I am in a meeting of 150 teenagers at the United Nations this week. Ten days ago, I listened to a group of young LGBT Ugandans who basically want the same things North American kids want.
Both groups are working at the same issues from different perspectives. The North American kids are from Kansas, Middle America as well as the coastal cities, and although they have obvious issues and problems, they are valuable product of a good education system, families and congregations who care about them and they have access to decision making bodies including the United Nations. They are learning the ropes and how to apply the inclusive principles of Unitarian Universalism that has been very active here at the UN for 50 years to the issues of our day.
Their Spring Conference is sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Office here and in previous years has covered everything from immigration reform, women, race, poverty, HIV, human trafficking, peacekeeping and climate change. This year, the theme is LGBTQ issues and many of these young people are heterosexual, are active in gay/straight alliances in their schools and will become leaders in part of the Christian community that simply believes God made people gay and it is OK.
This is currently not a dominant Christian narrative but in their generation, it will become the norm. They will move from being a minority to being a majority within their generation and the internet age will ensure that the kind of persecution of LGBT teenagers in places like Uganda will be relegated to the dark ages of the past. They are trying to figure out how my generation allowed this to happen in the same way I ask how my parents and grandparents generations allowed the world wars to happen, or years of sectarian violence in Ireland to happen. Theirs is a noble and great calling.
Before leaving for Uganda, I attended a service in our National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Every Friday morning, the National School (for Girls) on the Cathedral grounds holds a prayer service and on the Friday I attended, the service was sponsored by the school’s gay/straight alliance. The body of the cathedral was full of teenagers and after a beautiful opening with prayers and readings, we listened to a young lesbian student talk about what is different from being a friend to being an ally. She was inspiring and articulate. Not permitted to applaud during a service, the teenagers raised their arms in the air and began clicking their fingers in approval.
Growing up in Ireland, a country where homosexuality was criminalized by Victorian laws until the 1980s, I was amazed at what I was experiencing. I was also deeply moved to think that we have come light years from the kind of anti-gay and shameful rhetoric of the churches of my teenage years to what was celebrated at the Cathedral. One of the faculty who must have had some adult supervision and oversight of the school’s gay/straight alliance also got into the pulpit to speak. This was the same spot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon, so there was particular significance that the call for LGBT dignity and respect comes on the wake of other liberation movements in this country, particular the struggle for women and African-Americans.
Both presentations were clear, articulate and inspiring. I wished I had heard this message when I was a kid instead of hiding and protecting my little gay soul like some undersea crustacean. I was so moved by the service, I wrote to the Head to congratulate her on her school’s leadership as allies in a much larger movement. The majority of teenagers and faculty present in the cathedral that morning were heterosexuals and were unashamedly allies to LGBT youth and adults present. There was no “recruiting” or “promotion of homosexuality” at this service. The values of inclusion and protection of all God’s children – how we make schools safe for all kids, was present.
Light years away
A week later, I found myself listening to what it is like to be a young LGBT person in Uganda. About 30 youth gathered in a house off one of the busy roads in Kampala sponsored by a local Unitarian Universalist pastor, the Rev. Mark Kayimba.
Mark is also a straight ally, and with his mentor Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (who confirmed him as a teenager) they are two Christian leaders who have had the courage to reach out to the persecuted LGBT community and also bear their stigma.
Some of the young people were studying in university where it was still difficult to meet other LGBT people or establish a gay/straight alliance. They needed money to buy paper supplies or have food for meetings. Transportation costs here are also prohibitive if people come from remote communities.
Another organization, Youth on the Rock, was trying to reach out to other youth to inform them about HIV. It is difficult in a culture still promoting abstinence as the main tool in the war against AIDS, to get information, condoms and lubricants for everyone, not only youth.
Large Christian relief agencies like World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse receive multimillion-dollar US government contracts to fight AIDS or care for orphans. Though their work is good and life changing to most of the populations they work among, theological and cultural issues prevents them for serving this community that was sitting around me. If anything, these large relief organizations have become part of the problem for these Ugandan LGBT kids and often end up passively supporting anti-gay, faith-based initiatives like the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda.
The role of U.S. funding in relief agencies – when will it reach LGBT people?
Despite efforts to provide sensitivity training to detoxify their health care workers, these larger organizations are caught between a rock and a hard place. They want to serve everyone, but they are financially dependent on systems that want to make a point that homosexuality is not a part of God’s creation and even talking about it is not kewl.
The gay issue is a fragment of a much larger issue – gender equality and there are several important religious networks that see any attempts to support gender of LGBT equality as a threat to their theological beliefs. Millions of dollars of US aid funding through organizations like the President’s Emergency Prevention Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is funneled through conservative Christian organizations who are actively opposing any support of LGBT rights in 76 countries, which means the young people I am meeting with, can never safely turn to them for help.
In a consortium of 20 organizations working with these most-at-risk populations, I only met with one organization in Uganda receiving PEPFAR funding. Even embassy staff have not has the sensitivity training needed to reach out to these populations.
A story illustrates the problem. A secretary in the U.S. embassy (a Ugandan national) who refused to process a requisition order allowing a gay Ugandan to travel to a conference in Texas felt she had to resign. Embassy staff is concerned about what this could mean for other Ugandan nationals who are steeped in years of anti-gay messaging from other American evangelical voices. How can we reach most-at-risk populations in countries like Uganda when even the local Ugandans administering the funding are afraid of LGBT people and give our American tax dollars to like-minded Christian organizations who may actually be supporting criminalization?
Back to the youth
The Ugandan LGBT youth told me how difficult it was for them to be open about their identities. Some were kicked out of school for being gay and were illiterate. Some were thrown out of their homes and became involved in survival prostitution on the streets of Kampala. Most were afraid to go and get tested for HIV because the health care system had been so polluted with anti-gay messages that they were terrified of being embarrassed if asked how they might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
There are programs in Kampala to sensitize these workers and I spent two days in a workshop seeing for myself how easy it is to reprogram counselors, doctors and nurses who want to serve everyone, but their pastors preach another kind of sexual apartheid in this region. The pervasive homophobia is so bad that the Rev. Mark does not allow the young people to hang outside the house chatting or making phone calls just in case a neighbor wants to know what kind of meeting he is holding there. Any meeting in Uganda that involves gay people is automatically a target for the mob or a police raid. “Recruiting” and “promotion” is the threat that the government and churches can wield against the Rev. Mark and every time he offers hospitality and pastoral care to the Ugandan community he lays himself open to arrest.
I met with officials at the U.S. embassy and they were interested in seeing a copy of the sensitivity training model curriculum that St. Paul’s Foundation and Elton John AIDS Foundation had helped to fund and develop. Could we help to design a training program for all PEPFAR and USAID staff so at least there would be consistency of approach to everyone who would be applying for these funds? Our request is still being considered.
The Ugandan situation is one of many complex situations that American diplomats and relief agencies face in countries where LGBT people are criminalized, but at least in Uganda we now have an organized consortium and a plan to reach previously underserved people like the youth I met with. It remains to be seen if U.S. authorities will have the political and moral will to authorize the sensitivity training and expand the scope of grants and services supported by the American taxpayer, or keep subsidizing theologically based abstinence-only programs.
Andy Kopsa’s research on a failed multimillion-dollar abstinence-only programs by Samaritan’s Purse is just one of many stories that make me weep. That money would have funded the Ugandan Youth LGBT HIV prevention and care program for five years. People will die because of this madness that as an American taxpayer, you and I are subsidizing.
Back to my 150 radiant little faces sitting at UN diplomatic desks in the real world of global politics and culture wars. How do we make peace so others may not needlessly die? I am confident that the limitations of my generation’s response to a global liberation movement and a major global health epidemic will not be their limitations. Most Americans from my generation see the boundaries of LGBT equality as limed by our coastline and international borders, but my little radiant faces at the UN no longer think like us. Globalization, Skype and a more inclusive theology means these young people will take the torch further. Marriage equality, even for younger American evangelicals and Catholics, is not an issue and it trails behind issues like global warming, finding meaningful and sustainable employment, ending HIV or advancing women’s rights. They will have other and unforeseen issues to deal with and how we work with them and mentor them, like the National Cathedral schools, the Rev. Mark in Uganda or the work we are doing here at the UN is highly important not only to the LGBT movement but to the whole human family.
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.