The news from Africa this year for LGBT rights is grim, and it looks like it's only going to get worse. As new laws have been signed this year, I could be put in prison for life in Uganda if I were to marry a man, and I could go to prison for 14 years in Nigeria if I were to have a meal with other LGBT people and just talk -- my parents could go to jail as well if they didn't turn me into authorities.
This is just the latest addition to already draconian laws on the continent where 38 countries criminalize homosexuality. But my church, which has a great deal of influence in both Uganda and Nigeria, hasn't said anything to condemn these new human rights violations. Instead, my church is planning a large, international summit on LGBT people on the continent to talk about LGBT people without allowing them to share their stories or perspectives.
This month in Cape Town, South Africa, the "In God's Image: Sexuality, Scripture and Society" summit will talk for four days about LGBT people or, in what appears to be a new church euphemism, about "alternative sexualities." (Apparently this summit was originally planned for Nigeria until it was clear with recent laws how problematic that could be, and now it's -- ironically -- in the only country in Africa where same-sex marriage is legal, thanks to Nelson Mandela's leadership).
The break-out session titles help show just how extreme and one-sided this conference will be. For example, "Alternative Sexualities: A Disorder or a Choice?, "A Continuum of Care with Inclusion of Pastoral Counseling to Conversion/Reparative Therapy", and "Relating to Children and Youth Challenged by Alternative Sexualities" are just a few of the breakout sessions that seem to be derived straight from the 1940s when we used such language to institutionalize queer people. We are using decades old ideas that have been proven, and cited by numerous organizations to be extremely harmful. We are causing irreversible damage and we are hiding behind our religious beliefs to do it.
The Seventh-day Adventist church is one of the largest protestant denominations in Uganda and has a growing number of new converts in East Africa. In 2010, in the heat of the "Kill the Gays Bill" media frenzy, the Vice President of the Seventh-day Adventist African Conference vocally supported the law in Uganda while it still included death for those convicted of "homosexuality" (he later said in a classic non-apology apology that he had been misquoted).The Seventh-day Adventist church has been present, promoting the homophobic messages that have been birthed in the states.
In the last few years, I've critiqued Seventh-day Adventist conferences in which a licensed "therapist" (though I use that term loosely) argued "We are not born gay," alleging that there is a "negative environmental factor which leads the person to think, 'I am gay" and just recently where an "ex-gay" presenter called LGBT people demon possessed (he later apologized, sort of, but the organization where he gave the talks has not). These are the types of presentations that have encouraged the criminalization of sexual minorities around the world and the new Anti-Gay Jim Crow proposed laws in the U.S.
While there are many things that are highly problematic about this summit, the most egregious is that no LGBT voices will be included in the summit. It's the epitome of talking at instead of with LGBT people that Christian evangelical churches are known for doing. Three professional testimonialists (they all have speaking tours, books, and videos about their ex-gay/holiness-not-homosexuality platform to promote) who say precisely what the church wants to hear are the only representation from the queer community, and they don't at all identify as being gay or lesbian anymore; they prefer the term "redeemed" as if every other LGBT person who doesn't find life-long celibacy or "conversion therapy" a viable option is not redeemed.
The church promotes these few people every chance it gets as the only approved gay-but-now-not narrative. It's the quintessence of a single narrative. Every person's story is valuable, and I sincerely appreciate the stories from these three people. However, their stories are not representative of every LGBT voice, and it's harmful to exclude the other voices that need to be part of this conversation. It isn't until we include more voices that it will become a conversation -- right now it's a biased presentation.
These "ex-gay" voices have had incredibly sad and traumatic childhoods which they attribute to the cause of their same-sex attractions. Almost all had lived very broken and destructive lives when they were accepting their gay identities and all now live the "ideal lifestyle" as a "person redeemed from the homosexual lifestyle." (You can watch a six minute re-enactment of Wayne Blakeley's abusive childhood and self-described 37 years as a promiscuity and brokenness as a male prostitute and drug addict here). The other two men he works with in "Coming Out Ministries" have similar stories of abuse, promiscuity, and now a "redeemed" life as defined by their current understanding.
In addition to being featured on several official church publications and programs, Blakely has also toured Africa sharing his story which propagates stereotypes of promiscuity and addiction that, especially in Africa, are taken to apply to all queer people. You can see highlights from his Kenyan sermon here. This dovetails with the message of the new documentary "God Loves Uganda" which traces the involvement of American evangelicals in Africa -- especially Uganda -- with the new extremely severe anti-gay legislation.
Many Seventh-day Adventists who are just becoming aware of this summit are voicing their concerns about what appears to be an "echo chamber" where only limited voices that reflect the current understanding of the Adventist church will be allowed. In order to have a fair, balanced, and academic dialogue, more than one view must be present. We all step into more growth, more love, and more humility when we listen to the diversity of voices that make up the family of God.
The Seventh-day Adventist church leadership is naïve in believing these messages will not have a negative impact in what is already an extremely homophobic culture in much of the church, especially on the African continent. Yolanda Elliot, President of SDA Kinship International, the longest running LGBT affirming Seventh-day Adventist organization, agrees the summit later this month will be harmful as currently planned. In an article for Believe Out Loud she talks about how it is unacceptable for her church to exclude the stories of actual LGBT Adventists, particularly given the context:
"Being silent in the face of oppression is complicity. Excluding key voices and perpetuating harmful stereotypes isn't dialogue, and in the context of the extreme anti-LGBTI legislation just signed into law, it's dangerous."
This summit is an "invite only" event. The exclusion of healthy LGBT voices is a strategic move to encourage the indoctrination of religious homophobia to the attendees. Religious homophobia has become an epidemic as thousands of LGBT people are quite literally hunted down all in the name of Jesus.
Religious beliefs now vary widely around the question of the Bible and same-sex relationships, and recent polls show that attitudes are shifting faster around LGBT equality and marriage equality faster than any other social movement in history, so it's possibly not a surprise that religious institutions are behaving poorly as they attempt to control a train that's already moved out of their station. And yet, as Christians, we must take responsibility for the way traditional theological beliefs are being translated. Our message is a faulty "Love the sinner, hate the sin" and it is really just communicating a lot of hate, marginalization, and discrimination. Conferences like this that simply restate the institution's position, trot out the single narrative (abusive childhood, promiscuous "lifestyle", and now ex-gay views) that affirms the institution's position do harm -- and they spend a lot of tithe dollars while doing it!
Christians are becoming known for their prejudice and judgement (in that recent poll, almost 70 percent of Millennials said their church as too anti-gay, and 1/3 cited anti-gay policies and attitudes as a major reason why they left their childhood faith). When did we start becoming more about who we feel okay judging and excluding instead of who we love? The Bible is being used as a weapon, and as followers of Christ, we must be the ones to say that is not okay. If my church goes ahead with this conference without a balanced perspective that includes all of the voices that need to be included at the table, we, the Seventh-day Adventist church, are fueling the fear, stereotypes, and outright hate that is persecuting thousands of LGBT people. If we stand idly by without condemning these laws that outlaw LGBT people, we might as well have written them ourselves.