There has recently been almost unprecedented attention in the US mainstream media to issues of homophobia in various African countries. Attention to ending discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is for the most part welcome. However, it is often too easy for voices from outside of Africa to be dismissed as being promoters of an un-African or western “homosexual agenda.” It is far more significant for an African voice to be reminding people of the need to protect human rights for everyone. And when so much of the hatred and vitriol against LGBT people is driven by claims to religion, it is even more significant when that African voice is a prominent faith leader.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and recipient of IGLRHC’s 2008 OUTSPOKEN award, has long been a vocal advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Two years ago, Archbishop Tutu accepted the award at IGLHRC’s A Celebration of Courage event. This award was given in recognition of his leadership as a global ally to the LGBT community through his outspoken and public support, which has contributed substantially to advancing the rights and understanding of LGBT people everywhere.
Achbishop Tutu continues to demonstrate the values and commitment for which this award was given. He has added an important faith-based voice against the discrimination and hate towards LGBT people seen in many places in Africa – what Tutu describes as as a “wave of hate … spreading across [his] beloved continent” – and often driven by religious fundamentalists. In his Op-Ed in the Washington Post on March 12, he noted that in many African countries, including Uganda, Senegal, Kenya and Malawi:
“People are again being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms. Men have been falsely charged and imprisoned in Senegal…In Malawi, men have been jailed and humiliated for expressing their partnerships with other men…Kenyan religious leaders, I am ashamed to say, threatened an HIV clinic…because the clerics wanted gay men excluded.”
He challenges the notion that LGBT people are somehow not African, noting that they are, in fact, an integral part of African families and communities. To those who spread hatred and discrimination in the name of religion and God he calles this an offense – saying that “Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God.” In remarks that highlight the reality of politicians who are manipulating the basest fears of people to hide their own failings of leadership in meeting people’s needs, he calls on politicians and leaders to demonstrate true leadership to “stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.”
We hope that those across the continent who praised Tutu for his role as a religious leader in resisting apartheid will also hear the analogies he draws between the exclusion and hate of apartheid and that of homophobia. As he states in his Op-Ed:
“[W]e struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.”
This is a call to action and leadership from someone who has once again shown what true leadership is about.
IGLHRC thanks the Archbishop for his unstinting leadership and for his unequivocal and passionate call to end the hate against LGBT people in Africa.