Unitarian Universalists work for LGBT rights in Africa

Unitarian Universalists work for LGBT rights in Africa

Congregational partnerships and United Nations advocacy challenge oppressive laws.

Christian Schmidt
The Rev. Mark Kiyimba

The Rev. Mark Kiyimba, minister of the UU Church of Kampala, Uganda, speaks at a Standing on the Side of Love rally in Charlotte, N.C., June 24, 2011 (© Nancy Pierce)

© Nancy Pierce/UUA


In some African countries, it isn’t safe to be yourself if you aren’t heterosexual or if you are transgender. Sexual and gender minorities face the specter of violence, being ostracized, losing a job, being kicked out of school, or worse.

In Uganda, for example, the legislature passed a law in December 2013—annulled by court order in August 2014—that threatened life imprisonment simply for being gay or transgender. “Promoting” homosexuality could be punished by up to seven years in prison. Though that law was overturned, a similar bill is under consideration again.

Unitarian Universalists and our co-religionists around the world are trying to help LGBT people facing persecution in Uganda and other African nations, like nearby Burundi and Kenya, where there are also Unitarian groups.

The 2014 General Assembly of the U.S.-based Unitarian Universalist Association passed an Action of Immediate Witness in support of Friends New Underground Railroad, which is working to help LGBT people in Uganda to escape the country.

Unitarian Universalists in Uganda have been working for several years to raise awareness and support LGBT people, with support from UUs elsewhere. All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., for instance, began supporting the UU Church in Kampala, Uganda, and its minister, the Rev. Mark Kiyimba, in 2009. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls, and lay leaders from the church have traveled to Uganda and helped support conferences there about LGBT issues. All Souls has raised money and other resources for the Ugandan church and its school.

All Souls became involved in 2009 at the invitation of the UUA International Office, which was in touch with Kiyimba. At the time, Bishop Carlton Pearson’s primarily black, Pentecostal church was finding a new home as part of the All Souls congregation, and working with African UUs seemed like a timely opportunity.

“Some of us were interested in becoming involved in Africa and partnering with an African church, and many of us are supporters of LGBT rights,” All Souls lay leader George Davenport said. “The timing of Mark’s approach to the UUA and the joining of churches in Tulsa—it was a match that made sense at so many levels.”

All Souls has handed off some of its Ugandan work. Support for LGBT persons now goes through the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, while All Souls continues to support the UU church and its associated school directly.

On a larger scale, the UUA’s United Nations Office (UU-UNO) has done significant advocacy work to prevent legal discrimination against LGBT persons. Beginning in 2009, the UU-UNO has built connections across a wide spectrum of religious organizations at the United Nations to push for protection, including strengthening language in resolutions and working closely with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In addition to advocacy work at the UN level, the UU-UNO has also provided resources and helped connect groups to provide for basic human needs.

“We asked [persecuted LGBT persons in Africa], ‘What is the thing you need most?’” said Bruce Knotts, director of the UU-UNO. “They said, ‘Literacy. Most of us were identified when we were young and kicked out of homes, kicked out of schools, so we never finished our education.’”

Knotts said that changing laws to protect people is important, but the needs go much deeper. LGBT persons in some countries are shunned and denied access to health care, housing, and employment.

While several African countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, have serious problems, Knotts pointed out that some other African countries are quite progressive. South Africa, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage and passed laws against discrimination.

In some of the countries where LGBT people are persecuted, local Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist groups may not have LGBT concerns as a top social justice priority, said the Rev. Steve Dick, executive director of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. In Burundi, South Africa, and Uganda, UUs have been outspoken in favor of LGBT rights; in Nigeria and Kenya, however, they have not. Dick said the ICUU is working to help local groups develop the capacity to do their own activism and social justice work, with support from UUs in other parts of the world.

“Our model used to be ‘wait for them to organize, then come see us,’ but now we support and work with people from the ground up,” Dick said. “It’s not just to speak up when [governments are] threatening legislation, but to work to build local capacity, so that they will be strong and we can help support them.”

Several UU congregations and organizations in the United States are helping refugees who have fled their home countries because of persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Guardian Group at First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco assists immigrants, many of them fleeing persecution because of their identities. The UU-UNO is helping support the launch of a similar group in New York City.

Knotts said most refugees coming to the United States end up in large cities, like San Francisco and New York. They usually have little or nothing with them; many have only the clothes they wear. Knotts said they need legal services, public transit passes, warm clothing, and shelter.

Jill McAlister, ICUU’s senior program consultant, said what UUs in the United States and elsewhere can most do to help is “expand their multicultural awareness and learn about our own biases for how we do international work.” In many countries, LGBT issues aren’t the top priority, and even in places where they are, like Africa, it’s easy for those from the U.S. to get excited about that single issue and not supportive of UUs or others in those countries as a whole.

“We try to help Americans have a broader view as we are embedded in an international, global movement,” McAlister said. “The questions we ask need to be different. We’re concerned with how do we help UUs around the world be strong, vital, sustainable communities so that their own understanding of freedom and faith can be worked on.”

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