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Being gay — a crime?

Did you know there are countries in our world where it is a crime to be gay? A Tanzanian governor has declared war on gay people, setting up a special operations team in his police force to track down gays and jail them for life, for being who they are. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks at what the Church needs to do before she is able to credibly pronounce herself on this monstrous violation of human rights.

I was minding my own business daydreaming when the woman sitting across from me shook me from my slumber and accused me of staring at her.

“Why are you staring at me? Do I remind you of a former girlfriend?”, she asked, with an accent suggesting that she was not South African.

Having to think quickly, lest I should be accused of being rude for staring at her, I responded coming out of my open-eyed slumber. “I am gay. You couldn’t possibly remind me of an ex-girlfriend because I’ve never had one.”

With a dismissive giggle she retorted, “You are not gay, if you were you wouldn’t have said it. This is Africa, after all”.

This fleeting moment in a journalism conference at Johannesburg’s Wits University came flooding back to mind as I read that the governor of Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, had issued a directive to establish an anti-gay surveillance squad that would track down people in same-sex relationships.

Homosexuality is an offence against the law in the east African country, as it is in over 30 African states. According to Tanzanian law being gay is a punishable crime and those ‘caught’ can be imprisoned between 30 years and life behind bars.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) compiles an annual report on laws that either criminalise or recognise and protect same-sex relations around the world. In their “State-Sponsored Homophobia Report”, the May 2017 edition of the survey listed 32 African countries where same-sex sexual acts are illegal.

Human Rights Watch, another human rights organisation, included two more African states on their list of countries with anti-LGBTI+ laws. In the Central African Republic and Benin same-sex relations are not specifically illegal but certain laws treat gay and straight people differently.

Naturally the Tanzanian city’s decision has attracted international condemnation. The country’s central government has reportedly distanced itself from the governor’s call.

According to Amnesty International, 10 men have been arrested on the island of Zanzibar on suspicion of being gay, after police received a “tip-off” from members of the public about a same-sex marriage taking place.

“We now fear these men may be subjected to forced anal examination, the government’s method of choice for ‘proving’ same-sex sexual activity among men. This must not be allowed to happen — these men must be released immediately”, said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

Historically, homosexual activity between adults has never been criminalised in Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger and Rwanda. It has been decriminalised in Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and South Africa.

“This is Africa” is not only a sad truth for those who identify as LGBTI+. It also poses an existential threat to those in a same-sex relationship in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, their former president Robert Mugabe once described LGBTI+ people as “worse than dogs and pigs”. A storm erupted there in September 2018, after a deputy headmaster at one of the country’s most exclusive private schools revealed that he was gay.

Discovering that the teacher was gay left some parents so incensed that St John’s College forced Neal Hovelmeier to resign. Worse still, they also demanded the resignation of the headmaster and of the chair of the board of governors. This after Hovelmeier issued a public statement to the school community about his sexual orientation.

Prominent Zimbabweans and international diplomats applauded Hovelmeier for coming out publicly.

The Catholic Church and the general Christian community in Africa need to be more vocal about the abuses committed against those who identify themselves LGBTI+.

In fact, the final document issued by the Synod of Bishops on Young People in October 2018 states, in an as yet unconfirmed translation of the approved Italian document, that “The Synod reaffirms that God loves every person and so does the Church, renewing its commitment against every discrimination and sexually-based violence”.

Reports on the discussion in the Synod show that with respect to LGBTI+ matters, the Church in Africa is especially more conservative. African bishops disagreed with the use of the term ‘LGBT’ voting against proposed changes to the Church’s language in this regard. They were certainly not the only ones to disagree on the adoption of the term. Although, it is reported that their disagreement significantly contributed to the overall ‘no’ vote on the term.

But, sadly, this is Africa.

As long as the prominent clerics and the faithful keep saying that sex abuse in the Church is the work of homosexual priests, the Church cannot be the refuge for those fearing and fleeing persecution by their states.

The attitude of some priests towards same-sex attraction means that they or the Church for that matter cannot give an answer to young people in their own parishes, who, like Simon Peter, ask: “to whom shall we go?”. Little if anything is done to respond to the confusion and torment lived by LGBTI+ young people in our churches.

The Church often speaks ambiguously when pronouncing herself on matters relating to same-sex relationships. She affirms the dignity of LGBTI+ people on one hand and makes them feel unwelcome in parishes and blames them for abusing children on the other. This leaves the Church an untrustworthy ally in the fight for the human rights of those who fall in love with people of the same sex as themselves.

The elephant in the room is that for all its preaching about human dignity, solidarity and a preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable, the Church is often too comfortable with not rocking the boat of the more conservative voices. To call them by their proper names, bigots who are happy with the status quo.

The Church cannot speak truth to Tanzanian powers because it might have to answer some tough questions about itself. Whether what it might preach to that government is practised within its own hallowed spaces?

This is indeed Africa but the universal Church has a duty to uphold values that transcend far beyond the borders of this world. First though — the Church must see the log in her own eye.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.