LGBTI Rights in Jamaica and Uganda discussed at Toronto Reference Library
By Neil Armstrong
|Left-right: Marcia Young of World Report, CBC Radio, moderator of the conversation with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, Dane Lewis, executive director of J-FLAG, and Maurice Tomlinson, senior policy analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.|
It was an enlightening conversation at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library on Wednesday night (Oct. 12) when the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network presented “One Love – LGBTI Rights in Jamaica” which explored these rights in Jamaica and Uganda.
Moderated by Marcia Young, host of World Report, CBC Radio, the dialogue was with three leading activists in the struggle for LGBT rights: Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda, author of “In Defense of All God’s Children,” whose brave efforts to advance human rights for LGBT people in his country is chronicled in the film "God Loves Uganda,” Dane Lewis, executive director of Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), who led the successful Pride celebrations in Kingston, and Maurice Tomlinson of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, who gave an update on the network’s challenge to Jamaica's anti-sodomy law.
Just before the conversation, sisters Marguerite Orane and Carole Orane, hosted the “One Love Meet & Greet” with the speakers.
Earlier this week Bishop Senyonjo and Lewis were in Ottawa where they met with Giuliana Natale, Director of Inclusion and Religious Freedom at Global Affairs Canada.
Tomlinson, Bishop Senyonjo, and others are now in Jamaica for the second Montego Bay Pride on October 16.
Bishop Senyonjo, 84, said when a group of young LGBTQ people initially came to him to talk about their sexual orientation he listened to them.
“And when I did, I realized that they knew that they were gay, then I said to them accept yourselves for what you are. This was really good news to them because they felt that even God did not love them. But they knew me as a senior man in the church who had already served for 24 years as a bishop and to hear this they almost couldn’t believe their ears. But I knew this was the truth and I felt happy that these young people felt relieved when they left.”
Asked how he responded to people who heard that he was an advocate for the LGBTQ community in Uganda, Senyonjo said: “The way I’ve been doing this was to listen to them and continue to interact with them, and I’ve done this which has been very important because as I interact and share they’re coming to understand the other side. Many of them, and they still today believe that humans were created to be just heterosexuals, but now more people understand that human beings are not just heterosexuals, they’re also LGBTQ, and this is wonderful to many people but this news is being shared. And education, to me, is very very important.”
The clergyman and campaigner for LGBTQ rights in Uganda, who has faced many challenges because of his advocacy, said there is ignorance about human sexuality and he is quite convinced with the counseling and experience that he has that people don’t realize that the purpose of human sexuality is multi-purposed.
“At this point, I would like to mention procreation, of course. Without procreation none of us would be here but along with procreation there is companionship – you need somebody to keep company – then of course there’s pleasure in sex, pleasure which many people fear to talk about. Sex was meant to be pleasurable.”
He said in his interaction with people he has found that if people do not accept themselves it affects their creativity.
“When people are integrated their sexuality is really part of them, they know who they are and accept themselves. They become more creative. If they’re artists, they become better artists. If they’re scientists, they become more scientists. If you’re religious, you become even more religious. So therefore if people understood this, we shouldn’t be homophobic.”
Bishop Senyonjo started the St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Inequality Centre in Kampala “to end the stigma and to create some kind of understanding between the LGBTQ community and straight,” noted Young.
He said the work of the centre still goes on and because they have insisted, he has seen some progress and change of attitude so there’s hope.
Bishop Senyonjo said there are still people who are being persecuted and they have to move from where they were living in homes because of the potential of harm from those who may find out that “they are not straight.”
He said some of them are finding programs but there is a need to build dialogue with people.
“My organization is trying to have seminars and now we’re trying to build a centre where we can house people who’re being displaced because they’re not finding it easy in the community where they were, and have seminars where we have dialogue with the clergy.”
At end of October, the centre will hold a seminar to which the clergy has been invited. He has left a team of young people in Kampala organizing the event while he is on his visit to Canada and Jamaica.
“So that we have dialogue. In a dialogue, you listen to people and you listen to their views and you share. You’re not forcing them to believe this or that but during that process something is happening – the attitudes change. And because we believe that we know the truth, the truth will not die.”
Bishop Senyonjo knew LGBTQ rights activist, David Kato, who was killed in 2011 shortly after being outed by a newspaper in Uganda.
“He valued and defended human rights. I worked with David, even at my centre when I had just started counseling. He believed in what he was and in the rights of other people. He spoke out and he died, to me, as a martyr. So his death is not in vain. People have not denied being homosexual because David died but they’ve known and respect themselves to be what they are because that’s how God created them.”
Alluding to his book in which a gay man who has suffered a lot said he would continue to advocate the rights of LGBTQ people, Senyonjo said, “We cannot deny who we are, what you are. You have to learn to live with the diversity, with the differences. So Kato has taught us things. He’s dead but he’s still living and speaking.”
“What happens to us in Uganda affects the rest of the world,” said Bishop Senyonjo when asked about the importance of the meeting he had at Global Affairs Canada.
“The world is really one whether we like it or not. As I see it, God is working wonders in the way humans are developing, even different technology. The technology which many beings have developed are showing that we who are made in the image of God – we are one. We should learn from each other. This knowledge shouldn’t just be superficial but knowledge should help us to know that as we are one, we’re different and what is good for one people is also good for the others. Accepting our differences is the human essence. If we as humans don’t accept this, the development we’ve had will be destroyed. We’re going to destroy ourselves. But we have tremendous opportunities for us if we learn to live together – not fight each other because we’re different.”
Uganda is one of 78 countries in the world that has anti-sodomy laws.
“Pride for us is not a parade, they’re other ways to celebrate our diversity as a community. And when we were thinking about it, one of the things I agreed with my team is we’re not going to attempt to do a parade. Jamaica isn’t ready. I think we would have more allies out in the street from the community, for one, and I don’t think there would be enough police protection,” said Lewis.
He said years ago in Jamaica when there was talk of a parade, men were in a busy thoroughfare with machetes and shovels.
For Pride Week last year, they organized an Open Mic Night to showcase the creativity of the LGBTI community and held various activities.
“This year as we highlighted ‘bigger, better, bolder’ we started off with a Sports Day and for me that was awesome, in terms of the turn out of the community, which shows a great trust in J-FLAG as an organization that is shifting from just an organization to a movement. I think we’ve been building up that kind of atmosphere,” Lewis said.
They started off the Sports Day with cheerleading, then netball, track & field events which drew over 600 people and was held near an inner city community where LGBTQ people have been beaten and kicked out.
Lewis said people felt safe to attend the event because they knew that there was security, which was very encouraging.
“The community had been taking lots of risks. In the last ten years, we have come out and claim space and we have to attribute a lot of the shift and change to those who have been able to put their face out there, in whatever way, and certainly the trans community must be applauded for helping to shift that conversation as well. When you create the space they will show up.”
Speaking about creating spaces, Lewis spoke of traversing the same spaces all the time and creating relationships with people.
“You build those relationships. Once they get to see you as, not the pedophile that they assume many of us are, all the stereotypes get broken down and you get to humanize the reality of the LGBT community. That’s basically how many of us have claimed space over time – just building those relationships, people get to see us as human beings, as individuals with the same desire for love and affection, education, secure housing, etc.”
Young referenced the documentary, “The Abominable Crime,” directed by Micah Fink in 2013, which mentioned that 82% of Jamaicans considered homosexuality to be morally wrong.
Asked what was the reality today, Lewis said: “Morality still factors in how people perceive the community and certainly religion plays a huge role in how people perceive different things, sexuality included. Some of that is stripping away.”
He said because of the evangelical movement, Jamaica has not facilitated the kind of conversation that “allows every family to experience that love and affection regardless.”
Bishop Senyonjo said the Christian Right has a certain way to look at the bible, which usually involves its proponents quoting sections of the bible without context.
He said many would be quick to mention Sodom and Gomorrah and homosexuality but would refuse to examine Ezekiel 16:49 to relate the two.
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” [Ezekiel 16:49]
According to Senyonjo they go on quoting the bible, Leviticus and so on, “and because people don’t like to see what is really the bible. Are you reading it just superficial, was it meant to bear on the human issues and realize that God still reveals himself? There is still revelation going on. And then we have to learn from what is being discovered that our faith should seek understanding.”
“God is a God of love but quite often people forget that,” the bishop said.
Lewis said, sadly, the Christian Right “are taking their fight to where their issues will take root.”
“They’re leaving spaces where they’ve lost, like Canada and the US, and they’ve come to spaces where, as I raised in Jamaica, that religion factors hugely in how people’s lives are shaped. That’s really what they’ve used.”
He said in Jamaica when Javed Jaghai was the claimant in the first-ever case that came before the court that was subsequently withdrawn, there were 13 churches that filed against the claimant.
“They since had two big rallies in Half Way Tree,” he said, noting that they claimed they had 100,000 people (estimates were about 25,000).
‘That’s a signal to our politicians, unfortunately, the kind of influence that the church has. So that’s really what they’ve used sort of as their sticking point, their bit of leverage to sort of restrict the conversation,” said Lewis.
He said the Christian Right have shut down the conversation and have not facilitated “any proper dialogue where we can actually talk about the things that are of common interest, and which is, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to strike up that kind of…but they left spaces where they’ve lost and come to what is fertile ground in the Caribbean and spaces in Africa to carry a message of hate and exclusion.”
Bishop Senyonjo said the battle goes on and the fight back includes education.
Lewis said the Christian Right is shutting down conversations about sexuality in schools and in children’s homes where there is a lot of sexual abuse and a lot of experimentation.
Identifying areas of need, Lewis said unfortunately there are still a lot of young people being kicked out of homes and communities because it’s “the young people who are willing to come out at whatever age right now and they’re just being very bold about it. As I say, claiming space, but certainly the young people and the trans community have helped to push the envelope in the last 5 years.”
Lewis said there is a growing homeless community and J-FLAG has not been able to raise enough funds to be able to own a space, and he thinks that’s the only way they will be able to get it done.
He said interventions have been done around counseling and trying to provide psychosocial support.
Lewis also wants to facilitate in spaces the kinds of conversations that are going to be empowering to LGBT youth.
“For us, Pride is also about creating space for the community to be themselves outside of a party party, outside of having sex, apparently those are the only times we can form our identity. Unfortunately, how you live your life in certain spaces is supposed to be relegated to behind closed doors. What does that mean? And so we need to understand that there are other ways to express who you are that’s not just about sex or about party.”
Lewis noted that colour and class play a lot in how life is navigated.
He acknowledged that people’s response to his leadership of J-FLAG is different because of his skin colour and assumptions of his class status and surnames sometimes make a difference too.
“That certainly has a lot to do with how people experience life, unfortunately,” he said.
Tomlinson said he thinks he needs to lend his voice to the LGBTI community and the work that is going on in Jamaica.
“There’s a lot of work going on as Dane has described but I think I have privilege and I can use it. The privilege I have is that I have resources, I have the ability to go and come, I have a face and a name that won’t jeopardize me or my family any more. They’re people who can’t be as visible as I can be. I also, at some point, plan to retire to Jamaica,” he said.
Referencing Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law passed in 1864, Tomlinson said it was imposed as a British colonial product and sentences “men, principally, to up to 10 years in prison for same gender intimacy and this can include anything, including holding hands in the privacy of your bedroom. You cannot consent to this,” he said noting that men can be charged for either buggery or gross indecency.
He said in 2011, Jamaica updated the law by adding a requirement to the Sexual Offences Act that “if you’re convicted under this 1864 law, you must now be registered as a sex offender, you must carry a pass and if you’re without this pass you face a JA$1million fine plus up to 12 months in prison for each offence.”
“We’ve tried in Jamaica to insulate this law from any form of judicial review but we, at the network, and with our partners have found a way to get around that. The challenge also is that in 2011 we updated the Constitution to also ban any form of same gender relationship.”
Tomlinson said this is a clear example of the western imposition of this anti-gay agenda.
“We in Jamaica don’t care about marriage per se, 85% of our population is born out of wedlock.”
He said this wasn’t an issue for the LGBT community or for most of the heterosexual community.
“Common law marriage was the way things were done but now, in addition to this criminalization and this registration as sex offenders, we also have this ban on any form of same gender relationships. We are challenging right now the law criminalizing same gender intimacy,” said Tomlinson.
Regarding his court challenge of a decision by three television stations in Jamaica not to air an advertisement calling for respect of the rights of homosexuals, he said the basis of the claim was that the refusal violated his rights under the new Charter which Jamaica adopted in 2011.
It allowed him to sue a television station privately for violating his right of freedom of expression and access to the media.
He said the court did not agree that the television stations violated his rights but for the first time the court ruled that even though the Charter does not specifically protect LGBT people, “it is to be assumed that because we’re Jamaicans we’re entitled to all the rights of the Constitution. So that gives us a win to take to other cases.”
He said the court also acknowledged that private citizens can sue other private citizens for violations of their rights.
Tomlinson said they are now awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeal in this matter.
With regard to this question from Young, “Is it an imposition to say to the Jamaican judiciary and legislators, this is how it ought to be done?” – Tomlinson said when he speaks to Jamaican and Canadian politicians, he adopts a quick acronym, ARB.
“You need to acknowledge as Canadians that a lot of the homophobia we’re experiencing in the global south comes from the global north, we also need to acknowledge that in the global north we still have challenges here, let’s not pretend that it’s perfect. We also need to respect the elected leaders in the global south because sometimes in our exuberance, our political leaders here can say the wrong things and they can exacerbate the situation, as happened in Uganda, a government minister in Canada spoke out against the situation in Uganda to the Speaker of the House, Mrs. Kadaga and she was so incensed at how the matter was dealt with that she went back and pushed through the anti-homosexuality bill. So, please respect the leaders. As I’ve said before, they’re bastards but they are our bastards so please respect our political process because it’s a mark of respect for us as a people. We’re working on them. As Dane will tell you there’s a lot of backdoor dialogue, discussions that you may not know.”
“And, respect the local people on the ground because they are doing work, they don’t need to be saved” said Tomlinson.
His advice is to engage decision makers/politicians with positives not negatives as people will be more willing to listen.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network promotes the human rights of people living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, in Canada and internationally, through research and analysis, advocacy and litigation, public education and community mobilization.