Anglican church passes the buck on LGBTQI+ rights
The recent global summit of Anglican bishops set the scene for an anti-rights reaction, reaffirming notions that homosexuality is a sin and same-sex marriage inadmissible. In countries that continue to criminalise the existence of LGBTQI+ people, the hateful message conservative bishops are taking home will have enormous real-life impacts. Religious leaders are playing a major role in driving anti-LGBTQI+ hatred in countries such as Ghana and Uganda, pushing forward repressive laws and helping close down the space for activism. LGBTQI+ activists continue to resist the backlash, but they need support from progressive religious elements to isolate fundamentalists and advance recognition of their rights.
What was meant to be a belated celebration of unity became a blatant display of toxic division, the religious message of love thy neighbour overshadowed by the venting of hatred.
The once-in-a-decade summit of Anglican bishops and archbishops from all around the world had been due to take place in 2018, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church’s leader, had delayed it by two years to give himself more time to reconcile the deep divisions within the church; then the pandemic gave him two more years of grace, which he evidently failed to take advantage of.
Held between 26 July and 7 August 2022, the Lambeth Conference was the scene of an anti-rights onslaught that resulted in regressive messaging barely tempered by a weak attempt to appease more liberal clergy. It reaffirmed the idea that homosexuality is a sin and same-sex marriage is inadmissible – with the caveat that this was not the position of the whole church and its leadership has neither the authority nor will to prevent progressive clergy from blessing or performing same-sex marriages.
How relevant could the theological discussions of a roomful of Anglican bishops be in the real world of the 21st century? The danger is quite a lot.
The anti-rights move was driven by the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches, which claims to represent roughly 75 per cent of Anglicans around the world, many of them in countries that continue to criminalise same-sex relations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Conservative bishops’ takeaways from the conference could well have dangerous implications in countries such as Ghana and Uganda, where they are prominent leaders of the forces fuelling anti-LGBTQI+ hatred.
Anti-rights backlash in the Anglican Communion
Divisions flared up in advance of the Lambeth Conference, as organisers circulated a series of calls aimed at reaffirming the divisive Resolution 1.10 passed in 1998, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The 650 delegates were expected to rubber-stamp it, as available choices – either stating that a call ‘speaks for me’ or that it ‘requires further discernment’ – would normally not allow for a ‘no’ vote. But this time around, backlash forced the organisers to offer a chance to reject the statement.
The pronouncement against same-sex marriage outraged liberal clergy and LGBTQI+ advocates within the church, particularly in Canada and the USA, who realised their presence at the conference might be used to legitimise a regressive move they would be unable to stop.
But it pleased conservative ones, many of them from countries that still criminalise same-sex relations. The lead author of the call was said to be the Bishop of Jamaica, while the archbishops of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda planned to boycott the conference in disgust at Anglican churches in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales blessing or conducting same-sex unions.
The controversial statements, included in a so-called ‘Human Dignity’ document, initially referred to opposition to same-sex marriage as the position of the whole Anglican Communion. The outraged reaction that ensued forced an amendment to recognise that several Anglican provinces support it.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to placate ‘both sides’ of the controversy, so he reaffirmed the validity of Resolution 1.10 that gay sex is a sin – but also said he wouldn’t seek the authority to discipline or exclude churches that perform or bless same-sex marriages.
As recently as 2017, Welby claimed he was ‘struggling with the issue’ of whether gay sex is a sin. Now he hinted at the possibility of change in the Church of England, recognising the need for churches in countries where LGBTQI+ rights are more respected to update traditional teaching to avoid becoming irrelevant.
Justin Badi Arama, Archbishop of South Sudan and leader of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches struck back: the future belongs to the ‘biblically faithful’, he said; those who go against the scriptures are doomed. At least 125 bishops responded to the Global South Fellowship’s call to endorse Resolution 1.10, to which a new provision was added so that ‘renewed steps be taken to ensure all provinces abide by this doctrine in their faith, order, and practice’. They also refused to take communion alongside bishops who ‘betrayed the Bible’.
This regressive move could have an enormous global impact. With 85 million members spread over 165 countries, the Anglican Communion is the third-largest body of Christians in the world. Conservative and liberal bishops will surely take home very different messages from the Lambeth Conference – but while liberal clergy will carry on accommodating their LGBTQI+ parishioners and sharing a message of tolerance, the apparent confirmation of the views of conservative bishops could have more dangerous implications.
Nowhere will the ripple effects be stronger than in African countries with large Anglican congregations. As detailed in the ILGA-RIWI 2016 Global Attitudes Survey on LGBTI people, Africa is the most inhospitable continent for LGBTQI+ people: an average of 45 per cent of people agree that being LGBTQI+ should be considered a crime. In three African countries – Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda – over half of people believe this.
The LGBTQI+ community faces hate speech coming from religious, traditional and political leaders who promote homophobia.
With Uganda leading the way, Africa also displays the highest average rate of agreement with the proposition that same-sex attraction is a western phenomenon. Not surprisingly, the continent also has the highest number of states that criminalise LGBTQI+ people.
Ghana and Uganda under the spotlight
In both Ghana and Uganda, homosexuality has been illegal since colonial times. Both countries retained criminalising laws upon independence, and the organised religions most of their population adheres to embrace this discrimination as an expression of divine will, reinforcing widespread social homophobia. According to the Afrobarometer survey, on average 21 per cent of adults across the African continent express tolerance for people of different sexual orientations – but in both Ghana and Uganda, that proportion falls to a meagre seven per cent.
In Ghana, same-sex sexual acts are criminalised by Section 104 of the 1960 Penal Code, which treats ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’ with consent as a misdemeanour punishable with up to three years in jail. Over the past decades this provision has rarely been enforced, but lacking legal protections, LGBTQI+ people –particularly gay men – have continued to be systematically discriminated against, persecuted and subjected to violence and abuse in their homes and communities, by people who take the law into their own hands, including by forming vigilante groups.
In Uganda, same-sex sexual activity is prohibited under the 1950 Penal Code, which criminalises acts of ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ and ‘gross indecency’. But this law, which applies to both men and women, carries far more severe penalties – up to life imprisonment. The law has been more consistently enforced than in Ghana, with more frequent arrests, detentions and ill-treatment in custody. Successful prosecutions, however, have been relatively rare: according to official police data, 194 people were charged between 2017 and 2020, with 25 convicted.
Not surprisingly, LGBTQI+ activists are unsafe in their communities and face danger in reaction to their activism – or merely if their sexual orientation or gender identity becomes public. Most work anonymously, and grassroots groups tend to operate underground, including through secure online platforms.
Voices from the frontline
Leticia Sam is the founder and Executive Director of Queer Youth Uganda, an organisation founded in 2006 to advocate for the rights of young LGBTQI+ people.
The Ugandan constitution stipulates equality for all people, but every single day there are cases of assault and rights violations against LGBTQI+ people.
The law is used as an instrument to oppress LGBTQI+ people instead of promoting their human rights. Same-sex marriage is illegal and same-sex relations are criminalised with harsh penalties, including life imprisonment under Penal Code Act 145. Despite the existence of mechanisms such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, it is clear that the rights of LGBTQI+ people continue to be systematically violated.
The government of Uganda continues to enforce the 1950 Penal Code, which prohibits same-sex relations and threatens to imprison LGBTQI+ activists. Parliament has continued to pass bills against sexual minorities, such as the recent Sexual Offences Bill 2021. The current legislation threatens our work environment and our very existence as an LGBTQI+ organisation in Uganda.
Uganda is a highly religious country where traditional cultural beliefs or norms take centre stage. LGBTQI+ people see their basic human rights violated because of deeply embedded cultural and religious beliefs. That is why political advocacy does not have an impact: politicians are quick to play the morality card to please their constituencies and sideline the issues raised by LGBTQI+ organisations.
The government should work to integrate the LGBTQI+ community into Ugandan society, not least because we can play a pivotal role in the country’s economic and social development. We can contribute by paying taxes and creating jobs, among other things.
But instead, the LGBTQI+ community faces hate speech coming from religious, traditional and political leaders who promote homophobia. Far from receiving mass support and recognition from the state and citizens, LGBTQI+ activists and organisations have faced increasing human rights abuses and attacks.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Leticia Sam. Read the full interview here.
In recent years, the Ugandan Parliament has repeatedly tried to reinforce its criminalising legislation. In 2009, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was proposed to impose the death penalty for serial offenders, HIV-positive people engaging in same-sex sexual activity and those engaging in same-sex sexual activity with minors. The bill also sought to punish LGBTQI+ advocacy with fines, imprisonment, or both.
LGBTQI+ groups fought it for years, and the modified version passed in 2013 punished ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with life in prison instead of the death penalty. After the US State Department announced sanctions against Uganda, the Ugandan Constitutional Court annulled the law on a technicality. But the anti-LGBTQI+ hate it embodied stayed very much alive.
Ghana’s anti-rights backlash
LGBTQI+ people in Ghana are experiencing the height of a politically motivated anti-rights backlash. Discrimination and violence against Ghanaian LGBTQI+ people are being stoked by politicians and religious authorities of various churches.
Elements of the media are active too, including a group calling itself ‘Journalists Against LGBT’. Many anti-LGBTQI+ journalists are members of the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values, Ghana’s most prominent anti-rights group.
The Coalition has made strides in recent years. In October 2019 it co-hosted a conference in Accra, Ghana’s capital, alongside the World Congress of Families (WCF), a powerful US-based anti-LGBTQI+ hate group. The WCF decided to hold the event in Ghana in response to initiatives by the Ghanaian government to introduce comprehensive sex education in schools, a proposal that was shelved shortly afterwards.
The event was used to promote so-called ‘conversion therapies’ – discredited practices carried out by churches that falsely claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, which global human rights institutions consider to be akin to torture – and to strategise towards the launch of a full-on assault on LGBTQI+ people’s rights.
In contrast, the pan-African conference of international LGBTQI+ rights group ILGA, planned for Accra in what would have been a first for West Africa, was banned by President Nana Akufo-Addo, under pressure from religious groups: the argument was that as homosexuality is illegal in Ghana, the event would have to be considered illegal as well. In February 2021, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, an organisation that had recently opened a centre amid loud anti-rights opposition, was raided by security forces and forcibly shut down.
The ‘anti-gay’ bill: immediate repercussions
Out of the WCF’s 2019 conference came what may well become one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQI+ laws: the so-called Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021, also known as the ‘anti-gay bill’.
The initiative was formally proposed by a group of eight members of parliament in June 2021. The text portrays homosexuality as alien to Ghanaian culture, history and values, and highlights the disapproval by the country’s majority. It seeks to punish homosexuality with prison sentences of three to five years and to make it a crime to even offer support or express sympathy for LGBTQI+ people. If the law were passed, advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights would entail jail sentences of up to 10 years, and LGBTQI+ people could be forced to undergo ‘conversion therapies’.
Public hearings on the draft bill started last November. On the very first day, the head of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development targeted the main argument of its proponents that the bill represents the sentiment of the majority: in a constitutional democracy, he said, human rights safeguards should ‘serve as a check on the prejudices of a majority… Majority might confer might, but it doesn’t confer right’.
🇬🇭#Ghana has opened public hearings on the proposed anti-LGBTI+ law that will discriminate the #LGBTI+ community & criminalise promotion & funding of their activities if passed. Here are 5 things you need to know about the 'family values' draft bill #KillTheBill @RightifyGhana pic.twitter.com/i3BOE0qRR1— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) November 26, 2021
International condemnation came from global civil society groups and human rights institutions such as the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN human rights experts who described the bill as aimed at establishing ‘a system of state-sponsored discrimination and violence’ against sexual minorities.
Also vocal against the proposal were liberal and progressive religious authorities – including South African Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who compared the proposed bill to apartheid, and several Anglican leaders from the UK, although Welby first expressed concern about the bill and then backtracked, citing respect for the autonomy of the Church of Ghana.
But voices in favour of the bill abound. They typically decry homosexuality as an abnormality, a disease and an import contrary to Ghanaian values, traditions and beliefs. On behalf of the Ghanaian Anglican Church, Archbishop Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith stated that homosexuality is ‘unbiblical and ungodly’, invoking a biblical passage that characterises male homosexuality as an abomination punishable by death. Support for the bill also comes from the Christian Council of Ghana, the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and the Coalition of Muslim Organisations.
While resistance continues and the bill has not yet been passed, civil society has already noted an increase in attacks against LGBTQI+ people and restrictions on LGBTQI+ rights activism.
In May 2021, 21 people attending a paralegal training workshop organised by Rightify Ghana were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly; they spent three weeks in detention before their case was dismissed due to ‘insufficient evidence’.
In June 2022, as conservative politicians pushed forward with the bill, LGBTQI+ activists marked Pride month in Accra and two other Ghanaian cities with billboards carrying messages of tolerance towards LGBTQI+ people. But the billboards sparked public uproar and conservative legislators called for them to be torn down. As a result, a crowd destroyed one mounted on the capital’s highway two days after it was put up.
Uganda: advocacy under attack
On 5 August, while the Anglican bishops were still gathered in the UK, Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs – the government agency that regulates civil society organisations (CSOs) – suspended with immediate effect the operations of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). The organisation was accused of working illegally, without a valid NGO permit.
A network organisation, SMUG has for years championed the rights of Ugandan LGBTQI+ people. It advocates for policy reform and coordinates the efforts of its 18 member CSOs, which provide a range of services to LGBTQI+ people, including medical attention, counselling, guidance and economic empowerment programmes.
The suspension of CSOs for alleged noncompliance with the 2016 NGO Act is nothing new in Uganda. A year ago, 54 CSOs, including pro-democracy groups, were suspended on grounds such as operating with expired permits, failing to file annual returns and accounts and operating without registering. They all denounced their suspension as politically motivated.
LGBTQI+ groups are being attacked as part of a broader crackdown against dissent, which is also targeting journalists, human rights lawyers, environmental activists, government critics and opposition politicians. Protests have also been repeatedly repressed.
Ugandan LGBTQI+ organisations are systematically denied registration and legal recognition. Since its founding in 2004, SMUG was forced to function as a loose informal group. It took legal action to try to have its right to register recognised. Lack of legal recognition resulted in a lack of protection, and its events, like those of other LGBTQI+ organisations, were routinely raided by the police on the orders of the Minister of Ethics and Integrity.
SMUG’s director, Frank Mugisha, characterised the suspension as ‘a clear witch hunt rooted in systematic homophobia, fuelled by anti-gay and anti-gender movements’. The regulators argued that the organisation had failed to properly register its name, while also acknowledging that it had attempted to do so a decade earlier, but its application had been rejected because the chosen name was deemed ‘undesirable’.
The right side of history
LGBTQI+ people in Ghana, Uganda and the many other countries where they are under threat know they can’t look to religious leaders for support. In very difficult conditions, they continue battling in all the ways they can to both shift social attitudes and demand laws that respect their rights.
Recent developments have made it clear that, when push comes to shove, Archbishop Welby and other church leaders will prioritise keeping their church together over preaching love and acceptance and standing by them. Their only comfort is that the course of history is on their side: change will eventually come, not least as a result of relentless civil society work, and faith leaders will have to either adjust or resign themselves to irrelevance.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Uganda must rescind the suspension of SMUG and abide by its international human rights obligations to create an enabling environment for all CSOs and human rights defenders.
The government of Ghana must resist anti-rights pressures and abandon the ‘anti-gay’ bill, moving instead towards increasing recognition of LGBTQI+ people and their rights.
Progressive church leaders and religious LGBTQI+ rights advocates should keep up the pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury to take a stronger stance on the issue.
Cover photo by LGBT+ Rights Ghana/Facebook