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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Grassroots anti-homophobia work in Kenya

Source: African Activist

By Rev. John Makokha

Other Sheep Kenya held a seminar on LGBTI issues, human rights, HIV/AIDS and religion in Kisumu on July 19, 2010. There were 45 participants drawn from diverse religious faith such as Christian, Muslim and African traditional religion and civil society. The purpose of the seminar was to address homophobia, reduce stigma, discrimination, and enhance tolerance towards the LGBTI community in Kenya.

Rev. John Makokha said that religious institutions and civil society movements should develop safe spaces for LGBTI community since gay rights are human rights. “Homosexuality is not a sin but heterosexism is a serious sin since it violates justice, truth and love. Discrimination breaks the heart of God”, he said.
“As a Christian leader, I felt I need to apologize to the LGBT community for the treatment they have received at the hands of Christians down the years in Africa due to homophobia and transphobia based on ignorance and bigotry”, he said.

He said that celibacy is an option to all people, and those who seek to force homosexual persons into heterosexual behavior are guilty of sexual violence and violation of human rights. Celibacy is a vocation to which one is called, not a way of life to which one is condemned. Sexual energy is not to be repressed in either heterosexuals or homosexual people unless the persons choose freely to live in that manner.

He said that research in Africa has shown that there is a deep problem to homosexuality since it is considered a spiritual disease and a curse. Conservative Christian fundamentalists and moralists in Kenya have expressed the desire to reach out to the homosexuals but to recognize that homosexuals are not part of God’s family. We have to stop both physical and spiritual violence against our brothers and sisters who are LGBTI since they did not choose to be what they are.

He said that the Bible calls us beyond human barriers and prejudices and there are stories of groups of people who were once excluded from the fullness of the church’s life. These are gentiles, Samaritans, lepers, ritually unclean persons, women, left-handed people, racial minorities and people who committed suicide. The church’s rejection of homosexual people is just one more prejudice. “I am fully persuaded that God has never been homophobic at any one time”, he said.

He said that there are those who regard homosexuality as a western perversion. There are difficulties in ascertaining this claim owing to different cultural perceptions of sexuality in Africa. However, all African communities have a descriptive vocabulary relating to what westerners would define as homosexual practice.  Anthropologists and historians remind us of women in Akamba, Luo, Kalenjin and Abagusii communities in Kenya who cohabited to found a family.

Mrs. Anne Baraza, LGBTI Counselor/CEO, Riruta United Women Empowerment Programme said that counselors need to respect the ethical issues in counseling gay and lesbian clients. “It has been noted that even well schooled counselors reject LGBTI emotionally and impose their own values to them. Working with LGBTI is a big challenge to those who hold traditional values in Africa”, she said.

She said that she is strongly persuaded and convinced from the field of modern science that a homosexual orientation is natural and a normal variation, for a minority in the population.  Homosexuality is like being left –handed which is a deviation from the norm of human life that was also once a cause for both discrimination and persecution.

On the negative position of the church on LGBTI, she said that we need to be reminded that the same church has abandoned ancient attitudes found in scripture due to new scientific discoveries and changing cultural attitudes. The suggestion that the earth is the centre of the universe around which the sun rotates is one of them. So is the legitimacy of slavery as a social institution, the second-class status of women, and the idea that epilepsy is caused by demon possession. Yet each of these issues was once supported by scriptural quotations and viewed as the will of God.

She said that five hundred years ago most Christians, based on the Bible, believed that the sun revolved around a flat earth. The church tried Galileo, condemned him for heresy in 1633, and banned his scientific discovery. In 1992, 350 years after his death, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for Galileo’s treatment by the church. “I am pleading with the church not to wait for 350 years to accept the truth on LGBTI issues”, she said.

Rev. Jackson Gachau, Acting chair of Other Sheep Kenya said that the biblical Paul believed that everyone was “straight”. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world and the Old Testament world.  It was in 1864 when a German social scientist, Karl Heinrich Ulrich discovered homosexuals as a distinct class of individuals in a given population, and that homosexual orientation is innate.

He said that the church should stop using clobber passages in the scriptures to promote hatred, discrimination and violence against LGBTI community. “I am praying that the same church could rethink about the same sex loving relationships of David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi”, he said.

Fabian Wangare, Other Sheep Kenya MSM HIV/AIDS Initiative Officer said that we cannot have an AIDS free world if we are ignoring LGBT in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. He said that as long as the church and society will continue living in denial on issues of LGBT then the infection rates would continue skyrocketing. He said that many LGBT in Kenya delay in seeking treatment from STI’s clinics due to possible embarrassment and stigmatization because of the hetero-normative sexual attitudes of the health providers.

Peter Wanyama, Other Sheep Kenya Treasurer said that religious institutions and the society should listen to LGBTI before condemning them. Most LGBTI have suffered socially, psychologically, spiritually and economically due to homophobia and transphobia. Some LGBTI are literally living in exile or closet due to fear of persecution violence spearheaded by religious leaders in some parts of Kenya.

Rena Otieno, Kinship International Coordinator in Africa said that we need concerted effort to address homophobia in Africa since it is a nightmare to the LGBTI community. “We need to stretch out the olive branch to the religious leaders”, she said.

The Other Sheep Kenya staff distributed the following handouts to the participants;
A] In the Name of God: Stop Violence! - Courtesy of GALCK
B] Kenyan Coming Out Stories: “Creating Communities of listeners”- Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz
C] Gays and the Old/New Testament- Rev. Harry Rix
D] Breaking the Silence and Elimination of stigma on LGBTI-Rev. John Makokha

Recommendations:

   1. To integrate HIV/AIDS prevention capacity building and advocacy programmes with information  on sexuality and gender identity.
   2. Training counselors and health care providers on LGBTI issues to address ignorance.
   3. To establish a functional LGBTI resource center in Kisumu for human sexuality and gender identity information and counseling.
   4. To work with the LGBTI friendly electronic and print media by disseminating skits and messages on LGBTI issues.
   5. Closer collaboration, networking and information sharing on the promotion of LGBTI and PFLAG agenda in Africa.
   6. Health professionals to have a more ethical and moral obligation to address LGBTI issues in an affirmative manner and to take the necessary steps to eliminate all forms of oppression in providing health services.
   7. Advocacy on increasing funds on sexual minority programs. To seek for more funding partners in implementing LGBTI projects.
   8. Capacity building and empowerment of sexual minorities on human rights, health and sexuality issues.  LGBTI also need serious mentorship programs since LGBTI lack role models to give direction and advice.
   9. More educational awareness seminars/workshops on LGBTI issues targeting all sectors of the society.
  10. To avail copies of the book “52 Ways to create an AIDS-free World”- By Donald Messer, Executive Director of Center for Church and Global AIDS.

This seminar was made possible with a grant from UHAI-EASHRI
The Rev. John Makokha is senior pastor of Riruta UMC in Nairobi, Kenya.
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