sphere in southern Africa in the 1990s, most churches in the region have taken a strongly negative approach to homosexuality and gender diversity. Their homophobic preaching has received acres of space in the media, making their views influential among a much wider audience than just their own congregations.

* The term 'homophobia' is used in a generic sense to mean the irrational hatred of all forms of sexual or gender diversity, including homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.

Southern Africa, like the rest of the African continent, is grappling with the increasingly visible reality of homosexual and bisexual women and men, as well as transgender and intersex people. Increasing numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organisations and openly LGBTI individuals populate both the public sphere and many people's private lives.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian. Although there are multiple manifestations of the faith, Christianity in the region is largely unreceptive to progress on social issues such as women's empowerment, gender diversity and advances in the understanding of human sexuality. While some southern African Christians have opened their hearts to their LGBTI sisters and brothers in the spirit of an inclusive Gospel, most continue to act in an exclusionary way.

* Homophobia in all its forms is a major challenge in the region. And many churches are hotbeds of homophobia.

Their hostility towards LGBTI people not only holds back long-overdue legal and policy reforms in southern African countries but also drives stigma, bullying and violence in the larger society. The resulting shame, social isolation, loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse, family conflicts, unemployment, homelessness, relationship problems, higher rates of HIV infection, violence and sometimes suicide suffered by many LGBTI Africans damage countless lives.

Homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual minorities. Through the powerful influence they have on their congregations, they contribute strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by LGBTI people in the region.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian. Although there are multiple manifestations of the faith, Christianity in the region is largely unreceptive to progress on social issues such as women's empowerment, gender diversity and advances in the understanding of human sexuality. While some southern African Christians have opened their hearts to their LGBTI sisters and brothers in the spirit of an inclusive Gospel, most continue to act in an exclusionary way.

Their hostility towards LGBTI people not only holds back long-overdue legal and policy reforms in southern African countries but also drives stigma, bullying and violence in the larger society. The resulting shame, social isolation, loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse, family conflicts, unemployment, homelessness, relationship problems, higher rates of HIV infection, violence and sometimes suicide suffered by many LGBTI Africans damage countless lives.

Even in the three countries where old colonial laws on "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" have been repealed, homophobia remains deeply rooted in society.

Homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual minorities. Through the powerful influence they have on their congregations, they contribute strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by LGBTI people in the region. Some church members do not accept such attitudes. They believe, on the contrary, that God commands them to love and accept others, especially those that society marginalises, rather than spreading hatred.

This report examines the state of engagement between LGBTI groups and the churches in southern Africa in regard to both the propagation of homophobia and the promotion of equality and acceptance of LGBTI people. Based on a review of what church-related LGBTI groups are currently doing, it proposes approaches that can be used to engage churches about their role in either exacerbating homophobic violence and exclusion or promoting respect for all people, and discusses strategies for how that can be done effectively.

It may seem surprising that African preachers denounce the African movement for LGBTI equality as a Western neocolonial import but then welcome homophobic and transphobic missionaries from overseas. Less surprising is the fact that across southern Africa the relationship between LGBTI communities and most churches is one of "tension, confrontation, hatred and even violence" (Chitando and Mapuranga). Indeed, the greatest obstacle to the full acceptance of LGBTI people in southern Africa is religiously sanctioned homophobia.

This situation is complicated by the fact that homosexual relations are still criminalised in most of southern Africa with the exception of Mozambique, Lesotho, and South Africa. As well as inhibiting LGBTI activism through fear of the criminal repercussions of 'coming out' as LGBTI, criminalisation reinforces church-sanctioned homophobia by creating the impression that LGBTI persons are enemies of the law and the state as well as of religion.

Even in the three countries where old colonial laws on "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" have been repealed, homophobia remains deeply rooted in society, thanks in large part to the moral influence of the preaching of most churches. As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted in 2011, "a climate of homophobia, intolerance and violence" persists throughout the region regardless of whether homosexuality is criminalised.

The development of organised LGBTI activism in southern Africa cannot be divorced from the rise of the women's empowerment movement and the African human rights movement generally, both of which became prominent in the 1990s. Of course, LGBTI persons lived in communities in southern Africa long before this. There is ample evidence showing that most communities knew about individuals whose sexuality differed from the majority well before this time, even before colonial times.

However, the international human rights discourse that became prominent in Africa after the end of the Cold War presented for the first time an opportunity to acknowledge the existence of LGBTI persons and openly promote their human rights. Accordingly, most early LGBTI organisations, such as GALZ in Zimbabwe, formed in 1990, LeGaBiBo in Botswana (1998) and The Rainbow Project in Namibia (2000), started from a base in international human rights discourse.

Activists know that religion plays a critical role in the rejection or acceptance of LGBTI persons in southern Africa and that there is a need to engage the churches.

The early association of the LGBTI movement with universal human rights principles originating in the West has enabled conservative churches and demagogic politicians to label LGBTI groups as Western-sponsored groups that promote an unAfrican, secular ideology. This ignores the view that the global human rights movement in fact arose as a result of Western excesses and has been shaped largely by grassroots civil rights, anti- colonial and anti-Apartheid struggles – all supported by most church members.

As South Africa's social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini, put it in her address to a United Nations meeting on sexual and reproductive health and rights in September 2014,

"International human rights instruments all stem from essentially western excesses starting with the Peace of Westphalia Treaty in the 1600s that ended 30 years of war and bloodshed in Europe. This was followed by the Charter of the United Nations that emerged from the two World Wars that were fought primarily amongst western countries. The other major human rights treaties and instruments also emerged as responses to western colonialism, western racism and the global oppression of women. Let's not forget that it was through global solidarity based struggles against the denial of fundamental human rights in South Africa that Apartheid is today a crime against humanity under international law. Human rights are therefore essentially products of southern, including African, struggles against all forms of oppression."

From the earliest days of African LGBTI activism, there have been Christian LGBTI groups that were inspired by the message of the Gospels rather than by international human rights discourse. IAM (Inclusive and Affirming Ministries), for example, was founded in South Africa in 1995. It is one of many faith-based LGBTI organisations that understood the importance of engaging with churches and other Christian organisations on the basis of an LGBTI-inclusive approach.

Such faith-based LGBTI organisations have increased in number, especially over the past decade. They reenact a growing realisation that, in African contexts, it is difficult if not impossible to divorce LGBTI issues from the religious traditions of LGBTI Africans and the communities in which they live.

In fact, almost all LGBTI groups in southern Africa are either faith-based or have an office that promotes dialogue with religious communities. Activists know that religion plays a critical role in the rejection or acceptance of LGBTI persons in southern Africa and that there is a need to engage the churches.

Southern Africa is predominantly Christian, but with a strong element of traditional African religion. Statistics on the number of followers of African traditional religions are very diffcult to gather, but in most communities, the two religious traditions are not regarded as mutually exclusive. Many believers live comfortably in both worlds.

Originally, the Christianity of southern Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, was a product of the "trinity" of commerce, civilisation and Christianity of Imperial Europe. It was brought to Africa by the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires beginning as early as the sixteenth century and reached its peak of influence with the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the subsequent carving up of most of Africa by the major European powers.

As an essentially Victorian colonial discourse, Christianity in southern Africa has been conservative on most social issues. It has been especially reactionary about sexuality and gender, promoting, with rare exceptions, a heteronormative and puritanical Victorian concept of sexuality as inherently dangerous and sinful and of male and female roles as fixed and hierarchical.

As Sylvia Tamale (2014: 154) notes, "many sexual practices that were acceptable in precolonial ... Africa were encoded [by colonial Christianity] with the distinctive tags of 'deviant', 'illegitimate' and 'criminal' through... proselytisation and acculturation." This fear of sexual and gender 'deviance', most notably of homosexuality and trans* identities, has persisted in some Christian denominations up to now, even in syncretistic churches that blend African traditional beliefs and practices with conventional Christian ones.

Western-mediated Christianity in Southern Africa entrenched a sexual discourse that anathematised open discussion of sexuality in families and communities. This was a Christianity that even went as far as deciding which sexual positions were godly or ungodly. African societies that had traditional forums for talking and teaching about sex and sexuality, such as initiation schools, and traditional ways of accommodating different sexual orientations became societies that denied the realities of sexual diversity and associated non-procreative sex with damnation and hellfire.

More recently, a new style of "megastar" preachers renowned for their flamboyant lifestyles, miracle-working powers and extreme social rigidity has become popular. Their success in the religious "market" has pushed other conservative preachers even further to the right. The megastar preachers tend not only to be highly homophobic but also more aggressive in disseminating their views.

From the earliest days of African LGBTI activism there have been Christian LGBTI groups that we inspired by the message of the Gospels rather than by international human rights discourse.

Ever since the emergence of LGBTI persons into the public sphere in southern Africa in the 1990s, most churches in the region have taken a strongly negative approach to homosexuality and gender diversity. Their homophobic preaching has received acres of space in the media, making their views influential among a much wider audience than just their own congregations.

* The term 'homophobia' is used in a generic sense to mean the irrational hatred of all forms of sexual or gender diversity, including homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.