THE POLITICS OF ANTI-GAY PERSECUTION

GAMBIA, EGYPT, JAMAICA, RUSSIA, WITH A HELPING HAND FROM US RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES; GLOBAL LGBT RECAP

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Follow RD on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

Human Rights Day was celebrated this week, on December 10.  Michael Adee celebrated with a post about the International Consultation on the Church and Homophobia, which was held in Jakarta, Indonesia in November.

Inspired by the theme, I John 4: 18 “Perfect Love Casts Out Fear,” the conference offered an introduction to LGBT issues in the context of God’s call to accept and love all persons including those with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Human dignity, human rights and LGBT equality were central to every conversation, presentation and worship service.

Sixty participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Philippines, Jamaica, Angola, Togo, Sweden, Germany, England and the United States attended the conference.

Human-Rights-Day]

Religious conservatives in the US and abroad have labeled American efforts to promote LGBT human rights overseas as imperialism. But activists at a conference coinciding with the third anniversary of a memorandum from President Obama charging US foreign policy agencies to promote LGBT rights said that US efforts have been important to activists promoting equality and facing persecution around the world. Read the Washington Blade’s report here.

On Wednesday, the Daily Beast hosted an event called Quorum: Global LGBT Voices that featured interviews with more than 25 activists from around the world to talk about “what is happening on the front lines of the global fight for equality.” Talks and panel discussions will the broadcast in the coming months. RD contributor Jay Michaelson profiled one of the participants, Cameroonian human rights attorney Alice N’kom.

The International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to add language opposing discrimination on sexual orientation to the Olympic Charter.

Vatican: Pope says Church should help parents ‘stand by’ their gay children

Pope Francis gave an interview with the Argentine daily La Nación in which he reflected on the recent synod of bishops. From the International Business Times:

“We come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires…. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with the Argentine daily La Nación. While it is important to find ways to welcome gay Catholics, gay marriage is still not on the church’s agenda, Francis said.”

Jamaica: More US conservatives back anti-gay organizing

As we have reported before, American religious conservatives have been actively opposing efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Jamaica. Last weekend, Liberty Counsel chair Mat Staver and anti-gay author Judith Reisman were the latest to attend an anti-gay event that, in Orwellian fashion, was called the International Human Rights Conference. The conference was hosted by the Jamaica Coalition for a Health Society. Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch reports:

The groups organizing the conference have opposed efforts to overturn the country’s anti-sodomy laws, which impose up to 10 years imprisonment for gay sex. Jamaica CAUSE, a cosponsor, organized rallies earlier this year to oppose an effort to overturn the law. The main sponsor, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, also supports keeping the laws. On its website, JCHS provides a document called “Frequently Asked Questions About The Buggery Law” that attributes homosexuality to “economic reasons, direct Satanic influence, media and entertainment enticement, and experiences during incarceration” and cautions, “If determining human rights is separated from morality and based on individual freedom without any restraints, all perversions will in due time become ‘rights’.”

The Washington Blade reports:

The Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and Jamaica CAUSE are also organizing a rally at a Kingston park on Dec. 10 that will coincide with International Human Rights Day. They describe the event as “an evening of song, dance and poetry celebrating God the giver of perfect law and rights.”

Recently, Grace Phelps-Roper, a former member of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and a granddaughter of its founder, traveled to Jamaica with the group Planting Peace, reports Metro Weekly, “to learn about the plight of LGBT people there.”

“I spent twenty years learning why God hates gays, preaching that they’re ‘beasts’ and ‘depraved,’ and protesting anyone who dared to speak up for them,” Phelps stated. “When I heard about the young people living in Jamaican sewers because their parents kicked them out for being gay, my heart hurt for them. I know what that’s like, being rejected by your family for not going along with their beliefs. There’s an irony there that I couldn’t ignore: that I share a fate with the very people I was taught to dehumanize so fiercely. I wanted to meet them, to see their plight for myself, and help tell the world their story.”

An Anglican priest who invited LGBT people to attend his service in commemoration of Human Rights Day, and washed the feet of two lesbians, is reportedly facing some backlash from his congregation and “questions” from the Jamaica Council of Churches.

Gambia: President whips up anti-gay sentiment with public rally

Gambian political leaders stepped up their ongoing campaign against LGBT people this week. President Jammeh was among thousands of Gambians who took part in a march to denounce homosexuality. Marchers also criticized attempts by donor nations to promote LGBT rights. From a report in the Daily Observer in Banjul:

Protesters, who started the procession at the National Assembly through State House carried placards and banners bearing; “Homosexuality is Inhuman”; “Even cows don’t do it!” “Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam”. It was calculated move by the demonstrators in a way to show to Gambian development partners and the rest of the world that the West African nation is one of God-fearing people who will under no circumstances accept homosexuality, lesbianism and the likes.

At the July 22nd Square in Banjul where demonstrators gathered to mark the end of the procession, a petition against homosexualism was read on behalf of protesters by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government, Saihou Sanyang.

It reads: “Your Excellency Mr. President, it is important to contextualise such a lofty statesmanship within the overall provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia 1997. This, in clear terms and provisions has stipulated that The Gambia is an independent sovereign state on equal status with all other nations irrespective of geographic size, economic or political might or wherewithal.

It is on the basis of principles of the equality, self-determination, and mutual co-existence that our foreign policies, which are but extensions of our domestic policies, are based. It is important to state that the spirit of the Constitution irrespective of its legalistic architecture in both its totality and otherwise is not the voice of the philosophical, religious, ethical, moral, and social values. As a country of religious people who live by the dictate of Allah as commanded in the religious preachings and their protractors, the stance on the principle of secularity in no way admits or accepts the principle to immoralities.

“Your Excellency Mr. President, it goes without saying that our intolerance with the unnatural and abominable malpractices of homosexuality and lesbianism on the one hand, and the other, our government’s position are not negotiable. It is on the basis of such religious, social, moral and ethical upbringing built on high moral grounds that we stand by our government’s position to zero tolerance to either homosexuality or lesbianism or both. There shall not be any turning point and that the people are ready for eventuals in good defence of the people and country’s independence”.

Russia: ‘Pro-Family’ allies promote Putin’s geopolitical agenda

BuzzFeed reported this week that, according to leaked emails between right-wing activists, “Russian nationalists and social conservatives appear to be working together to use links with ‘pro-family’ organizations in the U.S. and around the world to promote Russia’s geopolitical agenda.” The leaked emails include documents related to the “pro-family” summit held in Moscow in September which American religious conservatives helped organize and participated in.

The spreadsheet shows confirmed attendance at the conference “gala” from government officials, religious leaders, and activists from around 50 countries. These include France’s Aymeric Chauprade — a member of the European Parliament from the far-right Front National party — the Hungarian Minister of State for Family Affairs Katalin Veresné Novák, and Kyrgyzstan’s First Lady, Raisa Atambaeva. The guest list notes that several members of parliament from European countries had been “recommended” for the event by Russian MP Yelena Mizulina, author of the so-called “gay propaganda” law. Nineteen are identified as coming from the United States — including the National Organization of Marriage’s Brian Brown — most of whom were “recommended” by the World Congress of Families….

Russians invited include Igor Shchegolev – a senior aide to Putin – and Father Tikhon, an Orthodox monk said to be Putin’s confessor, but the list including their names does not indicate whether they accepted the invitation.

Chile: Marriage equality bill introduced

The Washington Blade’s Michael Lavers reports that lawmakers in Chile introduced a bill to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“With this bill we are looking to eradicate the historic discrimination that affects people simply for loving and living with someone of the same sex,” said the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation in its press release. “Respect for family diversity is at the heart of this bill that we celebrate with backing throughout the political world and also with the broad support of citizen organizations.”

The same-sex marriage bill’s introduction comes against the backdrop of the ongoing debate on a separate measure that would allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

Egypt: Anti-gay persecution cheered on by tabloid TV

We have been reporting on Egyptian officials using anti-gay persecution as political distraction and a way to mollify Islamist factions. Morals police reportedly arrested men at a Cairo bathhouse on Sunday and accused them of “perversions.” A reporter for a pro-regime TV channel that instigated the raid gloated over the arrest and posted photographs of the men on Facebook. At the Guardian, Brian Whitaker examines the ways Egyptian governments have made political use out of anti-gay persecution, “even though homosexuality is not actually illegal in Egypt.” He recounts the Mubarak regime’s use of sensational trials as a diversion from economic and political problems and concludes, “It seems very likely that the crackdown under President al-Sisi is occurring for similar reasons: to distract attention from bigger issues, to show that while suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood the regime is still capable of playing the ‘morality’ card, or a combination of both.”

United Kingdom: Activists resist deportation of Ugandan lesbian

Activists in the UK continue to press the case of a lesbian seeking asylum in the country who won a last-minute, but possibly temporary, reprieve from deportation to Uganda this week. She told PinkNews that she would rather die in a British detention center than be returned to Uganda. “Campaigners say Ms Twikireze was forced to undergo ‘a torturous exorcism’ ritual in Uganda as a young child in a bid to ‘cure’ her from being gay.”

A Catholic monk who is the director of a Scotland-based charity was arrested for distributing anti-gay leaflets in Cambridge.

Japan: Zen Buddhist temple offers same-sex couples symbolic wedding ceremonies

Japan does not legally recognize marriage by same-sex couples, but a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto offers symbolic ceremonies. The Advocate notes that the temple’s website includes this statement:

“Shunkoin Temple is against any forms of ‘Human Rights Violations’ in the world. No religion teaches how to hate others. Religion teaches how to love and respect others.”

Scotland: Episcopal Church warns priests away from soon-to-be-legal marriages

The Scottish Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops warned its clergy that even though same-sex couples will be able to legally marry on December 31, the church does not permit clergy to perform or enter into a same-sex marriage.

South Korea: Protesters occupy city hall after nondiscrimination charter dropped

LGBT protesters occupied City Hall in Seoul this week after the government dropped plans to enact a human rights charter that would have banned anti-gay discrimination. According to Pink News, the charter was to have been enacted on Human Rights Day – December 10 – but “after it picked up flack from church groups and conservatives, the planned charter was postponed indefinitely.”

New Zealand: first gay judge on high court

Matthew Muir has become the first openly gay member of the country’s highest court.

Australia: Gay man becomes chief minister of capital territory

Andrew Barr was appointed Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, making him the country’s first openly gay government leader.

PRA addition:

United Nations Panel Speaks on African LGBTQ People

Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, senior religion and sexuality researcher at Political Research Associates, spoke on a panel at the United Nations about the struggle of the African LGBTQ community. Video of the panel is available here.

Defending the “traditional family” has come to mean demonizing sexual minorities. Not long ago, people who looked like me were considered less human, and millions were exported as natural goods across the world. But the people of good conscience stood up, and forced the world to demand justice for the entire human family and not just for the chosen few. Love is a human and family value, it ought not to be a crime—it is an intrinsic value inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their humanity. It is to force them into hating themselves as well as life denying situations and ultimately sentencing them to death!

We all have the duty to defend the family! Like the rainbow, our human family has always being diverse! Persecution, rejection and demonization of LGBTQ persons weaken the family—it doesn’t protect or strengthen it. We are one human family—black, white, Latinos, yellow,  straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender—we all have a special place in the human family.

It is this family value we must all defend and protect! 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 sympathy, special rights or benefits—they are just taking their own place at the family table. They want the ability to live, love and to be loved without fear of 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!

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Kapya Kaoma Speaks at United Nations About LGBTQ Africans’ Struggle

On last week’s Human Rights Day (Dec 10), PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma spoke on a panel at the United Nations about LGBTQ and intersex people’s experience of family and the role of the family in the fight for equality.

Below are an excerpt of his remarks, and full video of the “Love is a family value: Supporting all families and family members” panel.

Defending the “traditional family” has come to mean demonizing sexual minorities. Not long ago, people who looked like me were considered less human, and millions were exported as natural goods across the world. But the people of good conscience stood up, and forced the world to demand justice for the entire human family and not just for the chosen few. Love is a human and family value, it ought not to be a crime—it is an intrinsic value inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their humanity. It is to force them into hating themselves as well as life denying situations and ultimately sentencing them to death!

PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

We all have the duty to defend the family! Like the rainbow, our human family has always being diverse! Persecution, rejection and demonization of LGBTQ persons weaken the family—it doesn’t protect or strengthen it. We are one human family—black, white, Latinos, yellow,  straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender—we all have a special place in the human family.

It is this family value we must all defend and protect! 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 sympathy, special rights or benefits—they are just taking their own place at the family table. They want the ability to live, love and to be loved without fear of 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!

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Old Time Revisionism—Southern Baptists Seek to Redefine Separation of Church and State

A conference at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC a few months ago provided a platform to launch a trial balloon for revising the Christian Right’s contentious and often bizarre approach to separation of church and state. Russell Moore, head of the powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told participant at AEI’s first Evangelical Leadership Summit that they need to “reclaim” the phrase “separation of church and state,” a term he admitted that “we long ago tossed overboard.”

This is a development worth exploring in some detail.

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The Baptist Press reported that Moore declared that separation of church and state “does not mean secularization.” Rather, “It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience …” It’s a variation on the old Manichean framing, pitting religion vs. the secular—as if they were mutually exclusive ideas.

Historically, the separation of church and state has been considered to be a necessary prerequisite for the true meaning of religious liberty. The Framers of the Constitution recognized that creating a new nation would require finding a way for people of all faiths (as well as those with no faith) to live in peace and be treated as equals. (Given the history of religious warfare, bigotry, and persecution, that was a tall order, and we are clearly still working on it.)

The secular state does not mean a place where there are no religious people, nor is it opposed to religion generally or to any particular religion, and it is certainly not seeking “lordship” over anyone’s consciences. Rather, the secular state is intended to be neutral in matters of religion—allowing every citizen the freedom to choose for themselves what they will or will not believe in.

And this is where Moore’s argument gets even more slippery.

Moore’s SBC, in alliance with the Roman Catholic bishops, and bodies of conservative evangelicalism, are seeking to craft zones of exemption from reasonable public policies, as we saw in the Hobby Lobby case, and in the introduction of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (crafted in part by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF) in the states, which seek to limit the scope of LGBTQ civil rights, especially marriage equality.

Historically, religious liberty (or religious freedom) and separation of church and state are about the guarantee of the right of individual conscience, against the excesses of both the state and powerful religious institutions.

Thus it is important to note that what the SBC and the wider Christian Right has “tossed overboard”, is actually the traditional Baptist understanding of the term. Before it departed in the wake of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, the SBC was a member of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Today, the Joint Committee represents 15 Baptist entities in Washington, DC (which takes no position on marriage equality) and summarizes the traditional Baptist view:

“Baptists have valued religious freedom and separation of church and state because they suffered the hard lessons of history. From jail cells in England to stockades in Massachusetts Bay to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution — the heartache and bloodshed caused by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.”

“[R]eligious liberty,” the Joint Committee concludes, “is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other. Separation has been good for both church and state.”

Interestingly, Moore also took a more nuanced view of Islam than some of his co-belligerents on the Christian Right, while simultaneously suggesting that the common enemy is actually secular government, which he sees as a religion unto itself.

Moore says that conservative evangelicals, for example, do not have to agree with Islam to oppose local governmental efforts to zone “a mosque out of existence.” But they should do so in order to oppose the “power to the mayor and the city council to hand down theological edicts.” If city government can zone one group out of town “on the basis of what they believe,” Moore insists, “[it] will in the fullness of time drive us all out.”

These are the types of clever arguments that are going to continue to be the stuff of politics for the foreseeable future. But they are a contemporary twist on the same hoary old casting of secular government as the anti-religious devil out to squash all religious expression and to drive institutions from the public square.

One-time Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson claimed in 1993 that the “radical left … kept us in submission because they have talked about the separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Of course, SBC Baptists have not been alone in making outlandish claims. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a conservative Catholic, recently distinguished himself by claiming “the words ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the U.S. Constitution, but it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. That’s where it very, very comfortably sat, not in ours.”  Santorum and his ilk are correct that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but the principle certainly is. The U.S. Supreme Court has found it to be a useful and authoritative shorthand phrase to describe the Constitution’s approach to religion and government.

History is Powerful

The battle for the story of religion in America has been a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the so-called culture wars. But Brent Walker of the Joint Committee, for one, has taken on the man who is arguably the leading culture warrior of Christian historical revisionism, David Barton. He notably debunked Barton’s claim that when Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “separation of church and state” in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, Jefferson meant that there is a “one directional wall”—to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.

Walker wrote that “there is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that” Jefferson thought of the wall of separation between church and state as being “one directional.” In any case, Walker wrote, “most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa.”

Russell Moore, nevertheless, sounded decidedly Bartonesque when earlier this year he argued “…that the state has no business in recreating marriage.” He failed to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is sacred in other religious traditions, while urging the federal government to enforce his particular notion of religious marriage, “by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.”

But he then raised one of the wild bogeyman of the debate about marriage equality—that the government would compel a church to marry someone against their will.

“If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let’s obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block.”

It is easy for Moore and his ilk to suggest that Christian martyrs should go to prison out of principle—for something that has never happened and that no has argued should.  But there are a lot of religious and non-religious Americans who are fighting every day for the rights of all, and not just their favorite brands—including a lot of Baptists and, as Jefferson once put it, “Infidels of every Denomination,” and even Moore’s much derided secularists.

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Rick Warren’s Mental Health Program Praised by NYT—Despite Ex-Gay Therapy

Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his fellow conservative evangelical leaders are receiving a lot of fame and attention for their new commitment to providing professional services to those with mental health issues. It’s a long overdue conversation, considering that nearly half of all evangelicals reportedly believe mental illness can be cured through prayer and scripture study alone. But while the news media may lavish them with praise, Warren’s programs still put emphasis on discredited and dangerous “ex-gay therapy” for LGBTQ people.

ex-gay protester

In an article praising Rick and Kay Warren for their new endeavor, the New York Times says:

The Warrens have campaigned for mental health treatment among evangelicals. This spring Saddleback, along with the local Roman Catholic diocese and a mental health advocacy organization, held its first conference about mental illness and faith. Some 2,000 people attended, including 600 pastors.

The church’s website now points worshipers to resources for addiction and mental health. Officials at Saddleback have met with the leadership of an evangelical Christian university to create a program that educates students about mental health. This month, Saddleback held its first gathering for members whose loved ones committed suicide. In January, it will sponsor a weekend addressing suicide prevention in adolescents.

However, nowhere in the article does it mention that dark side of the Warrens’ program. PRA gender justice researcher Cole Parke recently explained:

Warren’s conference was arguably intended to address these attitudes and misperceptions surrounding the need for comprehensive, professional medical and therapeutic approaches to healing and wellness…

The catch, though, is that what Warren considers to be “professional approaches to mental health and healing” includes certain approaches that perpetuate hurt and harm rather than work to combat it, and that rely on homophobic “science” and a conservative Christian worldview. The most worrisome example is Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, offering support to people struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as a wide range of other issues, including codependency, depression, eating disorders, gambling, and sexual abuse. Yet some churches’ volunteer leaders also offer “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction”—the solution to which, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”

Additionally, conservative evangelical commitment and support for these dangerous techniques isn’t limited to the United States. U.S. culture warriors have been documented promoting the use of the practice across Africa. PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, has written extensively about how so-called “conversion therapy” is critical to the agenda of the U.S. Religious Right in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, allowing them to advance anti-LGBTQ legislative packages (such as the “Kill the Gays Bill” in Uganda) by propagating myths about choice and curability regarding LGBTQ people.

Speaking at the golden jubilee celebrations of St. Stephen’s Church in Uganda on November 30, [Uganda’s Speaker of the Parliament Rebecca] Kadaga repeated the U.S. culture warriors’ claim that “computers and books donated to (underfunded and technology starved) schools are installed with software and literature that promote homosexuality in the institutions.” She went on to say, “Homosexuals are recruiting members of religious institutions,” and homosexuals are now “adopting” vulnerable children and turning them gay. “Be very careful because gays are here to distort our heritage. We have discovered that they adopt our children and confine them in gay communities abroad to train them on gay practices. By the time they come back home, they are already influenced by homosexuality and are used to influence others in the community,” Kadaga told her audience.

It may be laudable for these conservative religious leaders to take a more active stance promoting professional mental health care for those in need. But we must recognize that for Warren and these other culture warriors, any good they are doing is dangerously tainted by their continued acceptance of practices which the United Nations Committee on Torture is investigating, and much of the Western world is focused on outlawing.

As Cole Parke concluded, “Health care—including care for mental illness—is a human right. So, too, is the right to live freely and fully regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But until Rick Warren affirms both of these human rights, my own ‘faith’ in Saddleback’s efforts to address mental health remains limited at best.”

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Top Uganda Politician: Western Gays Adopting Children to Turn Them Gay

As Uganda awaits the passage of the new Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Speaker of the Parliament Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, one the nation’s biggest political powerhouses, is ramping up her U.S. conservative-fed talking points. Her recent speech resulted in a headline in The Uganda Daily Monitor reading, “Gay groups targeting church leaders, schools – Kadaga.”

Uganda's Speaker of the Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga

Uganda’s Speaker of the Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga

Speaking at the golden jubilee celebrations of St. Stephen’s Church in Uganda on November 30, Kadaga repeated the U.S. culture warriors’ claim that “computers and books donated to (underfunded and technology starved) schools are installed with software and literature that promote homosexuality in the institutions.” She went on to say, “Homosexuals are recruiting members of religious institutions,” and homosexuals are now “adopting” vulnerable children and turning them gay. “Be very careful because gays are here to distort our heritage. We have discovered that they adopt our children and confine them in gay communities abroad to train them on gay practices. By the time they come back home, they are already influenced by homosexuality and are used to influence others in the community,” Kadaga told her audience.

As Speaker of the Parliament, Kadaga’s words ought to be taken seriously. Being one of the most powerful people in Uganda, she holds the key to the new Anti-Homosexuality Bill which has potential to destroy countless families if passed into law.

Since coming to power in 2011, Kadaga has become the center of the government’s power structure and a fierce campaigner of anti-gay laws. In 2012, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird confronted Kadaga about Uganda’s record on human and sexual rights during the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Quebec, Canada. Kadaga rebuffed Baird’s pleas for a fair treatment of LGBTQ Ugandans, saying “If homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it. We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada.” She went on to promise to pass the infamous Anti Homosexuality Bill 2009.

The original Anti Homosexuality Act (formerly known as the “Kill the Gays” bill) was signed into law in February of 2014, before being struck down by the court for a procedural violation during the Parliament’s vote. Since then, Kadaga has surpassed Uganda president Yoweri Museveni in her zeal to fight homosexuality and “protect” Uganda’s heritage.

But the power of Kadaga stems from her close ties with both the U.S. conservative evangelicals and anti-gay pastors such as Martin Ssempa. Aside from receiving conservative funding from U.S. culture warriors, these vitriolic pastors won’t rest until Kadaga gives them the new anti-gay law, which includes prison sentences up to 15 years for LGBTQ Ugandans, human rights advocates and straight allies.

Kadaga’s claim about computers and books being used to promote homosexuality are direct quotes from claims that have been made by U.S. conservatives such as Scott Lively and Lou Engle during their visits to Uganda.

In fact, Lively used this claim in 2009 to lobby Ugandan parents to reject UNICEF’s books. He later described the effort, saying “On the TV show we exposed a book distributed to schools by UNICEF that normalizes homosexuality to teenagers. (We expect a massive protest by parents, who are mostly not aware that such materials even exist in their country, let alone in their childrens’ classrooms.)”

Likewise, Lou Engle said Uganda must oppose UNICEF “at all costs.” And Sharon Slater, co-founder of Family Watch International, making similar accusations about the United Nations itself.

Moreover, Kadaga’s claim that religious leaders are being recruited by western homosexuals should not be viewed as something new either. The same claims were made during the now-infamous March, 2009, Anti-Gay Strategic Meeting at Triangle Hotel in Kampala. In October 2012, the court convicted six of Speaker Kadaga’s friends—among them were Martin Ssempa and Solomon Male—for character assassination of Ugandan Pastor Kayanja. Each were sentenced to either six months in prison or a fine of Shs1 million (about $400 U.S.) and 100 hours of community service. They all chose the latter.

Reading between the lines, there is another aspect to Kadaga’s claims—the changing religious landscape of Africa’s homophobia. After many unchallenged years of demonizing sexual minorities and human rights activists by U.S. culture warriors and their African allies, pro-human rights clergy are growing slowly on the continent. Many are realizing that the U.S.-born campaigns of demonization and violence against sexual minorities goes against their religious convictions. As the KwaZulu Natal Declaration showed, some African clergy opposed to the violent persecution of sexual minorities are now speaking out. In almost all Sub-Saharan African countries, religious voices against hate are slowly emerging. Since these leaders are preaching love and acceptance of sexual minorities as opposed to hatred, anti-gay pastors’ voices are now being challenged. To dismiss their critical voices, they are being branded as homosexuals themselves. African anti-gay pastors and their U.S. Right allies have entirely branded affirming Religious leaders such as Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo of Uganda, Revds. MacDonald Sembereka of Malawi, Benebo Fubara-Manuel of Nigeria, Michael Kimindu of Kenya, this author, and many others as homosexuals. Regardless, their numbers are growing—forcing anti-gay pastors and their Western allies into social panic.

Kadaga’s claim to have discovered Western homosexuals adopting African children and “confining them in gay communities abroad to train them on gay practices” is certainly a new low in her attempts to vilify LGBTQ people. Kadaga does not, of course, have any evidence for such claims—it is just another way anti-gay groups incite hatred against gay communities. African sexual minorities and their allies are also frequently accused of receiving “millions of dollars” to recruit people into homosexuality. The reality, however, being that the majority of LGBTQ people in Africa live in extreme poverty.

It is interesting that Speaker Kadaga, and not President Museveni, made these claims about LGBTQ Ugandans at this particular religious event—the space Museveni has usually used to demonize gays in the past. Does this suggest that Museveni would veto the new Anti Homosexuality bill?

Museveni may wish to veto the legislation when the Parliament inevitably passes it again—this time without the procedural mistake—in order to save face with the international community and preserve the country’s approximately $118 Million in foreign aid Uganda receives each year. With Kadaga on the helm, however, the Parliament could easily override the veto by simply passing the bill two more times. This backs Museveni into a no-win situation. As for Kadaga, she would emerge as a hero—as she did it in 2012, 2013, and 2014 when she used her position to challenge the West, pass the Bill and force Museveni to sign it into law.

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TDOR 2014 and the Right-Wing Roots of Anti-Trans Violence

Since 1999, Nov. 20th has been set aside as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). TDOR provides space to remember and honor those who have been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The annual event originated when trans activists and allies came together to mourn the loss of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was brutally murdered in Allston, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, 1998. Beyond a few transphobic mentions in the local media (the Boston Globe referred to Hester as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes,” while the Boston Herald called her a “transvestite” and “a large man who lived as a woman”), her death garnered little attention, let alone outrage.

transgender day of remembrance PRA

While significant legal advances have been made for the LGBTQ community in the 15 years since Hester’s murder, trans people continue to experience horrific and disproportionate rates of violence. As the official TDOR website states:

“We live in times more sensitive than ever to hatred based violence, especially since the events of September 11th. Yet even now, the deaths of those based on anti-transgender hatred or prejudice are largely ignored. Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating.”

Yet most media outlets, policymakers, and even the mainstream LG(BTQ) movement, have a long history—that continues to this day—of marginalizing the experiences, contributions, and needs of transgender people and people of color. The 1969 Stonewall Riots—often considered a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history—are frequently claimed by White, gay men as a triumph of their own doing, even though it was primarily trans women of color and homeless youth who led the charge. And whereas Rita Hester’s murder in 1998 was largely ignored, the murder of Matthew Shepard—a young, White, gay man—just two weeks later prompted nationwide vigils and helped lead to the eventual passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The legislation expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

Indeed, disregard for the role of trans people and people of color has plagued the LGBTQ justice movement since its earliest days. Meanwhile, these are the members of our community who bear the brunt of the violence and oppression directed toward LGBTQ people.  In its annual report on hate-violence experienced by LGBTQ and HIV-affected persons in the United States, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) documented more than 2,000 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2013, and 18 hate-violence homicides. NCAVP’s findings also reflect the disproportionate impact of this violence: almost three-quarters (72%) of the documented homicide victims were trans women, and more than two-thirds (67%) were trans women of color.

TDOR interrupts this pattern of neglect, insisting that the LGBTQ movement—as well as our broader communities—acknowledge and mourn these lives.

Who Are The Architects of Anti-Trans Violence?

To a certain extent, talking about violence against trans people as a “hate crime” abstracts it from any social or political context, and suggests that these attacks are isolated incidents caused by rogue individuals. As Kay Whitlock has argued in a PRA discussion paper:

“While the hate frame may be powerful in terms of increasing awareness and mobilizing opposition to the threatening, violent actions of individuals and small groups directed against targeted communities, it also, paradoxically, obscures the relationship of such violence to its systemic underpinnings […] It’s so much easier to place the blame for violence directed against entire groups on criminal misfits, loners, and crackpots than to challenge the unspoken public consensus that permits broader cultures and structures of violence to exist.”

And so we must acknowledge—and then challenge—the architects responsible for manufacturing and perpetuating a cultural climate that justifies violence against trans and gender nonconforming people. 

Christian Right Church Leaders

Earlier this year, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June signed a “Declaration on Transgender Identity.” With 16-plus million members, SBC is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States (in terms of Christian organizations, only the Catholic Church manages to outnumber them). Consequently, SBC’s policy decisions carry tremendous influence.

Unfortunately, the declaration was far from affirming. It states that trans and intersex people are manifestations of “human fallenness” and “contrary to God’s design.” The resolution notes that SBC condemns “acts of abuse or bullying” (unlike many of the document’s other proclamations, the authors couldn’t seem to find any scriptural backing for this piece), but they are quick to note that SBC also opposes hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery, as well as any legislative or cultural efforts to validate trans people as “morally praiseworthy.”

SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hosted a conference last month on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” At the event, ERLC president Russell Moore—who was recently invited by the Vatican to speak at a conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman”—took the opportunity to offer advice to pastors ministering to trans people during a live “Questions & Ethics” session, saying “The people who are coming to you—that biologically male person who says ‘I think I’m a woman,’ or vice versa—that person really experiences that and believes that. … You don’t have to agree with that at all, and I would say we can’t. The Bible teaches us that God created us male and female.”

Right-Wing Parachurch Organizations

Focus on the Family explicitly opposes “the celebration of ‘transgenderism’ as one of God’s gifts.”

On its website, FOTF explains its position: “Because ‘transgenderism’ violates God’s intentional design for sex and sexuality, we believe that this is a cultural and theological battle that we must engage and win. The modern ‘transgender’ movement is systematically working to dismantle the concept of gender as the Bible and the world have always known it to be. If the transgender lobby succeeds, there will be striking consequences for marriage, family and society at large.” Those who fail to follow FOTF’s guidance are told, “[T]he problems associated with transgenderism, like confusion and pain, stem from a lack of parental involvement and guidance.”

Right-Wing Think Tanks & Legal Lobbyists

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), a right-wing legal ministry committed to “religious freedom,” has recently taken up the cause of isolating and shaming transgender students. Arguing against a Massachusetts school’s 2013 decision to allow transgender students to access facilities and recreation activities that aligned with their gender identity, ADF’s Jeremy Tedesco warned the policy created “an atmosphere that could result in sexual assaults committed by minors.”

In letters delivered last month to similarly progressive schools in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, ADF suggested that creating inclusive policies for transgender students would “seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ right of conscience, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning.”

The Family Research Council, a right-wing lobby group based in Washington, DC, similarly argues that gender identity protections would “purposefully threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek.”

Concerned Women for America has warned its members that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—legislation that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—could force “Christian businessmen” to allow transgender employees to wear male and female clothing alternately, and could “open bathroom doors for predators throughout the nation.”

As Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, put it, “These bills or policies are gifts to predators![emphasis his].

What’s Next?

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and co-author of the SBC’s anti-trans declaration, has warned that the trans justice movement is “the next phase of the LGBT revolution.” In actuality, the mainstream gay rights movement is already demonstrating a preference for other, international priorities in the post-marriage equality era.

Rita Hester

Rita Hester

Nonetheless, with leaders on the Right conceding defeat on the marriage front, we can expect to see them turning their sights toward other battlefronts, particularly ones they perceive to be winnable.

While it may seem that the trans community is that vulnerable, “winnable” target, what the Right doesn’t recognize is that the power of the gay rights movement—a movement that most would say has beaten the Right—was fueled first by trans women of color. These women—who find themselves at the nexus of White supremacy and heteropatriarchy—were fighting long before Stonewall, and they’ll continue fighting long after Gay Inc. closes its doors. They are fierce and formidable, and, as the Right will soon learn, they are undefeatable.

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U.N. Condemns “Conversion Therapy,” But U.S. Right Continues Promoting in Africa

This week, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) took the historic step of expressing concern about “conversion therapy,” also known as “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy. But while much of the Western world is taking steps to eradicate the barbaric practice, U.S. conservatives are doing everything they can to spread the anti-LGBTQ practice in Africa.

ex-gay protester

PRA’s senior researcher for religion and sexuality, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, wrote an article last month documenting how these U.S. culture war-exporters are increasingly turning to “ex-gay therapy” in African countries as a strategy to advance their propaganda that being gay is a choice—a critical component for them in their message to falsely portray Western LGBTQ people as predators invading local communities to recruit children.

Sadly, the so-called “ex-gay movement” has found a home in global evangelicalism. In October, 2010, in Cape Town, South Africa, 4,000 global evangelical leaders from 198 countries convened for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization—the biggest gathering of global evangelical leaders in modern history. Among the attendees were members of Exodus Global Alliance (EGA), a network of “ex-gay” groups. The Alliance was tasked with leading a discussion on “Sexuality, Truth, and Grace.” In its presentations, EGA argued that “compassionate” conversion therapy and prayers for LGBTQ people were the best approaches to homosexuality.

Human rights groups lauded CAT’s advancement of the discussion. The National Center for Lesbian Rights’ (NCLR) #BornPerfect campaign sent survivors of the dangerous conversion practices to testify before the committee. “Today, for the first time, a United Nations committee recognized that conversion therapy is an issue of international human rights,” said Samantha Ames, NCLR’s #BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator. “We are incredibly grateful to the Committee Against Torture for raising up the voices of conversion therapy survivors, and ensuring their suffering is finally being vindicated.”

Dr. Mike Davidson, director of a UK-based conversion therapy group called Core Issues Trust, responded to the U.N. advancement saying “This is a stark reminder of the determination of a certain lobby, driven by a radical ideological agenda, to close down options for those facing unwanted same-sex attraction.”

Despite no cases of ex-gay therapy ever having successfully been proven to alter sexual orientation, andDavidson added “Science and experience demonstrate that help with unwanted same-sex attraction can be effective and is far from harmful.”

But while major success against the practice of attempting to alter and change a person’s innate sexual orientation have been piling up over the past few years—the prominent ex-gay therapy group Exodus International shut down in 2013 after apologizing for promoting the debunked practice, and several U.S. states have now banned the “therapy” from being performed on minors—those successes have not translated to non-Western nations.

Kaoma continues:

The plea to “help gays escape” homosexuality is perhaps the most commonly repeated mantra across the African continent. From vicious anti-LGBTQ figures such as Martin Ssempa of Uganda, to ostensibly more respectable evangelical leaders such as Rev. Pukuta Mwanza (Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia), religious leaders endorse prayers and counseling as an answer to homosexuality. Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion) telling Zambians that homosexuality is a global and human rights issue, Rev. Mwanza (who spoke afterwards) asked LGBTQ persons to seek “spiritual help and prayers” from the Church. In his judgment, the church is the hospital for African gays—if they accept to be “cured.”

This characterization of LGBTQ people as “sick” and in need of healing is also used to jail those who are perceived to be “against the cure.” Anti-LGBTQ leaders argue that allowing sexual minorities to live among the public will not only pollute the social life of communities, but also pose a risk to public health and must be forced into therapy, locked up, and/or forced to live in exile. “The choice is theirs!”

Worse still, based on the conviction of the validity of reparative therapy bolstered by U.S. conservative evangelical talking points, some advocate policies that outlaw homosexuality and even allow forced therapy.

American Culture Warriors Book CoverTo learn more about how U.S. conservative Evangelicals are exporting the culture wars to Uganda, Nigeria, and other African nations—and what you can do to stop it—read American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism.

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Uganda’s New Anti-Gay Law A Copy of U.S. Right-Backed Laws in Russia/Nigeria

Reports of the new anti-gay bill—“Prohibition of the Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill of 2014” being considered in Uganda have caught the world unaware. Supporters of Uganda’s LGBTQ community had hoped that the Uganda court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA, formerly known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”), as well as president Yoweri Museveni’s subsequent meetings with President Obama at the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, had buried the tide of anti-LGBTQ persecution in Uganda. But, then the news came—the new bill is in the pipeline. Unlike the “Kill the Gays” proposal, this new potential law is a virtual copy of the recently-passed anti-gay laws in Russia and Nigeria banning recruiting into, or “promotion” of homosexuality—all guided by U.S. exporters of homophobia and sexism.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni

The new proposed law is a response to international outrage to both the death penalty and life imprisonment for homosexuality previously proposed by the country’s parliament. By tailoring down the punishment for being an LGBTQ person to 5-7 years imprisonment, the authors hope to appear more moderate and assuage some of the international outrage of their treatment of sexual minorities.

But while this new proposal is sure to draw continued (and deserved) international headlines, the Western world’s near-exclusive focus on Uganda, while ignoring identical legislation in countries like Nigeria, have left the African social justice community vulnerable to anti-gay activists. How are we, as fair-minded people, going to oppose Uganda’s latest anti-gay legislation, when the international opposition to Nigeria has been tame at best? And after the bill (likely) becomes law, there is little question that we should expect similar bills to quickly follow in many other African countries.

Following the international community’s threats of trade sanctions over the original Anti-Homosexuality Act, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni appeared to be stepping down his opposition to LGBTQ people, asking his followers to take it easy due to its impact on the national economy. But this apparent easing of his positions has quickly become transparent as little more than lip-service, when last month he oversaw the consecration of the Bishop Alfred Acur Okodi as the first Anglican Church of Uganda Bishop of West Lango in Uganda—he even donated a brand new SUV to Okodi. During his consecration, Bishop Okodi “pledged a relentless fight against homosexuality,” and argued that the court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act “only serves to clarify that the problem is beyond political solution and it’s a spiritual problem that calls for a spiritual solution.”

The global social justice community must understand that Museveni himself is now devoid of virtually all political power on this issue. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down on technical basis—the parliament did not meet its required quorum of members present during the vote—only, and not because of the merits of the law. To the anti-gay community, this problem can be resolved easily by taking the bill back to parliament or simply introducing a new bill since they have more than enough votes to pass it.

Museveni knows he must downplay any anti-gay laws if he is to keep up economic relations with the rest of the world, but at the same time, his backing away from the laws doesn’t play well with the local electorate who have been whipped into an anti-LGBTQ frenzy by the Religious Right. Museveni has been in power in Uganda for the last 28 years, but things are rapidly changing. Museveni needs the support of religious leaders in order to win the next election, but he also needs the international community, especially the United States, to legitimize his dictatorial hold on power. To please both groups—the electorate controlled by anti-gay pastors like Martin Ssempa and the international community—is a fine line to walk.

In this regard, the new bill could work to his advantage by being virtually identical to the new law in Nigeria—which raised almost no international consternation.

In his letter to the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (the real power in Uganda at this point) in December last year, Museveni explained that while he opposes the AHA, he nevertheless agreed with anti-gay activists when it comes to barring so-called “promotion,” defined as any mention whatsoever of homosexuality in a positive light in public. This bill, Museveni is likely to argue, fits into the U.S. Right’s narrative that gays are out to recruit children into homosexuality.

Museveni may want to play good politics here. But how is he going to please religious leaders (who are crucial to his hold on power), with their close ties to, and funding from, the U.S. conservative Evangelicals who were behind the creation of the “Kill the Gays” law?

Museveni may wish to veto the new anti-gay law when the Parliament inevitably passes it again—as they have pledged to do—in order to save face with the international community, and preserve the approximately $118 Million the African nation reserves in foreign aid from various Western countries. But even if he were to do so, the Parliament could easily override the veto by simply passing the bill two more times. Museveni has been backed into a no-win political corner, as he would be blamed for the loss of foreign aid if he signs the bill intolaw, but if he vetoes the (sadly) popular anti-gay legislation and is overridden by the Parliament, it would be the final nail in the coffin of his political career.

Regardless of how much he wants to present himself as a moderate to the international community, Museveni does not have the power to stop the anti-gay bill from becoming.

So what is to be done?

The anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has boiled up to the tipping point in Uganda, Nigeria, the Gambia, and so many other African countries is not native to Africa. Rather, as I discuss in American Culture Warriors in Africa, it was born in the United States. U.S conservative culture warriors such as Rick Warren, Lou Engle, Scott Lively, Sharon Slater, and others have successfully capitalized on the widespread anger and mistrust of all things Western in African nations after decades of colonization by Western governments—infiltrating local communities to export their anti-LGBTQ and anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) views in the name of religion. They have also defined Western LGBTQ people as straw men villains, who these U.S. conservatives are there to “warn” Africans about—feeding off of existing prejudices against anything Western while simultaneously neo-colonializing Africa’s values with their own Western anti-human right prejudices.

Spreading imagined and fictitious stories of Western gays infiltrating African schools and recruiting and abusing African children into “gay lifestyles” has fruitfully turned many Africans to U.S. conservative causes. And providing local religious and political leaders with funding and connections has won these U.S. conservatives a powerful crop of talking heads and decision makers who are all too willing to further the homophobic and sexist policies to please their new benefactors.

Local LGBTQ organizations that are on the ground and working day and night to educate and change hearts throughout Africa are fully capable of turning this trend around, if only the spigot of U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ and anti-women money, resources, and talking points were turned off.

While Western people of conscience should indeed take heart at the temporary push-back of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, it is imperative to triple our efforts to shed light and bring to justice the culture warriors who live in our own backyard. The only path to safety and equality for the African LGBTQ community is for Americans to stop the source of this evil where it lives, and allowing the African LGBTQ activist communities to work for change in their countries without the exportation of the culture wars from the U.S.

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Ebola: The Right’s New Code Word for Islamophobia, Homophobia, & Xenophobia

The recent Ebola cases in the U.S. have sparked popular news outlets and Religious Right leaders into an undeniable state of panic. The mention of Ebola is accompanied by an urging to close “the border,” as the U.S. Right re-employs its all-too-familiar tactic of using popular discourse as a platform for Islamophobic, racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic rhetorical shots.

A protester stands outside the White House. image via JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP

A protester stands outside the White House. image via JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP

The physical impact of the Ebola virus is well documented. According to the Center for Disease Control, there have been 1,018 deaths due to Ebola in Guinea, 2,413 deaths in Liberia, and 1,510 in Sierra Leone. In the United States, there have been only four confirmed cases, one resulting in death. As several recent articles point out, the medical effects of Ebola in the U.S. are miniscule compared to those of other common and well-known viruses, such as the flu—which results in between 3,349 – 48,614 deaths annually in the U.S.

The near ubiquitous discussion on Ebola is rarely solely comprised of statistics or its biological effects. Ebola—not the virus, but the newsworthy discussion topic—has become a cultural phenomenon acquiring meaning and consequence beyond its medical character. In approaching Ebola from a cultural lens, we expose how it has become a tool for the Right, inserted amid public discourses on race, religion, immigration, sexuality, and terrorism.

Conservative journalist Paul Sperry wrote an article in Investor’s Business Daily titled, “Islamic Burial Rituals Blamed for Spread of Ebola,” in which he states, “Islam isn’t just at the heart of the terror threat posed by the Islamic State. The religion is also contributing to the other major crisis plaguing the globe: the spread of Ebola” (emphasis added). Sperry names the religion of Islam itself as the culprit for the spread of Ebola and for the terror threat created by the self-described Islamic State, a militant Sunni Islamic group that has seized large territories in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and whose casualties are mainly made up of fellow Sunni Muslims as well as Shiite Muslims. In naming Islam itself as blameworthy for these threats, Sperry adopts several of the pillars of Islamophobic rhetoric as identified by the Runnymede Trust Report including the following beliefs: Islam is monolithic and static, Islam is completely separate from other cultures and religions, Islam is inferior to the West, Islam is a political ideology used for military advantage, and Islam is violent and in support of terrorism.

Alan Keys, a conservative political activist, former diplomat, and radio talk show host, shares a similar sentiment when he warns that Obama’s “plan to import Ebola-infected persons into the United States” will have the majority of Americans “look(ing) upon a country no longer their own.” This begs the question, whose country is it? On October 14, 2014, conservative public interest lawyer, Larry Klayman, sued the Obama administration for using the Ebola virus to further Muslim bioterrorism on “Christian and Jewish Caucasian Americans.” Klayman alleges that President Obama’s actions exposing Americans to Ebola is a “direct result of discrimination against Plaintiff [Klayman] on the basis of his Caucasian race and Jewish-Christian religion and in favor of people of the African-Black race and the Islamic religion.”

Klayman has not written a single article about the devastating number of deaths the Ebola virus has caused in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. As journalist Hannah Giorgis aptly writes in the Guardian, the “death [of Black people] is remarkable only to the extent that its perpetrator could also affect citizens more deserving of sympathy, of news coverage and of life.” Judging by the upsurge in media coverage since the documented U.S. case, Ebola was not considered a threat to most in the United States until the lives of White Americans came into question. Klayman’s answer to the presence of Ebola in the U.S. is to blame “suicide terrorists from ISIS, [and] perhaps American Muslim traitors” and to sue Obama for refusing to issue a travel ban on persons flying to the U.S. from West Africa and from “all Muslim nations where terrorists have a beachhead.” In the face of public health experts’ nearly unanimous position that a ban could increase the threat of the virus spreading, President Obama continues to undergo pressure from Capitol Hill and others to prohibit travel into the U.S. from West Africa.

Moreover, despite lacking any backing from scientists or public health officials, several conservative politicians have expanded upon these nativist fears, insisting on the urgent threat of Ebola emanating from the “porous” U.S.-Mexico border. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have all recently stated their beliefs that the U.S.-Mexico border is not secure enough to keep Ebola out of the United States. Representative Phil Gingrey (R – Georgia) agrees. In a letter to the director of the CDC, Gingrey writes, “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” To date, not a single case of Ebola has been reported in Mexico or in any Central or South American country.

While some blame the spread of Ebola on a “porous” national border, several evangelical religious leaders have recently jumped into the Ebola debate by linking the virus to LGBTQ people and to same-sex marriage, including  New York Pastor James David Manning of the ATLAH Worldwide Missionary, who cautioned the public that Starbucks coffee shops are “ground zero for Ebola,” because they attract “a large number of sodomites” interested in “clandestine sexual activities” and who “exchange a lot of body fluids.” North Carolina Pastor Ron Baity, recipient of The Family Research council’s top “pro-family” award, warns the End Times—in the form of Ebola—are now upon us in the wake of recent court actions overturning North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. Conservative Christian radio host of Trunews, Rick Wiles, is more optimistic about the effects of Ebola on the U.S., “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion.” Speaking on the causes of Ebola, Archbishop Lewis Zeigler of the Catholic Church of Liberia asserts “one of the major transgressions against God for which He may be punishing Liberia is the act of homosexuality.”

This rhetoric mirrors religious conservative statements about the LGBTQ community during the height of the AIDS crisis. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University and co-founder of the Moral Majority, famously referred to the AIDS epidemic as “the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” While Liberian and U.S. religious and political leaders publicly ponder the “threat” of the LGBTQ community on the wider public’s health, the material effects of anti-gay policies and violence against the LGBTQ community in West Africa have escalated.

Disguised as concern over public health and safety, the Right’s discourse surrounding Ebola has become a shielded arena for the propagation of xenophobic attitudes and fears. Christian Right leaders use this rhetoric to suggest that White Americans, especially Christians, are being threatened by Black West Africans, Muslim terrorists, undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, thousands of Black West Africans, many of Islamic faith, including LGBTQ people, have actually died from the physical effects of the Ebola virus.

In the U.S., the word “Ebola” has become shorthand for a migrant, racialized threat to the body, whose very mobile nature challenges imperialistic notions of distinct, self-contained, isomorphic spaces. Ebola is personified as a terrorist body that needs to be quarantined, surveilled, and banned. Its origins are constructed as “over there” (outside of the West), and its threat is felt “here.” Because it isn’t capable of self-selecting a group to be aligned with, nor a group to invade, the virus is easily linguistically detached and reattached to different populations whose bodies are associated with threatening White, Western, heterosexual citizenry.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Right’s alarmist rants over the Ebola virus as bizarre and atypical. However, the ways contagions have historically been connected to public discourses on race, religion, sexuality, and the nation suggests that the current debates on Ebola are deeply rooted and easily mobilized. Several journalists have documented  (see here, here, and here) the relationship between the over-hyped Ebola threat to Americans, and the rhetoric of hate employed by the Right which poses a real material threat to bodies constructed as “other.”

In linking the abstract threat of “otherness” with a material entity that can invade the bloodstream and alter the biological cells of the body, right-wing Ebola discourse insists upon being felt. Infected by the force of tangible fear, how will affected persons be incited into action and whose lives will they threaten?

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From Singapore to Arizona: Right-Wing Groups Invade Classrooms and Curriculum

Agatha Tan, a 17-year-old high school student in Singapore, recently attended a mandatory sex-ed class at her school. She was appalled by what was being taught, and took the opportunity to address her concerns in a Facebook post addressed to her school’s principal. “From merely glancing through this booklet,” she explained to him, “I learned a simple yet important lesson: that bigotry is very much alive and it was naïve of me to think I could be safe from it even in school.”

Tan’s post, which quickly went viral, critiqued the program’s promotion of rape culture, sexist gender stereotypes, and anti-LGBTQ perspectives. It also brought to attention the source of these messages—Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family (FOTF) is a global right-wing Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, CO. Founded by the conservative Christian psychologist James Dobson in 1977, it has grown significantly in size and influence since then. In 2012, FOTF had nearly 750 employees, revenue of nearly $91 million, and net assets of nearly $53 million. CitizenLink—the political advocacy arm of FOTF—had about 50 employees, revenue of more than $13 million, and net assets of $3.5 million.

In addition to its sprawling Colorado Springs “campus” (FOTF even has its own zip code), FOTF maintains a massive web presence and produces several programs that air on Christian radio stations globally. Some 4,000 radio and TV stations in more than 40 countries carry their broadcasts. To support these international efforts, FOTF has affiliate offices in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan.

FOTF has campaigned against LGBTQ people since its founding. The organization’s director of family formation studies, Glenn Stanton, has described homosexuality as “a particularly evil lie of Satan because he knows that it overthrows the very image of the Trinitarian God in creation, revealed in the union of male and female.” One FOTF analyst, Jeff Johnston, has described homosexuality as “Satan roam[ing] the earth like a lion, using sexual and relational brokenness to destroy individuals, families, churches, groups, [and] businesses.”

As for abortion, James Dobson says it’s “the greatest moral evil of our time.”

As Tan put it, “FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, ‘God-ordained’ beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.”

ripped bookMeanwhile, here in the U.S., a school board in Gilbert, Arizona recently voted to “edit” a high school honors biology textbook after determining that it does not align with a 2-year-old state law. Under Senate Bill 1009, which went into effect in April 2012, “no Arizona school district ‘may allow any presentation during instructional time or furnish any materials to pupils as part of any instruction that does not give preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion.'”

The textbook in question, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition), includes a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and drugs that can induce abortion. (Note: all of the information included is strictly based on medical facts and doesn’t advocate any positions on these topics.)

In this case, it was the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) that stepped in to ensure that this public school’s curriculum be restricted to only the most conservative understandings of gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

According to school board member Jill Humpherys, ADF complained about the textbook to Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto this past summer, and eventually argued their way to censorship victory—the board made its 3-2 decision after listening to a presentation from Natalie Decker, an ADF lawyer. Though Decker didn’t offer any recommendations for how exactly the book should be altered in order to be in compliance with the law, board member Daryl Colvin has an idea. “The cheapest, least disruptive way to solve the problem is to remove the page,” he said.

ADF is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, but much like FOTF, it has a global reach (made possible by its network of over 2,200 lawyers). Formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, this legal ministry committed to “religious freedom” was created in 1994 by a team of conservative Christian leaders, including FOTF’s James Dobson. Tom Minnery, FOTF’s senior vice president of government and public policy, currently sits on ADF’s board of directors.

ADF serves as a key opponent to reproductive justice efforts in the U.S., working to end what they refer to as the “premeditated murder of the helpless.” Their efforts have included lawsuits aimed at discontinuing funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, forcing young adults to obtain parental consent for abortions, and eliminating critical reproductive healthcare elements of the Affordable Care Act.

Under the leadership of president, CEO, and general counsel, Alan Sears, ADF claims to have “successfully defended marriage as the union between one man and one woman in over 40 cases nationwide.” According to their website, “Redefining marriage is ultimately part of a larger effort to redesign society in order to give social approval of homosexual behavior, and to empower social acceptance of a forgery of gender and sexual practice at odds with natural law and the faith of millions.”

FOTF, ADF, and their crew of right-wing allies are working in courtrooms and classrooms around the world to influence the policies that define the strength and extent of our freedoms. May our resistance be as bold and brilliant at Agatha Tan’s.

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