When I had the honor to introduce Dr. Frank Mugisha at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium a few weeks ago, I described him as a “prophet in our midst.” Why this is the case came through in his address on criminalization laws and the LGBT experience in Uganda, according to the National Catholic Reporter:
“Frank Mugisha still thinks twice before going down certain streets, into malls or nightclubs in his native Kampala, Uganda. Mugisha lives as an openly gay man in a country whose Parliament tried in 2009 to introduce a bill seeking the death penalty for homosexual acts. The bill has cost some Ugandans their life and has made many live in fear, not show up for work, and hide from family and friends. . .”
These threats, however, have not altered Mugisha’s determination to see LGBT rights expanded in Uganda and worldwide. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and winner of several other prominent human rights awards, Mugisha leads Sexual Minorities Uganda, the nation’s leading LGBT rights organization.
Mugisha shared with Symposium participants how much Uganda’s LGBT community appreciated Pope Francis’ message of love for all people during his 2015 visit to several African nations. Mugisha had contacted the Vatican to ask for a meeting with the pontiff when he visited the country. He said an assistant to Francis told Mugisha that a visit would not be possible, but that the pope planned to make clear to Uganda’s religious and political leaders that anti-gay rhetoric is unacceptable.
Though he did not speak publicly on LGBT issues, the pope’s message of love nonetheless challenged Catholics in a nation where the church remains both powerful and quite homophobic. Some church officials are still organizing to bring back the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Act. He told The National Catholic Reporter that a Ugandan prelate’s new book argues transgender people can be changed. But while Pope Francis visited, Ugandan church leaders remained quiet on the subject.
Mugisha shared how dangerous it still is to be an LGBT person in Uganda, saying, “We live every day in fear.” Last fall, he was arrested along with other people celebrating Pride, about which he explained, “We were put in police custody. Tortured. Forced to bathe in filthy water.”
Asked during a question and answer period how he sustains himself with prayer, Mugisha, a Catholic, replied, “Before I go to bed, I pray about things I care about. I ask God for help. I ask God to listen.”
Mugisha concluded with an exhortation to Symposium participants, encouraging them to be in contact with local solidarity groups as the best means of ensuring global LGBT human rights. He stated:
“I encourage you to think of any way you can support an LGBT person. Take it personally. Stand up. Speak out.”
In what is a strong display of Catholic advocacy for the human rights of gay people, the members of LGBT Catholics Westminster have rallied around a gay Ugandan who worships with them to prevent him from being deported to his native land where homosexuality is criminalized.
London’s Tablet reported that the man “faces a very high risk of being killed if he is forced to return to the place of his birth.” LGBT Catholics Westminster is the official diocesan pastoral ministry in London, approved by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Westminster Diocese.
The Tablet provided background about the man at the center of this situation:
“Godfrey Kawalya, a gay Ugandan refugee, LGBT campaigner and a member of LGBT Catholics Westminster, has been living in Britain since 2002. In Uganda, where same sex acts are illegal and punishable by life imprisonment, he says he was expelled from secondary school, sacked from his job and rejected by his family for being gay. He was also an active member of the political opposition to the current president, Yoweri Museveni.
“After he fled from Kampala to rebel-held territories in Northern Uganda, Kawalya said he was attacked and robbed, and a friend who sheltered him was killed. He escaped to Kenya with the help of some nuns and eventually made his way to England.
“In August 2015 the Home Office refused his claim for asylum on the grounds that they did not believe he was gay and because he didn’t disclose his sexuality when he first arrived. ‘I was fearful, it wasn’t easy. I don’t know why they don’t believe me’, Mr Kawalya told The Tablet.
“Several appeals have failed and Mr Kawalya has one final chance to appeal by supplying new evidence to support his case by 17 May.”
LGBT Catholics Westminster has organized a petition for UK citizens to sign, asking the British government to grant Kawalya asylum. Several Catholic leaders have already signed the petition, including Vincent Manning, chair of Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support, Ged Clapson, Jesuit Communications Officer in Britain, and Fr. Tony Nye, a pastor at Farm Street Jesuit Church in Mayfair, London, which hosts the LGBT Catholics Westminster organization.
Martin Pendergast, a leader in the LGBT Catholics group said of Kawalya’s case that “even if he were not (gay), the law takes the view that refugees who are in danger of death or persecution because they are perceived to be gay in their home country must be granted asylum.”
For more information about LGBT Catholics Westminster or to learn how to sign the petition if you are a UK citizen, visit www.lgbtcatholicswestminster.org or email email@example.com.
When people speak about appropriate Catholic pastoral ministry for LGBT people, I can think of no better example than this story of Catholics using church teaching condemning discrimination against LGBT people to help save a person’s life.
In less than two weeks, Frank Mugisha, the head of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the leading LGBT advocacy organization in that country, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 19, 2017
The leading LGBT advocate in Uganda was among those arrested on Thursday following the police raid of a Pride event.
Police arrested about 20 people while raiding Venom, a nightclub in the capital of Kampala which had been hosting the Mr. and Miss Pride Uganda pageant. Those arrested included Dr. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), reported Buzzfeed. Everyone arrested was released without charges after a few hours, and other attendees were allowed to leave after a time. But SMUG’s statement reports the violence which occurred in the interim:
“[B]eating people, humiliating people, taking pictures of LGBTI Ugandans and threatening to publish them, and confiscating cameras. Eyewitnesses reported several people—in particular transwomen and transmen—were sexually assaulted by police. One person jumped from a 4 storey window to try to avoid police abuse. This person is now in critical condition at private hospital.”
Police claimed the event did not have a permit, and there were reports of a same-gender wedding, but Pepe Julian Onziema of SMUG disputed these claims.
Pride celebrations in the capital have in large part been tolerated the last few years. Mugisha tied the raid to a broader uptick in police activity against Ugandans, in addition to targeting LGBT advocates. Pride 2016 celebrations are now being amended, including the cancellation of a planned Pride parade today because Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo threatened mob violence against any marchers.
Being openly LGBT in Uganda can be dangerous, as this incident makes clear. A report released by SMUG earlier this year, “And That’s How I Survived Being Killed: Testimonies of Human Rights Abuses from Uganda’s Sexual and Gender Minorities,” documented the persecution:
“In this report, based on first-hand testimonies, Sexual Minorities Uganda documented from May 2014 until December 2015 the physical threats, violent attacks, torture, arrest, blackmail, non-physical threats, press intrusion, state prosecution, termination of employment, loss of physical property, harassment, eviction, mob justice, and family banishment that are all too often apart of the lived experience for sexual and gender minorities in Uganda.”
There are 264 verified testimonies in all, about which Dr. Mugisha commented:
“This report is unique and unlike those that have come before it because it elevates the voice of the persecuted. What is inside this report is the human story – that is the lived experience of sexual and gender minorities in Uganda.”
Uganda is about 40% Catholic, and Mugisha’s advocacy has been directed to church leaders, as well as government officials. Mugisha challenges claims by church leaders and others that homosexuality is a Western import and that Western advocacy for LGBT Africans has triggered a backlash. He criticized Uganda’s bishops for not condemning and even supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Act, colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, proposed by President Yoweri Museveni.
Last fall, Mugisha appealed to Pope Francis for words of compassion and equality about LGBT people during the apostolic voyage to Uganda, Kenya, and Central African Republic. The pope did not address the issue. He also unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Francis, and like many LGBT advocates, was disappointed at the pope’s silence in a context where LGBT suffer greatly.
Mugisha was the recpient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2011, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
Dr. Mugisha will be a keynote speaker at New Ways Ministry’s Eight National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” If you are interested attending the Symposium to hear Dr. Mugisha, click here for more information and registration instructions.
LGBT advocates are saying Pope Francis missed an opportunity to preach tolerance and save LGBT lives because he remained silent during his Apostolic Voyage to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic which ended just over a week ago.
“. . . I feel he missed an opportunity to be specific about his stand on the issue, by publicly discussing the continued persecution of LGBT people in Uganda. . .If he’s not done it publicly in Uganda, I don’t see him doing so anywhere else.”
Onziema added he had not had much hope for positive statements because the pontiff, in his estimation, is “wishy washy” on LGBT rights.
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, had sought to meet with Pope Franci, a;ong with other LGBT advocates. He told Al Jazeera:
“Yes, I am disappointed. It would have been a very good gesture and the start of a conversation with the Catholic Church on accepting LGBTI Catholics in the Church.
“I would have told the pope that Ugandans love him so much, and so do LGBTI Ugandans, and we – all Ugandans – want the same things: to live with each other in peace. So, the churches that discriminate against us the most should preach tolerance and acceptance.”
Advocates in the U.S. echoed Onziema, Mugisha, and others’ disappointment in Pope Francis. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the Blade:
“Pope Francis usually is much more courageous and direct in confronting controversial issues, especially when bishops have acted poorly, as the Ugandan bishops have done in regard to ignoring the human rights of LGBT people.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, said Pope Francis speaking out “would have made a huge difference globally.”
While Catholic teaching disavows discrimination against LGBT people, including the criminalization of homosexuality, as Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias made clear recently, Uganda’s church leaders have acted differently.
Mugisha, who is Catholic (and was featured in Bondings 2.0‘s first Advent reflection this year for his courageous witness), explained the situation in his country which is more than 40% Catholic. He told Al Jazeera:
“Church is a place for love, for refuge and for peace and support, but that support is not given to them. They feel they have been let down by the Church a lot. . .
“The Catholic Church in Uganda has been in alliance with all the other churches in condemning and discriminating against LGBTI persons. The language that preachers use and the anti-gay statements make people who are even in the closet feel discriminated against.”
Thes discrimination and violence, fueled by Catholic and U.S.-based Evangelical churches includes “hate crimes, arrest, blackmail and extortion, public humiliation” and being outed in the media. Additionally, in Uganda, a highly religious nation, lacking affiliation with a church can exclude one from society at large. Mugisha revealed discrimination he faces specifically in the Catholic Church, saying priests will preach against homosexuality if they know he is attending Mass.
But this high religiosity also means that Ugandans listen closely to Pope Francis’ words. If he had spoken out, they would have taken a message of tolerance towards LGBT people “seriously,” said Mugisha To not have spoken out “will go down in history,” he told Citizen.
LGBT advocates in Uganda and Kenya repeatedly sought words of tolerance from the pope. The Rainbow Catholic Network of Africa appealed to Francis for mercy and inclusion. People of faith worldwide had asked Pope Francis to condemn anti-LGBT laws through New Ways Ministry’s #PopeSpeakOut campaign. The pope’s decision not to respond, covered in more detail here, is troubling despite an otherwise remarkable papal visit.
Pope Francis’ silence is especially problematic because that same week Uganda’s Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Bill in the middle of the night. Since the bill allows the government to dissolve community groups at will, critics fear it will be used to curtail LGBT advocacy, reported PinkNews.
Though Pope Francis missed an opportunity to save LGBT people’s lives and promote their dignity, some Catholic bishops are speaking out. Cardinal Gracias’ opposition to LGBT criminalization in India is quite notable, as he is the subcontinent’s only religious leader to preach tolerance. Maltese Bishop Mario Grech gave a positive interview in recent days, too.
Most hopeful are the many and varied good works of the People of God happening locally. Some make headlines, but most are quietly planted and lovingly cultivated in communities. Pope Francis should consider how he can help water these seeds during the Year of Mercy. It is always the right time to speak out for LGBT people’s lives and dignity.
Openly gay Catholics, like Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, wrote Pope Francis to ask for a meeting. Catholics globally emailed and tweeted the pope through New Ways Ministry’s #PopeSpeakOut campaign.
Some observers had speculated that Pope Francis would address homosexuality while visiting a shrine for 19th century Ugandan martyrs. In certain accounts, reported Crux, these forty-plus Christian men were executed in part for refusing King Mwanga II’s sexual advances. Pope Francis omitted any reference to this contested narrative. What the pope did say was that Christians, inspired by the martyrs’ faith, were called:
“to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, without excluding anyone, defends God’s gift of life, and protects the wonders of nature, his creation, and our common home.”
Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi later clarified that the line “without excluding anyone” (omitted in the Vatican’s English translation of the homily) “would also include people with homosexual tendencies.”
Pope Francis’ phrase “new forms of colonialism” during an address in Kenya has been interpreted by observers, including Crux’s John Allen, as a reference to homosexuality. This phrase, observers claim, specifically references some Catholic leaders’ suggestion that Western aid is tied to LGBT rights including marriage equality. It is worth noting that the U.S. envoy for LGBT human rights sharply criticized such claims in a recent meeting with Vatican officials.
Like Francis’ use of “ideological colonization” during his visit to the Philippines, the phrase “new forms of colonialism” is not quite clear. Connections to homosexuality seem stretched, though in its ambiguity, it will likely be misused by anti-LGBT voices appealing to anti-colonialist sentiments that run deep among many Africans.
One church official did comment to Crux about the church’s involvement in anti-LGBT laws on the occasion of the papal visit. Bishop Giuseppe Franzell of Lira, Uganda, said laws targeting sexual and gender minorities stem from “fundamentalist Christian groups and sects that come from North America. . .[and] individual Catholics, including some bishops.”
At the other extreme, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda told PinkNews“the aim of [homosexuality] is not to promote life but to act against it” and “those with that tendency are called to abstinence.”
Church teaching is an insufficient appeal in nations where levels of LGBT discrimination and violence remain quite high. Appeals made to Pope Francis by LGBT people were thus quite simple and entirely consistent with current church teachings.
Reutersinterviewed LGBT Ugandans, who would only be identified by first names, about their hopes for the pope’s visit, as well as about their daily lives. Keith said he wanted the pope to “[t]ell the congregation that being gay is normal and so we deserve our rights, equal rights.” Abdul, raised Catholic, says the church in Uganda and Kenya “says being gay is wrong” which has led to “continuous discrimination” and tremendous suffering. Though not quite a silver lining, trans woman Hector said the papal visit did provide “an opportunity to come out and tell our stories.”
On a positive note, Pope Francis made clear during his in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome that he prioritizes social justice over sexual ethics. Asked whether the church should change its teaching on artificial contraception given that HIV/AIDS continues to spread in Africa and other regions, the pope responded, according to the National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘This question makes me think of what they asked Jesus one time: “Tell me, master, is it licit to work on the Sabbath?” ‘. . .
” ‘Malnutrition, exploitation of persons, slave work, lack of drinking water. . .These are the problems.’
” ‘I do not like to descend into reflections that are so casuistic when people are dying. . .I would say to not think if it is licit or not licit to work on the Sabbath. I say to humanity: Make justice, and when all can earn a living, when there is not injustice in this world, we can speak of the Sabbath.’ “
Pope Francis’ first apostolic visit to Africa was, in many ways, a profound incarnation of his desired “poor church for the poor.” He led the church to the world’s margins and from there commenced the Year of Mercy. Francis visited an active conflict zone in Central African Republic at personal risk to preach peace, criticized injustice from slums outside Nairobi, and praised Uganda for accepting refugees (though failed to note the 500+ LGBT people who have fled that nation’s harsh conditions).
Pope Francis’ silence on LGBT human rights is notable nonetheless. In a church which mandates a preferential option for those marginalized, allusions that include all people do not suffice. Affirming the dignity of LGBT persons would have strengthened his witness for human rights and social justice while remaining consistent with current articulations of church teaching.
Francis’ silence can aid those like Uganda’s Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo who prayed the pope would not preach tolerance because “[i]t is bad enough that homosexuals are there, but let them not go ahead and expose themselves.”
Francis’ silence can harm all those LGBT people who face discrimination and violence for living openly as God created them, like Jackson Mukasa. Dragged from his home by a mob alongside his partner, Mukasa was brutally beaten before his assailants turned him into police for the ‘crime’ of being gay. Mukasa and his partner were jailed for several months under Uganda’s anti-gay law before being released. They now live in fear, forced to seek asylum abroad and asking:
“Is it that being gay is a crime to God? That’s why all these things are happening?”
Pope Francis didn’t need to endorse marriage equality to preach merciful words to those like Jackson Mukasa and to save LGBTQI lives too frequently under attack. That he chose not to is troubling indeed.
LGBT folks are asking Pope Francis to preach tolerance during his upcoming Apostolic Voyage to Uganda, Kenya, and Central African Republic beginning Wednesday.
Frank Mugisha, who directs Sexual Minorities Uganda and is himself Catholic, understands Pope Francis may be constrained but said speaking out could do much good. He told Reuters:
” ‘If [Francis] starts talking about rights, then Ugandans are going to be very defensive. . .But I would think if the Pope was here and talking about love, compassion and equality for everyone, Ugandans will listen.’ “
Simply affirming that LGBT people should be “treated like any other children of God” would signal progress in nations where homosexuality is criminalized and the death penalty for those convicted has even been suggested in recent years.
Kenyan advocate David Kuria, who was raised Catholic, echoed those sentiments:
” ‘I hope the Pope would say, “Love everyone,” especially those who are still coming to church.’ “
Kuria is particularly concerned for Catholic parents of LGBT children who often face pressures in their local churches and communities. These social mores cause faithful parents to “doubt themselves as parents or as Christians,” noting his own mother’s expulsion from her village prayer group after Kuria came out.
Jackson Mukasa, also known as Princess Rihanna, was jailed in Uganda last year on “suspicion of committing homosexual acts,” though not convicted for lack of evidence, according to Reuters. Mukasa’s message for the pope is clear:
” ‘I would like the Pope to at least make people know that being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) is not a curse. . .Being a gay in Uganda is a challenge. You expect mob justice, you expect to be killed, you expect to be arrested.’ “
Being openly LGBT in Uganda is dangerous, but equality advocates have made strides, Repeated attempts to pass “Kill the Gays” legislation have been suppressed. The situation in Kenya is better, though still oppressive. While homosexuality is illegal, wider tolerance means the law goes unenforced. Indeed, there are some 500 LGBT refugees from Uganda there.
What is significant is that both nations are highly Catholic, with 40% (Uganda) and 33% (Kenya) of their populations identifying as Roman Catholic. Much of the harshly anti-gay rhetoric comes from evangelical churches. Catholic leaders have been silent, vague, and sometimes supportive of oppressive measures, especially in Uganda. If Pope Francis leads and they follow, they could be critical voices for moderation and even tolerance.
The pope has called for bishops to be close their people, to be shepherds who smell of their sheep and who listen closely. Frank Mugisha, David Kuria, and Jackson Mukasa, on behalf of LGBT communities in their countries, make simple and direct appeals. Will Pope Francis listen?
Their appeals, affirmed by Catholics worldwide through the #PopeSpeakOut campaign, call the pope to the margins of his own church where sexual and gender identities remain marginalized. Will he choose to be close?
Exhorting Italy’s bishops a few weeks ago, Pope Francis asked them to begin “a creative movement” to put into practice the welcoming attitude of his apostolic exhortation,Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel). Clearly condemning anti-LGBTQI laws and violence is a prime opportunity for Pope Francis to be creative in making real the joy of the Gospel — and to save LGBT lives. Will he speak out and preach tolerance?
Pope Francis has an opportunity to condemn LGBTQI criminalization and clarify a sometimes ambivalent Catholic stance regarding violence against sexual and gender minorities. Catholics across the world are asking Francis to send a clear message with the #PopeSpeakOut campaign.
To send a message to Pope Francis and add your voice to the many Catholics openly critical of institutionalized homophobia, visit the campaign’s website by clicking here.
New Ways Ministry is relaunching our #PopeSpeakOut campaign to encourage Francis to publicly oppose the criminalization of, discrimination towards, and violence against LGBT communities. His pastoral visit is the perfect opportunity to do so.
#PopeSpeakOut was initially launched in 2014, following Pope Francis’ appeal for solidarity in his World Day of Peace message, to save LGBT lives. This campaign uses Twitter to send messages (tweets) to the pope (his Twitter handle: @pontifex) to speak out for LGBT human rights. More information on how to send tweets and other electronic messages, with samples of what to say, can be found by clicking here.
Pope Francis’ voice and moral authority on a global level have only grown in the time since. A clear condemnation of social and legal structures which harm LGBT people across the world and especially in Uganda and Kenya which criminalize homosexual people, would send a clear message that the Catholic Church truly does not approve of or tolerate discrimination and violence against sexual and gender diverse minorities. The pope should affirm the following:
Catholic teaching does not support the criminalization of sexual orientation/gender identity and all such laws should be repealed;
Each and every instance of discrimination and violence against LGBTQI people is morally wrong and should be opposed vigorously;
Western nations are not withholding foreign aid based on a recipient nation’s recognition of same-sex relationships, despite what the Synod on the Family’s final report claims.
Already, a multilingual petition has generated 100,000 signatures asking Pope Francis to condemn homophobia and transphobia. You can sign it at Change.org by clicking here.
Despite the dangers that being openly gay or lesbian entails in Uganda, and despite rumors that this nation’s Parliament is considering new legislation to stifle human rights work, a Pride celebration in went on as planned there this summer. You can view images of it here.
Despite the bleak picture, there are some signs of progress , too. A Ugandan presidential candidate, while clearly opposing same-sex marriage, did attack homophobia as wrong earlier this year. Advocates like Dr. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who is executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda whose work you can read about in a PinkNewsarticle, are continuing to seek justice and equality. International allies must add our voices to these efforts by encouraging Pope Francis’ to speak out against repression.
Pope Francis’ agenda during his first African excursion is packed. Central African Republic is engulfed in a brutal civil war, and a refugee camp is on the pope’s itinerary, which will surely be a moving experience to witness. Questions of inter-religious cooperation, regional security, and human development will be at the forefront of discussion since they strongly affect a continent where Christianity is growing rapidly.
That said, for a pope exhorting the church to go to the margins, LGBT lives should not be negligible. Even a brief remark during his several planned speeches would go a long way to doing some good. Even better would be a call for sexual and gender human rights during a homily at Mass. Most importantly, he needs to educate the bishops in these countries that it is their obligation as pastors and leaders to protect the rights and lives of LGBT people. Anything the pope says positively would reverberate around the globe. Francis has been too silent on this issues. It is time for the pope to speak out!
Pope Francis touches down in Kenya in less than ten days, which is enough time for you, other Catholics, and others concerned with LGBT human rights to appeal to Pope Francis for a message of solidarity–and more than that, an appeal to save LGBT lives. To take action with #PopeSpeakOut and add your voice, click here.