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RGOD2: Three amazing reasons to celebrate today

As 100 countries celebrate IDAHOT today, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling for greater education to reduce the stigma and discrimination experienced by almost 50 million people living in countries (from a total 1.5 billion) where it is still illegal to be LGBT.

In his speech given in the Netherlands in the presence of the Dutch royalty, the Secretary General underlined that “For generations, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in all regions have been subjected to terrible violence on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

He continued, “For far too long, their suffering was met with silence in the halls of power. As Secretary-General, I am committed to raising my voice.”

While underlining the need for legal reforms, he also emphasized that “public education is also essential to challenge negative stereotypes and promote greater understanding.”

Three important celebrations today

Three events are on my mind today.

The first is the breaking news that Michel Sidibe, director of UNAIDS, will announce the provision of same gender couple benefits to all UNAIDS employees today when he speaks before the United Nations on the importance of IDAHOT.

Thirty experts from around the world came to Geneva, Switzerland earlier this week to meet with him and his staff as they previewed the AIDS plan to provide treatment to 15 million people by 2015. The two-day consultation focused on how to reach one of the most vulnerable and most-at-risk populations (Men Who have Sex With Men). Specific ways to reduce stigma, discrimination and criminalization of LGBT people were also explored. What was most important about this meeting, we all felt we were listened to. We were invited to the table of negotiation and inclusion in our own global well-being.

Today’s announcement is another positive step in transforming the internal culture of an important part of the UN system so UNAIDS can set an example to their partners and contractors globally.

What comprehensive and inclusive LGBT services look like, even in Uganda

The second event happening today is a meeting of 18 organizations representing LGBT, straight and religious movements in Uganda who are forming the Good Samaritan Consortium. They are having a day-long retreat to come up with a comprehensive proposal to service most at risk populations through an innovative home health care program and HIV testing and outreach program.

In a country where MSM sero-prevalence rates of 13.7%, almost twice the rate of the general population, everyone involved with HIV prevention and services should be concerned. The challenge for this consortium is going to be finding existing partners who already have relationships with USAID, PEPFAR and other development funders who want to work with them.

The culture in Uganda remains highly toxic towards LGBT people, but the consortium is developing a training model that, if successful, will put thousands of community health workers and peer education HIV prevention specialists into some of the most marginalized communities in Uganda. Home health care and testing people in their communities (rather than waiting for people to come for testing at a facility) is most effective way to help UNAIDS reach its ambitious goals and it is good value for money.

The program will train “Good Samaritans” in care and prevention and work with existing religious networks to educate and reduce stigma. Since 40% of health care in Africa is delivered through faith-based programs, and if this pilot program is funded and is successful, Ban Ki-moon will have yet another tangible example of how to deliver education and care to reduce discrimination and save lives.

“God Loves Uganda” showing at the National Cathedral

The third event happening tonight to mark IDAHOT is the showing of the award-winning film “God Loves Uganda” by Roger Ross Williams at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The event is cosponsored by the Cathedral, St. Alban’s parish (there is a pre-film reception at 6 pm), the United Nations Foundation, and San Diego’s own St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation.

As the nation’s “House of Prayer for All People” there is something extremely significant and healing about holding this program at the National Cathedral. There will be a panel discussion following with the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, whose groundbreaking research in “The Globalization of the Culture Wars” uncovered much of the secret funding and resourcing of anti-LGBT forces in Africa by the American Evangelical movement. Victor Mukasa, a respected transgender leader and founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and Linda Bales, a leader in the Methodist Church, will join me on the panel as we try to respond creatively to this controversial film.

Professor John Stackhouse’s negative review

At a recent screening in Canada, professor John Stackhouse felt compelled to write a scathing review of the film in Christianity Today.

Stackhouse’s website describes his work:

“He collects research from a wide range of sources, corrects currently popular interpretations, and connects audiences with information and insight they can put immediately into practice. He is therefore a skilled guide in helping us chart a course through the prospects and impasses of modern society. And he does all this with a wit you’ll find surprisingly refreshing in a scholar. Our world demands our best, and Dr. Stackhouse helps us think it and do it.”

His review sadly misses the point of the film. Whereas I agree with him the film focuses more on extreme and polarizing characters as a tool to introduce us to the place of LGBT people in relationship to their governments and faith communities, he undermines the right of the filmmaker to tell this story from his personal perspective. Stackhouse portrays the Rev. Kapya Kaoma and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo as typically un-African Americanized liberals. Sadly, he does not really have all his facts straight and his defense focuses on misinformed personal attacks on these three men. This is “not helping us think and demand our best,” as his website claims.

Salvation is not a numbers game

The film portrays a shadowy side of the Christian faith, reduced to a kind of simplistic consumerism (saving souls for Jesus, one at a time in ungodly Africa). Throughout the film we are confronted with America’s lack of respect for other cultures and religions embodied in the naive young missionaries from Kansas sent forth by Lou Engle and his International House of Prayer.

Although the film presents caricatures of militant fundamentalism that most Americans would be appalled by if this was, say, an Islamic movement, we are blind to its destructive influence because it is seen as a form of Christianity and pro-American (Western and morally superior).

Stackhouse misses the point of the film that is designed to promote serious discussion, particularly among the Christian evangelical movement as to what they are hoping to achieve by missionary campaigns that see anti-gay messaging as a central tenet of their political and cultural agenda and platform of support. Is turning Africans against Africans, parents against children something Jesus really wants us to do?

“God Loves Uganda” sequel?

The film, however limited in its perspective, only begins to open us up to the complexity of American/African evangelical messaging and its powerful economic base in a continent still plundered by the West and more recently by the East.

Williams does not even begin to deal with the effects of larger Christian organizations who receive oodles of American public funding, way beyond the paltry budget of the International House of Prayer. Maybe this will be the subject of his follow-up film, but it is more difficult to access multi-national religious and development companies whose role in the propaganda war against LGBT people remains carefully veiled.

There has been little public criticism from more moderate evangelical leaders and organizations towards the Evangelical lunatic fringe in places like Uganda. Why the conspiracy of silence? What roles do powerful Washington networks like “the Family” have with western Christian business interests that must be quite lucrative for so much money to be pumped into these anti-gay campaigns in Africa?

Jeff Sharlett’s book, “The Family,” gives a helpful background on the economic forces in the exportation of the culture wars to places like Uganda and Ross’s film paints a simplified version of a much more complicated story for the average American audience. Maybe this is only the starting point and other films need to be made about the long-term effects of this manifestation of “The Prosperity Gospel,” which I consider to be the 21st century’s own latest Christian heresy by attempting to put a religious veneer on consumerism and capitalism and exporting it to the Global South.

Personal attacks

Stackhouse may be just another average Evangelical Christian’s who merely writes off Rodger Ross Williams as a disgruntled and wounded Baptist, raging at his own community’s rejection of who he intrinsically is -- a gay man.

It is always impossible to hear the message when one shoots the messenger. This usually invalidates both. Can we just stop for a moment and maybe understand what someone is trying to communicate, however broken or however inadequate? Williams has a right to tell his story and there are millions of people who resonate with a larger story that continues to be denied by religious leaders like Stackhouse.

What would happen if we just listened? What would happen if we just invited LGBT people, in places like Uganda, to sit at the conference table and plan community health services so more people might not get infected with HIV? Why is this so impossibly difficult to do? Why are the stories and experiences of LGBT people so threatening and reduced to some so-called agenda?

The vast majority of religious development programs, Anglican, Catholic and Evangelical have still to take this first step as our meeting in Geneva with UNAIDS attested. Stackhouse’s refusal to acknowledge Williams’s story symbolically shares in the brokenness we are trying to heal on this day. Listen to us. Invite us to participate in healing our shared brokenness.

Stigma is about inflicting a wound. Stackhouse’s personal attacks on two African Christian leaders (Kayoma from Zambia and Senyonjo from Uganda) who come from the heart of Evangelical Africa, educated in some of the top Evangelical schools on the planet) is a poor defense of the current Evangelical preoccupation with LGBT people while allowing misinformation to shape legislation and public policy.

These two highly educated African religious leaders have been thrown under the bus by their contemporaries for offering a more inclusive and compassionate form of Christianity. As straight allies, they are also deeply critical of the forces within their own evangelical movement that Stackhouse simply ignores. They too, by the mere fact they portray LGBT people as equals before God, as EQUAL as heterosexuals are, bear the stigma of homosexuality by association.

The film ends with Kayoma’s concern that whatever this manifestation of Christianity is, caricatured by Engle, it is not good from all Africans, not just LGBT Africans. Why is this criticism so radically threatening to Stackhouse and the movement he supports?

Celebrate your own healing

Homophobia is within all of us, and it is within all of our institutions, including faith communities, mine included. It never fully disappears and it can be transformed.

Today, I celebrate the ways in which the United Nations, UNAIDS, community organizations in difficult places like Uganda reach out to build gay/straight alliances while people like professor Stackhouse thinks ignoring and undermining will create a world that “demands our best.” We are here and even Evangelicals like Kaoma and Senyonjo can hear and honor our stories, imperfectly communicated and inevitably misunderstood, yet as messengers, for some, they need to be silenced. From Washington National Cathedral to Uganda, the Netherlands, the United Nations, we are hearing a different story. This is a good day.

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.

Photo caption

At the left: UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe (front left in the red T-shirt) with global experts in Geneva this week on how to reduce HIV transmission in LGBT populations. He announced extension of employment benefits to LGBT people and their partners working at UNAIDS this week in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia. San Diego’s Albert Ogle is standing behind him.