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RGOD2: Time to do “the laundry”

Sister Corrita Kent once designed a lithograph using the words:

“After the ecstasy, the laundry.”

I have just spent many days in Washington, D.C. with 26 courageous and talented human rights defenders. Collectively they represent the 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT.

It was an ecstatic experience to see them interact, tell their stories and build a stronger network as a result of two intense weeks together. They were gay and straight, seasoned advocates for change and younger activists and all with a background in HIV, LGBT issues with the intersection of faith. We had a few clergy and lay leaders from churches that largely support the further criminalization of LGBT people.

Over the course of our time together, we realized that we are in a pivotal historic period where we can shape the destiny of millions of LGBT people globally and challenge the moves to deny key constitutional rights as criminals.

Next week, there is an important discussion at the Human Rights Advisory Council about human rights and traditional values. Our “Spirit of 76” work together only high-lighted these tectonic battles that most of us are not aware of.

Criminals are denied constitutional rights?

The main criticisms that many Human Rights Advisory Council members felt needed to be addressed in a new draft touched upon the concepts of universality, dignity, responsibility and family. The language and the approach taken in the preliminary study undermined the universality of human rights most egregiously by subordinating international law agreements to traditional values of humankind.

The report was prepared by Vladimir Kartashkin, who failed to mention traditional values can be sources of human rights violations, particularly for women and LGBT people. Another cause for concern was the way in which the preliminary draft presented the concept of “responsibility” as an obligation according to which a person’s human rights could be denied if he or she commits a crime.

This is of significant concern to our “Spirit of 76” representatives. If you are LGBT, you are deemed a criminal and your constitutional rights are not protected. This application of traditional values and religion with law will become a key issue in the next year as our activists return home.

A rainbow people

I loved the diversity of our group. Jane works for an LGBT organization in Kenya and was recently arrested by the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity and held in a hot police van for eight hours before being released.

She told her story to members of Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, one of 12 faith communities who sponsored the initiative and presented forums and sermons over the two weekends of the visits.

“We had no idea these kinds of violations are going on,” said a couple who also hosted the guests for several evenings. “The whole experience of seeing the world through their eyes was a wake-up call for us to work on equality issues beyond our own backyard.”

Maxensia Nakibuuka spoke at the Forum at St. Albans parish with Bishop Christopher and I. She sold crafts made by her women’s support group to members of the congregation. Members also collected money for her and the bishop’s women’s development work when they return home.

“We want to build a long-term relationship with these programs and help them get a Peace Corp volunteer with a background in business development to spend a year making the women’s work sustainable” said Sandy Cole of the parish.

Maxensia is a leading Catholic lay woman in the Diocese of Kampala and 40% of the Spirit of 76 participants are practicing Catholics, we later discovered.

“There is a disconnect between what we see on the ground in Africa where 40% of health and HIV services are provided by the faith community, and pronouncements on LGBT issues from the Vatican,” said another Catholic participant.

We also had one Muslim who worked very hard to build a network of progressive and inclusive Muslims during the conferences. I had the pleasure of meeting the Minister of Health from Saudi Arabia at an event given by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and we talked about LGBT issues. “There is a lot of discussion on this topic internally,” he told me.

Seven of the 76 countries enforce the death penalty and are all Muslim countries, so it is good to hear these policies are being reviewed. One young Muslim told a story of how after having dinner with his lesbian friend, he heard on the news how her body was discovered cut in half. The police offered no protection and in this particular country, there were no guarantees to offer safety and protection to LGBT people. The social, political and religious framework provides for heterosexuality only and leaves it to the mob to create a culture of enforcement. I watched the reaction of our group to his story.

Maxensia commented on the recent decision by the Ugandan Joint Christian Council (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox) to support the Anti-homosexuality Bill (aka “Kill The Gays” bill) in Uganda saying it is unclear of her Archbishop actually signed the joint statement and the news had triggered major internal discussions within the bishops and lay leaders in Uganda as to the wisdom of supporting the bill. She was hopeful the Catholics in Uganda would condemn the bill.

Faith-based initiatives

We had several meetings of faith leaders with the White House. Although there was a lot of self-congratulatory “posturing” from the faith community throughout the conferences, there was little room for discussion on the more hidden negative impact churches have on further LGBT criminalization. The churches often hide behind the good work they are doing with widows, orphans and the sick, and offer no comment when asked about their support of anti-gay legislation.

Rick Warren made an appearance with 60 other staff and volunteers from Saddleback Church. He appeared with World Vision at an event at Georgetown where abstinence was presented as the major moral teaching espoused by World Vision.

One reporter tried to raise the issues at Saddleback Church’s booth in the Global Village just to be told “We have no comment about that, and Jesus loves you.” What a cop-out. There is no significant self-reflection in the evangelical/fundamentalist community about the obvious shadow of their international mission work. More work is being done in “following the money” and in raising issues with the U.S. government that churches cannot create their own foreign policy when it comes to respecting LGBT constitutional rights.

Banking on change

This was a key theme in our meeting with the World Bank senior staff last Thursday. We had several examples from our delegation on the ways in which governments receive loans and grants from the World Bank to alleviate poverty, but their policies towards LGBT people marginalize people in employment, education and health services.

There was enough evidence from the pattern of exclusion that the Bank is committed to engaging these issues further as it develops its new strategies and priorities in the coming year and has even made their vast legal department available to our network.

“Quality of Citizenship” is a key theme affecting government’s engagement with the goals and objectives of the World Bank and where constitutional rights are violated through charges of criminality, the Bank has a long history of engaging governments in correcting these violations. There is a long and expensive review process that could be initiated by LGBT and ally organizations (in many of the countries supported by the World Bank) where they would be invited to demonstrate how governments are failing to offer protection and economic opportunity to their LGBT minority populations. This meeting was probably the most significant meeting of the whole two weeks for me.

Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill

We also spent an Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill targeting conservative lawmakers who welcomed our stories, and we were surprised to find many had no idea of what is happening to LGBT people in many countries the USA supports.

I was moved by one young Nigerian who continued to be with us on the Hill while the funeral of his 14-year-old sister was taking place. She died from AIDS complications. We had another loss, which resulted in my spending the afternoon in the local emergency room with a traumatized relative who missed her father-in-laws funeral in Swaziland. She had passed out from chest pains and could not breathe, and I thought she had died.

The everyday stresses on our team were enormous. It was good to see a few twenty-somethings taking some time off in a free environment just to go clubbing and doing what anyone their age can do in this culture. For many of them, it was a breath of fresh air and a chance to see what may be possible in their own futures.

Washington was a great backdrop for the 25,000 visitors to the International AIDS Conference. We had a great local team of volunteers led by Philip Moeller and Richard Parkins as well as our media liaison, Frank O’Brien, and local coordinator Eric Scharf. We had a million things to do and the American team provided enormous support and love to our overseas visitors.

Thank you

Finally, I want to thank all of our readers who have been supporting our work this year and particularly those of you who donated money to help us support these courageous witnesses. We also want to thank our key sponsors listed below. It could not have happened without you and we are confident the impact of Spirit of 76 will be felt for many years to come. This was just a beginning. We can commit to funding partnerships like St. Albans and work closely with the World Bank and other significant global organizations and faith communities. The struggle continues ...

Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance

Elton John AIDS Foundation
Human Rights Campaign
ECLA Synod Washington DC
Episcopal Church Center Africa Partnerships
Episcopal Diocese of New York
Episcopal Diocese of Washington
INERELA
Integrity USA
Levi Straus Co.
Oasis and the Episcopal Diocese of California
Open Society Institute
ReconcilingWorks
The Council for Global Equality
The Ford Foundation
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights
The Global Forum on MSM & HIV
Steven Lucas Fine Arts, Laguna Beach
United Church of Christ
USAID and the U.S. State Department
Wingspan
World Bank GLOBE

Congregational sponsors

Ascension Parish , (Episcopal) Silver Spring
Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church
Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver Spring
First Congregational UCC, DC
Lutheran Church of the Reformation DC
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
St. Thomas Church Dupont Circle
Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington
Washington National Cathedral

Individual sponsors

Colin and Sue Stewart
Eileen Blumenthal
Joyce Rowland and Pamela Morgan
Roger Ross Williams
Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katy Wright

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.