Global conference calls for international coalition against criminalization of homosexuality

By Ken Williams

Almost 100 prominent leaders, after two days of intense meetings and workshops, have agreed that there is an urgency to form an international coalition to fight for the global decriminalization of homosexuality.

It is a crime to be gay in 76 countries across the globe, mostly in Africa and Asia, but those attending the consultation heard from speakers who warned of a growing movement sponsored by America’s Religious Right to criminalize homosexuality here and abroad.

Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality” brought together faith, secular, academic, government and media leaders for the consultation on Oct. 11-12 in the grand Social Hall at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University.

This was the third consultation by this informal group, which was charged by the Human Rights Watch to form a network of progressive faith leaders to counter the attempts by Uganda’s Parliament to pass the “Kill The Gays” bill. The first meeting was in June 2010 and the second one was in December 2010, both conducted at the UN Church Center in New York City.

Last week, the consultation attendees, now including many secular as well as faith leaders, discussed concrete ways to extinguish homophobia across the world and to end punitive laws that deprive LGBT people of jobs, education, housing, equal rights, dignity and, in a number of countries, their freedom or their lives.

Focusing on Uganda and religious extremists

Day One put the focus on Uganda, often called the “line in the sand” over criminalization of homosexuality, as well as religious extremism on LGBT people abroad.

Keynote speaker Jeff Sharlet, the journalist who penned “The Family,” a book that exposed the Religious Right’s hold on American politics, told attendees that The Family is the most influential fundamentalist group in Washington, D.C., and has been meddling in Uganda and other parts of Africa for decades.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican leader who has been hailed as the Bishop Tutu of Uganda and a straight ally, spoke about his grassroots effort to minister to LGBT people in his homeland and about the resistance he faces.

“We need decriminalization of LGBT all over the world,” he said.

Other speakers warned of the growing religious movement called Dominionism and whose supporters want to turn the United States into a Christian nation and remake laws to reflect a strict evangelical point of view. American politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have embraced this controversial movement, which is dividing even evangelicals, said the Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, project director of the Political Research Associates.

Taking a positive approach

While a number of LGBT activists from Africa told of persecution and discrimination, some pointed to signs of progress from a grassroots level and urged mainstream media to acknowledge and support those efforts.

Val Kalende, from Freedom and Roam in Uganda (FARUG), said the media focus on the horrific implications of the “Kill The Gays” bill, while ignoring the success stories. She said that by focusing on the homophobia that is rampant in the culture, that the media are sending the wrong message that all Africans are anti-gay when in reality there are LGBT people and their straight allies who are quietly working toward the goal of achieving equal rights for all people.

Kalende, like most activists who spoke during the consultation, outlined the dire need for financial support. Some told of having sparse budgets of less than $10,000 per year to support their efforts to fight homophobia.

Goals for the future

The network is now transforming into a coalition that established three key goals.

  1. Convene a theological conference in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to share with Ugandans and other Africans that progressive and liberal faiths embrace the concept that all people, whether LGBT or not, are God’s children and are deserving of full human rights that allow them to love who they want, live in peace, and have equal access to health care and education.
  2. Conduct a conference on HIV/AIDS and related health issues in Malawi.
  3. Schedule a conference at Harvard University to formulate media strategies for creating a “Gay Associated Press” or a clearinghouse website where LGBT stories can be shared globally.
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