From Russia to Cameroon, sexual orientation has become an international boundary dispute.
The Russians are coming
On June 19, the St. Petersburg-based LGBTI rights organization Coming Out was found guilty of being a “foreign agent” and fined the maximum penalty of 500,000 rubles (about $15,000).
The controversial new “foreign agents” law states that any Russian NGO involved in political activity and receiving foreign funding must register as a foreign agent. Out of five NGOs which have been branded “foreign agents,” two are LGBTI rights organizations.
In many countries, the term “foreign agent” is often understood to mean spying and being a traitor to your nation. Coming Out is a human rights and social services organization, yet it was tried as a political organization because it was accused of organizing a picket with slogans such as “We are for traditional values: love, family, respect of human dignity” or a campaign to oppose the “non-traditional sexual relations” law.
The verdict in this trial came soon after the adoption by the Russian State Duma of the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” law on June 11. The atmosphere for LGBTI people and rights organizations, as well as human rights defenders globally, is becoming increasingly difficult in the Russian Federation since the adoption of the two new laws.
In Africa, this is normal, but why Russia?
I have been surprised at the reaction of friends to what is going on in Russia to what is happening in Africa to the LGBT and our ally community. People have lower expectations of governments in Africa to support LGBT rights than say Russia or Eastern European countries. Many Americans have visited Moscow and St. Petersburg where there is an active LGBT community and even a very lively club scene.
For many of us, it came as a surprise to learn that all of this socialization is potentially under threat. These LGBT Russians and their organizations are being vilified by their own citizens and governments as “less than” the majority of their fellow citizenry. It is a small step in the process of dehumanization where citizen’s can be denied basic constitutional rights just because they are LGBT.
Foreign agents – with all its implications for Russia -- is a perfect term to apply to LGBT people, who no longer have standing. The strange dynamic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and government that has resulted in a new pogrom against the LGBT community and if these organizations are unsuccessful to reclaim their right to free association, operate as health and social service agencies, we will see the beginning of a new cold war with the divisions over sexual orientation as the new Berlin Wall.
While Orthodox clergy condemn homosexuality as another sign of Western decadence and even allow their clergy to encourage direct physical violence against LGBT demonstrators, the government is seeing the advantages of anti-LGBT foreign policies to make new partnerships with most of Africa and even the Vatican. Nobody saw this coming and recent events in Zambia, Uganda, the Caribbean, Nigeria and now Cameroon are forcing many organizations and governments to ask “What now?”
The “foreign agents” label is particularly destructive when it is used against an organization or someone who is working under contract from say UNAIDS, the U.S. government or the European Union. They may also be working on HIV prevention for a large NGO like World Vision or Christian Aid. Many large NGOs will hire local people to combine their professional public health background to fulfill specific contracts to reduce the spread of HIV infection among women or most at risk populations.
In recent months in Zambia, Ethiopia and Cameroon, the professional leadership of public health experts who are working with the LGBT community has come under increasing scrutiny by their governments. In Zambia, one expert was arrested coming out of a television station when he called for decriminalization as a necessary step to decreasing HIV infection there. In Ethiopia, one of the leading HIV prevention experts was arrested and tortured soon after returning from the International AIDS Conference last summer in Washington, D.C. He is now seeking asylum in this country and supported by the St. Paul’s Foundation, so we can vouch for his story and character. He was interrogated by police who wanted to know who was supplying him with money and they used force to extract imaginary espionage stories from him.
LGBT people are believed to be foreign agents and paid by western governments to corrupt the purity of their nation. At one point during the interrogations, our Ethiopian public health expert was accused of attempting to overthrow the government. What may have begun as basic human and constitutional rights or a ministry to prevent the spread of HIV in your own country can become a case for dehumanizing another citizen, torturing and imprisoning them, or in Eric Lembembe’s case murdering him.
The urgency of the Cameroon situation
When friends looked through the window of Eric Lembembe’s apartment two weeks ago when he failed to turn up for a meeting, they saw a badly mutilated body. His limbs had been forcefully broken, and his body and face had been burned by an electric iron.
This was not a robbery gone wrong or even in the case of David Kato, a quick and brutal attack that removed him from Ugandan society. This was an act of interrogation. Who carried out this torture and what information were they trying to get out of this very harmless little human being?
The reaction of the government to the murder was underwhelming. All of last week, there was no attempt to carry out forensic tests in the apartment or to carry out an autopsy. Some faith leaders in the U.S. expressed our concerns to the State Department and the international community expressed similar concern that this crime needed some attention.
It was only this week that some moves were made to investigate Eric’s brutal murder, but it unlikely we shall ever know who did this and why. All we know is that Eric Lembembe was so good at his work, his HIV prevention and his journalism, that someone wanted rid of him. They also believed he was acting on behalf of other interests and given the Russian and Ethiopian stories, these interests were seen as foreign and a threat to the state.
Moral teaching or incitement to violence?
The Roman Catholic Church’s role in this situation must also be investigated given two explicit and recent statements by church leaders where homosexuality is described as not only un-African but inhuman.
The Archbishop used his Christmas homily to go as far as to say LGBT people were responsible for “crimes against humanity.” In an impassioned (so called) pro-family and anti-gay statement from the Cameroon Bishops, the church is in full support of the government’s current anti-gay position and has given theological ammunition to the state to make life as difficult as possible for the LGBT community there. The bishop who acts as liaison between the bishops and the government recently responded to the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon’s request for decriminalization:
“First, homosexuality is not part of our culture. For example, go to any village in Cameroon and tell villagers that henceforth a man should marry another man, or that a woman should be engaged to another woman, you are going to be considered a mad person. People will conclude that you are not normal as this is not part of our culture. And if really our legislators or parliamentarians are acting in the name of their culture and in line with their faith, they cannot scrap the provision that punishes homosexuality from our penal code. This provision translates our profound conviction, that is, our culture.
Therefore, there is absolutely no question that people should impose on us from outside how we should live. In Africa marriage is sacred. A parent cannot accept that his son should marry another man. It is not normal; it is beastly. Therefore, I have confidence in our lawmakers. They will never accept such a practice.”
The scandal of “the Pope’s children”
Yes, but they will all quietly accept polygamy but never criminalize it! The Roman Catholic Church in Africa is about to roll out its own form of clergy sexual impropriety when hundreds of thousands of African children who have been fathered by Catholic clergy in every diocese, will simply come out. I call these abused ones “the Pope’s children” and the African church will lose any moral authority it pretends to have, similarly to the loss of moral authority lost in the sex abuse scandals of the Global North.
This is a story the church has tried to keep under wraps for years and it is much more inhumane to the offspring of this church’s leadership than what it is currently doing to its gay family members. When the church speaks about pro-family- values in the African context, there are many subplots. Clergy and bishops secretly send these love children off to African boarding schools knowing they will never know the normal love of a father but will forever share his guilt and shame. These children are often well-treated, but there is no sustainable health or humanity within these kinds of family secrets.
The LGBT issue is so controversial in the African context right now that is remains a powerful convenient smokescreen for these sexual issues the church is doing all in its power to contain. Read more on this issue HERE.
Why the cycle of dehumanizing in Cameroon needs to stop
In Cameroon, the Roman Catholic Church represents 25% of the population but has enormous political influence and it has expressed concern in the past decade that some of its bishops and clergy have gone missing or found dead under strange circumstances, implying government involvement in silencing activist religious leaders.
The church has remained silent on Lembembe’s murder and as it has done in the past over human rights violations, did not ask the government for an investigation. After all, the Archbishop had already told the faithful only six months ago that Lembembe and the people he worked with were criminals and inhuman. Beastly, to use the bishop’s phrase. When are intelligent religious leaders going to take responsibility for what they are doing by making these dangerous statements about people they clearly know nothing about?
The most recent fallout from this cycle of bad theology, misinformation and incitement to violence comes from the terrified workers and volunteers at the Cameroonian AIDS agencies who are worried for their own safety. They have ceased their work, even with donor contracts until their safety and security can be guaranteed. Simply put, when the government and the churches paint a big red target on your back saying “foreign agent, criminal, inhuman or beastly” there’s only one thing to do to stay alive – run and hide!
There are more questions than answers to the fallout of Eric Lembembe’s death and especially for the thousands of LGBT and straight allies who work in the 76 countries where church and state have declared open season on their work. The implications for public health policy are profound and the church may gain politically from its current anti-gay position, but by creating the climate of dehumanizing by its own teaching, from its top spiritual authority (Archbishop Tonye Backot) and his top government liaison, this movement for good has lost all moral authority to protect and to represent all of its membership.
By scapegoating one Roman Catholic who happened to be gay, the church compromises its own universal embrace and core message of the love of God and dignity of humanity. Eric’s crucified body leaves no doubt that this murder has been condoned by church and state and executed by those who have confidence that they have legal and sacred immunity. To what extent the U.S. and European governments will or can change the course of these realities, we are about to find out. As British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson once said: “A week is a long time in politics.”
Raising money to bury Eric Lembembe
St. Paul’s Foundation is spearheading the effort to raise $5,000 to give a dignified bural for Eric Lembembe. To date, almost $1,000 has been raised with a target of reaching $5,000 by Wednesday to pay for the mortuary expenses and burial costs. Click HERE to donate money.
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.