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COMMENTARY: The Pit buries 150 years of homophobic atrocities

Imagine a deep dark trench, dug at the height of the European colonial age stretching further than the eye can see. Although it is present in many countries, it still lies dangerously open in 76 countries.

Some countries realize how dangerous the Pit has been to innocent citizens and are filling the grave-like trench with dirt or planting flowers in memory of fallen ones like Matthew Shepard or Harvey Milk. However, the Pit remains deep in some places in the world, and forever holds the secrets of countless forgotten victims of 150 years of warfare against LGBT people across the planet.

Oscar Wilde is in there. Hundreds of thousands of suicides, and countless thousands who were denied HIV information because they are seen as criminals in their homelands now rest there. All were physically or psychologically tortured most of their time on Earth, slowly worn down and beaten by fear and misinformation.

Matthew Shepard lies with Uganda activist David Kato. For each one who has a name, there may be millions whose names we will never know. Today, the Pit is still open in 76 countries and there is even some new excavations going on to make it bigger, deeper and more frightening than ever.

On one side of Earth’s open wound, millions of LGBT people stand on one side of the Pit, facing a hostile line of faith leaders armed with Bibles, prayer books and shovels. The global LGBT community is still harassed, outnumbered and surrounded by institutions of authority -- police, military, judges, health care providers, teachers and even family members who are slowly shuffling them off the edges of life and into the Pit. Occasionally a faith leader yells something and waves a “holy” book.

“You are going to hell!” or “You are intrinsically disordered and sexual orientation is not an identity!” Another faith leader agrees and invites the people in front of her to just “pray the gay away.” “You are not an identity, you are all just engaging in disfunctional behaviors that we can fix!”

A politician cheers and the police and military slowly nudge another line of people into the Pit.

On another continent linked by this endless trench, a group of people vote for a new law -- that the people in front of them are not really human beings who enjoy the rights of everyone else. They are really sub-human aliens, so it does not matter if they are going to die of HIV, so why give them the information that we know on how to survive from a deadly disease? These people have no entitlement and were better off if they were dead. After the vote and cheers, another push from the crowd ensures the tyranny of the majority takes no prisoners. More fall into the Pit.

A bishop ritually sprinkles holy water on the writhing bodies too far below to be heard or seen, while others take shovels of dirt and cover them until there is silence once more. An imam begins the next round of insults directed towards a fresh line of terrified faces, holding each other as they too fall. Some fight back but they are plainly outnumbered.

The deathly shuffle begins again and slowly, slowly, one step towards the edge, humanity turns on itself, once again. This time, the conspiracy of silence will ensure these graves will never be remembered and there is an implicit belief that if we all keep quiet about it, maybe one day all these strange people will simply disappear so we can all go on with being “normal.”

One of the things I feared most about the work that was not done at the United Nations in June, when the family of nations agreed on a five-year global AIDS plan, was what happened last month in Ghana. A government minister called for the rounding up of an estimated 8,000 people following a simple United States Agency for International Development workshop on HIV prevention. An estimated figure of Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) was discussed at the training – maybe 8,000 people in a region of Ghana -- the target of this important outreach education program. So when one of the local political leaders (standing for election in 2012) got wind of this figure, he called the local intelligence agency to round them up for arrest.

Homosexuality is illegal in Ghana as in 75 other countries. Ghana is part of the British Commonwealth representing over half of the countries where the Pit is a daily reality for LGBT people. So colonial laws, once used to oppress “the natives” are now being revamped in places like Malawi, where lesbianism was recently criminalized and Uganda is another more public example of recent institutionalized homophobia.

The UN meeting failed to address the connection between the issue of criminalizing homosexual relationships and the spread of HIV. Religious lobbying ensured the discussion was delayed. So one of the most important “At Risk” communities – millions of people mainly in Africa (35 countries where homosexuality is illegal) are deemed criminals. So how do you provide services to criminals who sigh up for HIV programs and their names and addresses are seized by politicians who want to be re-elected? The politician turns over lists to the police or “security specialists” and his ratings soar in the polls.

Until homosexuality is decriminalized, it is going to be very difficult to provide universal HIV prevention and there will be a huge hole in the world AIDS plan through which the virus will get more of us. The UN had the opportunity to address this issue and stepped back. Ghana is the first test case and even thought the Vice President in Ghana spoke eloquently at the June meeting ensuring LGBT people would be part of their government’s plan, it remains almost impossible to provide sound public health policy for everyone when millions of LGBT in 76 countries are easy prey because of these ancient colonial laws.

Uganda will once again be in the news this week with the now famous “Kill The Gays" bill authored by (and supported by “the Family”) David Bahati. The Pit continues to be a blight on Earth, but people like Bahati and the religious leaders who publically and privately support him are ready for some new excavations. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the coming week.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo predicts that if the bill is debated in parliament, it will most certainly be supported by the majority. How many more Ugandans will end up in the Pit?

London’s Pride organization has taken the lead to raise more awareness among grass-roots LGBT people in the developed world about their counterparts in 76 countries. Pride has voted the theme for next year’s celebrations calling for “Global Equality.” A jolly good idea! We ought to do the same in the USA. Bishop Christopher and I met with San Francisco Pride board this past weekend as their membership considers this theme at next Saturday’s election when they will vote on their theme for 2012 Pride.

Another positive contribution from the faith community is to change our reactive behavior to the results of homophobia and quietly burying people to one of proactively filling in the Pit once and for all, before more people are pushed in. Imagine if Pope Benedict, Rick Warren and the Dalai Lama all made a joint public statement calling for the end of global criminalization of homosexuality. Their leadership could call upon everyone to our shovels and level the earth as a place of equality.

As long as the Pit exists and the church spends more time burying us than protecting us, lots of people are going to needlessly suffer and die. As we remember the horror of a senseless killing several years ago in Wyoming that awakened the conscience of the country to the reality of the Pit running through this country, more needs to be done to awaken global consciousness about the Pit in half the countries of the world where LGBT people die in anonymity every day.