Religiously sanctioned homophobia is the “greatest obstacle” to the full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Southern Africa, says a report released last week.
Just days earlier, celebrity Somizi Mhlongo made headlines when he walked out of the Grace Bible Church in Pimville, Soweto, after a homophobic sermon by a visiting pastor. This past weekend, about 30 LGBTI activists held a silent protest outside the church after they were denied entry.
Titled Silent No Longer: Narratives of Engagement Between LGBTI Groups and the Churches in Southern Africa, the report, by the Other Foundation and released on January 25, found that “homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual minorities” and that “through the powerful influence they have on their congregations, they contribute strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by LGBTI people in the region”.
At the Grace Bible Church two weeks ago Ghanaian pastor Dag Heward-Mills called homosexuality “unnatural”. “You don’t find two male dogs, two male lions, two male impalas, two male lizards. You don’t find that in nature. That is unnatural. There is nothing like that in nature.”
On Sunday, the protesters were escorted off the church grounds by security officials, one of whom derisively commented: “Love will conquer your sin.”
Thami Kotlolo, one of the protesters, explained their purpose: “Our hope is to spark dialogue and hopefully get the church’s policies changed. The aim is not to fight or antagonise, but rather to make people think and remind the church that there are passages in the Bible that promote love.”
Part of Kotlolo’s artillery in this bid were posters scrawled with Biblical text such as “Love thy neighbour as you love yourself” and “But he who loves God is known by God”.
Another protester, Geoffrey Ogwaro, a human rights advocate specialising in LGBTI rights with the University of Pretoria Faculty of Law’s Centre for Human Rights, said: “We are saying the church should stop spreading discriminatory messages that could be read as hate speech. Saying LGBTIQ people are less than animals is dehumanising them. There is a connection between the messages heard from pulpits and the violence against LGBTIQ people, especially against lesbians.”
The Other Foundation’s report, which highlights the role of the church in sustaining homophobia and transphobia, also found that “many Christians in Southern Africa have long been champions of liberation and social justice” and that “a minority is again standing with those on the margins”.
Part of this minority “consistently speaking out against poverty, injustice and violence” is Zola Sefatse, who decided to join the protesters instead of attending the service.
“I’m supporting them because I believe in human rights and that the church cannot judge,” said Sefatse, holding a poster reading “Love one another”.
The church’s official statement, however, saw it holding firm to its position of respecting the values enshrined in the Constitution, but still adhering to Bible-sanctioned belief “in heterosexual relationships between a natural man and a natural woman within the confines of lawful matrimony”.
With this stance offering little hope to Christian LGBTI people, activists are well aware that they have their work cut out for them.
Willing to put in this work, Cameron Modisane said: “Our protest here is part of a national campaign to be visible in faith spaces and hopefully change the narrative for the purposes of building a society in which there is no violence against LGBTI people. We are going to keep this momentum going. We will keep applying pressure until they make some concession.”
Virginia Magwaza, another protester and the advocacy and campaigns officer with the Other Foundation, added: “Our task is not to change the minds of churches on whether homosexuality is right or wrong. They do, after all, have the right to freedom of religious belief. What we do, however, want them to see and acknowledge is that, through the statements they make about LGBTI people, they are contributing to the hatred towards and violence against us.”
Carl Collison in the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian