Hi, Cardinal Napier. I'm lesbian

To deny the existence of gay people is to render them unknowable, says Melanie Judge.

To deny the existence of gay people is to render them unknowable, says Melanie Judge.

Dear Cardinal Napier,

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian last week, you stated: "I can't be accused of homophobia because I don't know any homosexuals." For someone who doesn't know any homosexuals, you've spent a considerable amount of time concerning yourself with the lives of lesbian and gay people – specifically our rights to equality and protection under the law.

If you don't know us, and then by implication there aren't any of us in your church, it seems queer that you would assume such an active position in denying us our right to rights. During public hearings on the Civil Union Bill, you were at pains to submit that "homosexual acts are … intrinsically evil … [M]an-made laws cannot legitimise what is against the natural moral law. Civil law cannot make what is wrong right."

From this it is clear that the Catholic Church entrenches a version of social relations and human sexuality based on male supremacy, the subordination of women, and the abjection of homosexuality.
Its power, and yours by extension, is therefore premised on a system of gender and sexual inequalities presented as natural and normal. Perhaps your investment in the lives of sinful others is driven by an interest in protecting that power and the ideology that props it up. If so, I can understand why you'd rail against gays, lesbians and women who challenge your ideology.

As you would know, a powerful way to neutralise nonconforming people whose very existence challenges your church's prescription for human interaction is to make them invisible. To deny the very existence of gay and lesbian people is to render them unknowable and unseeable. Excluding people in this way sends a message to lesbian and gay people in your church (many of whom I know and see, and I'm not even Catholic) that they will be not be acknowledged by your leadership. To deny recognition is to deny human dignity, a strategy at the heart of homophobia.

The mainstream churches have systematically demonised non-hetero­normative sexualities and genders by declaring them evil. In this language of punishment and correction, that which is different (read inferior) and "morally wrong", we find a powerful and fundamental justification for inequality.

Astutely, you ask: "How can the church maintain its relevance in a world where issues it takes a stance against – such as same-sex marriages and abortion – are deemed by many countries as being matters of personal choice?" It seems the church is unable to adapt to a society now based on equality, nondiscrimination and democratic accountability, which is why the question of its relevance arises.

Material consequences
The Catholic Church's medieval morality marks a desperate attempt to claw back the special privileges of men, heterosexuals and procreative marital sex. This has enormous material consequences for those who are excluded from these social arrangements. The social norms promoted by the church as non-sinful have resulted in the death of millions as a result of its condemnation of women's sexual and reproductive rights and its damning of condom use in the face of Aids.

Thankfully the Catholic Church does not hold the monopoly on religious ethics. Ever more religious leaders are choosing to see prejudice and the people it affects. In speaking out for and with gay and lesbian people, these leaders demonstrate how religion can be mobilised to advance justice and equality.

Sexuality and gender were heavily regulated and constrained under apartheid and colonialism. Women and queers "knew their place" and "suffered" quietly and invisibly. Now we see a burgeoning of sexual and gender diversity – it's exciting stuff, Cardinal. It's a sign of a plural and democratising society in which ­difference is no longer synonymous with dysfunction.

Shunning difference and enforcing conformity is how the church has asserted its control over populations for centuries. But this unchecked grip on power has been slipping in the face of democratic pressures. I feel for you, Cardinal; it's hard to compete with the divine prospect of freedom and equality.

The Constitution, as you know, grants the right to freedom of belief and religious association. Yet these rights have limitations and cannot be exercised in conflict with the primary principles of equality and non-discrimination. I can understand that might make you a little nervous, Cardinal. After all, religious institutions don't like being held accountable by us mortals. Yet we have citizens' demands for accountability to thank for the exposure of the sexual abuse of children by your church.

Queers and women are laying claim to the resources, recognition and representations of citizenship – both inside and outside the church. It's the stuff of democracy and of human rights. Still, none so blind as those who will not see.


Melanie Judge, a known lesbian

Melanie Judge

Melanie Judge

Melanie Judge is a queer and feminist activist and adjunct associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town. She is also the author of Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race Read more from Melanie Judge

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