In June each year, the Church remembers a group of Ugandan martyrs, in the feast of Charles Lwangwa and companions. This week, we as queer Christians have new Ugandan martyr to remember, in David Kanto, an openly gay church worker who was brutally murdered in a clearly homophobic attack. While we mourn his death, we should at the same time pause to reflect on both sets of deaths, and on the role of the Christian churches in fomenting African homophobia, in colonial times and in the modern world.
Charles Lwangwa and companions were a group of young pages to the king of Buganda who converted to Christianity. Encouraged by the local missionaries, they resisted the sexual advances of their royal master. For this act of treason (in the eyes of the king and the Buganda court), they were executed. For this courageous martyrdom (as the missionaries saw it), they were later canonized as saints.
This week, David Kanto was murdered.
David was brutally beaten to death in his home today, 26 January 2011, around 2pm. Across the entire country, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Ugandans mourn the loss of David, a dear friend, colleague, teacher, family member, and human rights defender.
–extract from public statement by Sexual Minorities Uganda
David has been receiving death threats since his face was put on the front page of Rolling Stone Magazine, which called for his death and the death of all homosexuals. David’s death comes directly after the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that people must stop inciting violence against homosexuals and must respect the right to privacy and human dignity.
This story neatly encapsulates the way in which the colonial missionaries imposed one set of European cultural standards on the indigenous peoples they conquered, in matters ranging from profound importance, to the trivial. Just consider, the bizarre example of the Herero women of Namibia, who were forced by German missionaries to adopt heavy, 19th Century European clothing styles in the hot desert climate – styles which continue to influence their fashion sense today, with the addition of some distinctly local headgear).
Other influences were more malign. Salzmann and Lawler have described how colonial missionaries imposed their concept of marriage in place of the traditional African concept of a marriage process, with a formal marriage ritual concluding rather than initiating the process – even though the African concept was closer to Christian practice over fifteen centuries before the council of Trent than the missionaries own. Another well-known example is the determined rooting out of polygamy – even though this family structure was typical of Old Testament biblical practice.
Less well known is the ruthless suppression of all forms of gender expression or homoerotic relationships that did not fit in with their fixed concepts of a strictly binary, heterosexual norm. Social science has shown that different forms of sexual and gender identity are entirely natural, and are frequently accepted in a wide range of cultural contexts. In the Americas, Asia and Africa, many cultures recognized and celebrated cross-dressing third genders, often revering them as possessing special spiritual gifts. Many also recognized the difference between biological and social gender, accepting the presence of men who took on female social or sexual roles, and women who lived as men. But from the time of the conquistadors in South America, to the nineteenth century colonial scramble for Africa, the European powers legislated to extend the persecution of “sodomites” which had been initiated in Europe to their new domains, sometimes with horrific savagery.
The legacy of Christian homophobia perseveres in Africa. In Africa, the sheer numbers of Christians are continuing to grow, often in distinctively African, indigenous forms. Together with the overtly Islamic states, It is also where institutional and popular homophobia is strongest. This is usually justified as demanded by religious beliefs, and by the supposedly “traditional” African rejection of homosexuality. Both claims are entirely false. Authentic Christianity does not reject homoerotic relationships, and instead insists on a welcome and inclusion for all. Traditional African culture did not reject either ambiguous gender roles or same sex erotic activities, but frequently institutionalized both, in all regions of the continent. (For a comprehensive account, see Africa’s Boy Wives and Female Husbands, or follow some of my links below).
It is not homosexuality that is a foreign import to Africa, but homophobia, introduced by misguided Christian missionaries and their political associates. The modern hysteria in Uganda which has culminated in David Kanto’s murder is similarly not a purely local phenomenon, but has been actively fomented by foreign Christian activists, especially some American evangelicals. In Africa, the price of homophobia, too often, is death.
(I am still preparing a post on David Kato himself, which will follow shortly)
- Obama Statement on Slain Ugandan LGBT Activist David Kato (Towleroad)
- Archbishop of Canterbury condemns Ugandan murder (Thinking Anglicans)
- In Uganda, a “Fearless Voice” for Gay Rights is Brutally Silenced (The Wild Reed)
- Ugandan gay rights activist murdered weeks after court victory (Guardian)