This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2016 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
KAMPALA, Uganda—Religion is at the core of many African societies, including those that cite faith and culture to condemn sexual and gender minorities as unAfrican, ungodly and unnatural.
In Uganda, despite stigma and legal prohibitions, the gender and sexual minority movement has grown into a formidable force fighting for the realization of equality for all citizens. This fight has been met by strong resistance from most religious leaders and anti-gay advocates who argue that same-sex relations are a threat to traditional African family values and that they deserve no place in the predominantly Christian nation.
Homophobic ideas have united different religious sects, political parties, and the general public. Muslim, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostal and leaders of traditional religions have all united to fight LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) rights and preached sermons that label homosexuality as an evil practice among unholy people who need spiritual and sacred cleansing.
Such rhetoric has led some religious LGBTI Ugandans and their straight allies to denounce or abandon their faiths while others work to spiritually nourish their peers.
Here we profile leaders and allies of the Ugandan LGBTI community who have kept their faith when religious leaders disowned them.
Brian Byamukama is a pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Mbale district, Eastern Uganda, and a human rights defender who works on LGBTI issues. He is the founder and Executive Director of Rural Movement Initiative (RUMI) an organization protecting marginalized people in Mbale district. Brian is an out bisexual man married to a woman, with whom he has one daughter.
Brian says the persecution of fellow LGBTI Ugandans prompted him to come out as a human rights advocate. He believes that many LGBTI Ugandans have run away from their faith communities because they are seldom given a platform to speak or defend alternative interpretations of Biblical verses often used to condemn them.
Brian believes there is no fundamental difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships as long as both are built on love. According to this preacher, God doesn’t focus on gender or sexuality but rather on the human being.
Being a religious leader and open advocate for the rights of sexual minorities has not always been easy for Brian.
“[Uganda] has become a dumping site for hate propaganda from the West. That is why most religious fundamentalists have brought their anti-gay gospel to Africa. These [fundamentalists] do not solely hold the blame. Our systems also are partly to blame for allowing people like Scott Lively to come and sow their seeds of hate in our country, pushing for the persecution of LGBTI people.”
Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries in California, has advanced anti-gay agendas in different countries around the world, including Uganda.
Brian also notes the effect of Ugandan mainstream media’s negative reporting on LGBTI issues and advises media outlets to embrace a fair and balanced approach rather than relying on sensational reporting of already marginalized people.
“Let us spread the word of God without divisionism because salvation is by grace and we have to understand that we are diverse and God is the only judge.”
Rev. Patrick Leuben Mukajanga
Rev. Patrick Leuben Mukajanga is the founder and executive director of Saint Paul’s Voice Centre of Uganda (SPAVOC), a Christian-based NGO that partners with local and international organizations to fight against the discrimination of LGBTI people in Uganda. Patrick is an out gay advocate for the rights of sexual minorities and a Christian who has dedicated his life to preaching the gospel of love to those that feel abandoned because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Most religious leaders in Uganda consider same-sex relations evil This has been witnessed during various religious “crusades” in which pastors and other evangelicals call upon the general public to fight homosexuals with all their might because they believe they contradict African family values. Patrick advises these leaders to preach the gospel of inclusiveness and to leave judgment to God. For his work, Patrick was awarded the Makwan Prize for Human Rights in 2013.
Patrick said he has been ostracized and attacked by angry residents of his home district of Ibanda in western Uganda and threatened and arrested by police on charges of promoting homosexuality. Uganda’s Penal Code Act Section 145 punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with life imprisonment.
“Because of the nature of my work and my openness while advocating for the rights of LGBTI people, I have suffered many forms of discrimination from my immediate neighbors. I have kept strong despite these challenges.”.
Ugandan media has been known to out and shame people suspected of being LGBTI. Some tabloids have printed the names, faces, and addresses of such people alongside sensational headlines, inciting public violence against sexual minorities. Targeted Ugandans have been disowned by their families, evicted, fired from their jobs and kicked out of school. Facing verbal and physical attacks, many LGBTI Ugandans have sought asylum abroad.
“Our media here in Uganda has always reported stories about LGBTI issues with more sensationalism, which has caused more harm to these outed members of the gender and sexual minority community. I hope that all this can be eradicated if our journalists here researched more and emphasized professionalism while reporting on such sensitive topics in society.”
Patrick believes that God loves all his creations and that all humans deserve equal and fair treatment in society, despite their differences.
Diana Sydney Bakuraira
Diane Sydney Bakuraira, better known as “Didi Baks” in the Ugandan LGBTI community, is an out lesbian woman, a trained paralegal and administrative officer at the Kampala-based NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
Born and raised in a Christian family, she was taught that God loves us despite our sins. Although religious persecution of sexual minorities has caused her to question her faith at times, she believes that only God can judge us.
Diane uses social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook to share scriptures of encouragement with her followers and to encourage them not to lose hope in the face of persecution. She does the same offline at LGBTI community gatherings.
She believes these messages of hope have impacted many LGBTI lives. On a recent trip to the U.S., a friend told Diane that her messages on social media had encouraged her to return to church to try to reconcile her sexuality and her faith.
In 2007, Diane left her old house of worship in Kampala because of the pastor’s hate sermons. She then moved from church to church in search of an all-inclusive space and finally found Rubaga Miracle Centre in Kampala, which preaches against discrimination and focuses on love.
“The best way for these religious leaders to understand LGBTI people is to first of all get in touch with them, understand who they are, their background, and then approach them with a gospel of love, not hate. Before you change your attitude towards something you must first understand why you have that very attitude. They need to first understand the LGBTI community and find a way of preaching to them the appropriate message of love depending on different interpretations of the Bible.”
Diane believes that religious leaders who disown sexual and gender minorities often do so because they selectively and wrongly interpret verses of the Bible. She says these verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy make LGBTI people feel guilty and unwanted, yet the Bible is meant to encourage us to love one another. She encourages preachers to embrace diversity in their churches and to make an effort to understand their congregations.
“However much the world does not understand me, my God does and he is the only person who will judge me and the only one who holds the truth and the answers. So, for me to keep in touch with my faith is quite important as a Christian.”
Diane encourages LGBTI people to find churches where they feel spiritually comfortable and to not always focus on hate speech or they will become demoralized. She advises religious leaders to embrace peace and love and tells the public not to judge, persecute or discriminate against LGBTI people, encouraging them to research sexuality and gender identity.
Pastor Samson Turinawe
Pastor Samson Turinawe is the founder and director of Universal Love Ministries, a charity based in Kampala that preaches for the inclusion of LGBTI persons. After his graduation from Life Bible school in 2005, Turinawe ministered in a Pentecostal church as a youth pastor in Bushenyi, western Uganda. By 2006,,his congregants started openly discussing sexual minorities, and the church that he was administering started expelling suspected LGBTI members.
Convinced that these members should be heard and understood rather than banished, he stood in their defense and eventually parted ways with the church.
“It is not right to chase away someone that is seeking the righteousness of God, because we are all God’s children,” Samson says he told church officials. “My church responded by saying that they can’t tolerate this and that I am a dangerous person and that they can’t allow me to continue administering in their church because I am promoting homosexuality.”
His own banishment from the church inspired Samson to create a space where sexual minorities would be free to express themselves without prejudice and where he could educate religious leaders about the gospel of love, tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities.
Thus, was born Universal Love Ministries, which educates religious leaders on gender identity, sex orientation and spirituality. Samson believes most preachers who spread messages of intolerance towards LGBTI people do so because they lack knowledge about them and that these sensitization programs can help them learn more about SOGIE issues.
Samson also educates religious leaders on how to contextually interpret the Bible in ways that respect all people. While some leaders are willing to learn more about sexuality and gender identity and have responded positively to such messages and techniques, others refuse to listen.
“We believe that if these religious leaders are sensitized about these issues and understand them, they will be able to make informed decisions.”
Because of his work with LGBTI people, Samson has faced discrimination and been called a sinner and a pastor gone astray, often by other pastors. He believes religious leaders who use the Bible to persecute sexual minorities are teaching their own gospel but not the one that Jesus taught.
“We see Jesus identifying with every person, we see Jesus teaching love, but we don’t see Jesus teaching to discriminate, and so those using [the Bible] to condemn and persecute LGBTI people have gone astray. You are not going to heaven because of your sexual orientation or who you hold hands with. You are going to heaven because you are God’s child and because of his grace. God loves every person.”
Bishop Christopher Senyonjo
Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is a retired Anglican Bishop in the Church of Uganda who has dedicated his life to defending marginalized people, especially LGBTI Ugandans, through counseling and spiritual refurbishment programs. He is the founder of St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre (SPREC), which aims to reconcile heterosexual and LGBTIQ persons.
His open declaration for support of sexual minorities prompted the Anglican Church to bar him for supporting what peers consider “ungodly.” This didn’t stop him. Senyonjo believes God loves all his creatures without any form of discrimination, and this is evidenced in Jesus’ gospel of loving one another.
Senyonjo worked with determination to combat the infamous Anti-Homosexuality bill that was signed into law by President Museveni in February 2014 and annulled by the Constitutional Court in August 2014 on technical grounds.
“The only problem we have is a lack of education, and some people are not willing to learn and understand deeply the concept of sexuality and gender identity. Once people embrace and research more about these issues, homophobia will be eliminated gradually in society.”
Bishop believes God’s love does not segregate and that LGBTI people should be given space to express themselves in their churches rather than being fenced off or excluded for being different.
Barigye Ambrose is a journalist and activist based in Kampala, Uganda.