U.S. conservatives culture warriors have a busy 2015 scheduled. Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, and then the international culture-warring World Congress of Families will be in Utah in October. At these meetings, the word “family” will be used to demonize LGBTQ individuals and women. Oddly, the meaning of the word “family” will be assumed but not defined.
On Human Rights Day 2014, I joined a panel to speak before the United Nations under the theme “Love is a Family Value.” The theme was nicely chosen to debunk the misuse of the phrase “family values” by anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s health activists who claim that sexual minorities and women’s rights are anti-family. To them, defending the “traditional family” means demonizing sexual minorities, women, and those who advocate equality and justice for all human beings.
It is important to define what is meant by “family,” because as the U.S. Right’s talking points are exported around the globe verbatim, there is no nuance as the words take on different meanings in different cultures. U.S. conservatives are quick to define it in narrow and gendered terms: the man should control the woman, while the woman should care for children, and thus father, mother, and children. As U.S. culture warriors working on the international scene, such as Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, advocate for their flawed interpretation abroad, the words are even more damaging than they are in the Western world, where they can be tossed aside as obvious rhetoric and hyperbole. In African communities, the word “family” means something very different. Across the continent in various nations, communities, and cultures, the phrase “extended family” does not even exist. Rather, “the family” encompasses every person to whom you are related, regardless of how remote—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, second cousins, second cousins twice removed, etc. The list is endless.
It is this family I am obliged to defend—and my gay uncle, niece, or cousin is still part of my family just as my child is! In my language for instance, umuntu wandi (literally, “my person”) is used for the family. What holds an African family together is not who one has sex with (as the Right wants us to believe), but love. When my friend David Kato was murdered, his family was broken, and stood by him. This picture is visible across Africa when LGBTQ people are killed—their families are destroyed too.
The Christian Right wants us to accept its definition of the family as final. Yet the family grows as humans learn to value other people’s humanity. Not long ago, women, Native Americans, and people who looked like me were considered less human. In fact, millions of Africans were exported as natural goods across the globe. Those who stood up to defend Black people were labeled as destroyers of civilization and the tradition upon which America was founded. The Bible, and in some cases the Koran, were also used to justify slavery, subordination of women, and colonization of Black people. Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and (my daughter’s favorite) Susan B. Anthony were all accused of destroying the family. Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and many White allies who fought for equality of the races were considered terrorists by the U.S. Christian Right. But such demonization did not stop them from demanding justice for the entire human family—today, these human rights defenders are idolized for doing what was right though not popular!
Love is a human and family value and ought not to be a crime—it is inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their family life. It is to force them into hating themselves, as well as into life-denying situations, and ultimately to sentence them to death. It is this reality that racists and religious fundamentalists still fail to accept. It was once a crime for Blacks to marry Whites here in the U.S. and in various European colonies. Sacred scriptures (and the mantra of defending traditional family values) were corrupted to justify such injustice. Many families and lives were lost as a result. But today, interracial marriages are celebrated just as any other marriage—even if there are still those individuals or religions who believe it is wrong.
Love is what makes a family. Throughout the Christian traditions, the Church has always understood the “family” as diverse. One good example is “the family” we find in religious communities (convents and monasteries) in various Christian Churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition for example, monks and nuns belong to the specific family. His Holiness Pope Francis belongs to a family of Jesuits—just as countless other monks and nuns do. One makes the choice to commit to such a lifestyle. If defending the traditional family means forcing everyone into heterosexual marriage, then monks and nuns can be said to be a threat to the family.
The Center for Families & Human Rights’ headline of our meeting at the U.N. was accurate: “LGBT Activists Meet at UN, Promise to Keep Fighting.” Until hate is conquered by love across the globe, we will fight to defend love as a family value. Just as the world fought slavery, racism, sexism, and many other isms, we will keep fighting to defend the human family from any form of discrimination.
Like the rainbow, the human family has always been diverse! Anti-gay activists should understand that homophobia does not defend families, it destroys it. To defend the family should mean supporting loving relations in human communities. We are one human family—Black, White, Brown, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, etc.—we all have a special place in the human family. To claim to defend the family while destroying our fellow human beings because of who they love and commit to live their lives with is hypocritical. We all have the duty to defend love over hate. It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said enough is enough, one more life is too much?
Sexual minorities are not pleading for special rights or benefits. They are just seeking to take their own family’s rightful place at the table, free from fear or persecution. It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and, in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!