/ 7 December 2016

A queer thing is going on in southern Africa’s churches

Gerald West
Gerald West

Pitting themselves against conservative religious institutions, a few dedicated activists in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa are working to gain greater acceptance of their countries’ lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities.

Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) minister André Bartlett has been in talks with the church since 1999 in an effort to make it more inclusive of LGBTI people. He has also been pushing for the church to acknowledge LGBTI relationships and remove its celibacy clause, which prohibits openly gay ministers from entering into same-sex relationships.

At the church’s synod in October last year, Bartlett and a fellow minister, Monty Sahd, put forward their proposal, and 64% voted in favour of it. The decision surprised many, Bartlett included. “It was a bold and accommodating decision the church had taken,” he says.

But the progressive decision was overturned at a special synod meeting earlier this month, leaving Bartlett “disappointed and appalled”.

“It’s like inviting someone over to your home for a meal and then, when they get there, slamming the door in their face,” adds Louis van der Riet, another DRC minister.

But Bartlett is grateful that his years-long work with the church was not entirely in vain — the church has stipulated that the decision should not be forced on parishes. “It makes allowance for ministers and parishes to make their own decision around this,” he says.

The oldest DRC congregation in the country, Cape Town’s Groote Kerk, is one DRC parish that has decided to support its LGBTI congregants.

“There are congregants in our church who are members of the LGBT community and we want to say to them, ‘You’re our brothers and sisters and we stand alongside you,’ ” says Riaan de Villiers, the church’s minister.

In April this year, a report titled When Faith Does Violence: Re-imagining Engagement Between Churches and LGBTI Groups on Homophobia in Africa, was presented at the Homophobia and the Churches in Africa dialogue, held in Pietermaritzburg.

The report found that “sexuality has become a new site of struggle and [that] the ‘old’ theology does not fit, because it is founded on heteropatriarchy”. Commissioned by the Other Foundation, the report also called for the “historically inherited theology [to] be interrogated for its usefulness for the new site of struggle”.

Gerald West, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, says most LGBTI people in South Africa have a faith commitment.

“In almost every case, their faith has failed them, stigmatising and condemning them. We must recognise that our faith traditions are not neutral. They have been forged within heteropatriarchy. We cannot avoid religion in dealing with sexuality,” says West, who was one of the report’s authors.

Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) director Judith Kotzé agrees. “What is important is that the lived reality of LGBTI people of faith be partnered by theologians and academia to produce theology that is relevant to our times.”

IAM was established in 1995 to raise awareness of diversity regarding sexual orientation and faith interpretation on the continent.

Through his work with the Ujamaa Centre at UKZN, which ultimately aims to ensure social transformation, West wants to foster greater acceptance of LGBTI people by religious leaders.

“Our heritage in South Africa, even within progressive organisations, is to treat sexuality as an individual identity issue rather than a communal systemic issue. We made this mistake in dealing with HIV and we are repeating [it in] engaging with LGBTI realities. We must deal with sexuality as we have with slavery and apartheid; it is a systemic justice issue, not an individual moral issue,” he says.

Also presented at the Churches in Africa dialogue — which drew 100 participants from 13 countries representing interested church groups and LGBTI organisations — was the report Engaging the Churches about Homophobia in Southern Africa: Understanding the Past, Present and Future Strategies.

The report found that “churches have been hotbeds for the creation and sustenance of homophobia and transphobia” and that “whether one is religious or not, there is no doubt that, as long as one lives in a community that is predominantly religious, such individuals’ lives would be influenced and affected by the larger society”.

According to the report, LGBTI individuals and groups “have not given up the hope of being heard [to eliminate] “the irrational fear that has been sown by those that do not want to see LGBTI persons being accorded the same status as all other beings in these societies”.

This is perfectly illustrated in the work that a Lesotho-based organisation, the People’s Matrix Association, does. With a tiny staff complement of seven, the organisation, which was established in 2009, has been working with religious leaders in Maseru since 2010 to help shift perceptions and work towards inclusivity for the country’s LGBTI people.

As part of the monthly dialogues and workshops it hosts, the organisation has sympathetic lecturers from the University of Maseru, as well as religious leaders, to facilitate discussions with more conservative church leaders.

“They were very hesitant at first but now we have some real champions leading the process,” says Tampose Mothopeng, the director of the association.

One such champion is the Roma-based Catholic minister, Tlali Phohlo.

“Talking about sexual minorities is still a taboo in Lesotho. When you speak to individual church leaders, you’ll find some people are afraid to talk about it, let alone take a progressive position.”

For Phohlo, his engagement with the organisation has proven to be beneficial. “The dialogues are really enlightening … because they challenge most of the tenets of our faith and make us rethink them.”

Mothopeng adds: “There is a lot more acceptance now, because people were interpreting the Bible very literally but are now interpreting it contextually.”

The Swaziland-based LGBTI rights organisation, Rock of Hope, has generally had the polar opposite response to its efforts to bring about change.

“Church leaders in Swaziland are not willing to engage in conversation and knowledge sharing on LGBTI issues,” says Thuthu Magagula, the organisation’s acting director.

Then in August this year, in a first for the country, Rock of Hope facilitated a discussion between church leaders, activists and members of the LGBTI community.

“It was a good platform of sharing and listening, but later turned into a space where the church leaders wanted to discuss biblical verses and opinions, so tempers started flaring,” says Magagula.

Despite the heated turn the discussion took, she says a few church leaders expressed their willingness to take the conversation further.

“We want to continue engaging religious leaders because they are an integral sector of the Swazi society and very influential on social issues. We want them to know the truth about us so they can stop spreading hate about us,” she says.

Kotzé reiterates the need for the work of civil society organisations such as Rock of Hope. “Africa is highly religious, so no change will come if the message is not translated into religious settings.”

West believes that the onus remains on the church to take the initiative. “The church does not have the capacity to engage with sexuality without the guidance and support of civil society. So the churches must reach out.”

Unwilling to wait for this to happen, activists like Bartlett continue to forge ahead in their fight for acceptance.

“I will keep on doing this because I take my position in the church seriously. I also take inclusivity seriously. There will be setbacks, yes, but I’m willing to carry on. We have to find a way around this.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.

The Other Foundation