A conference in Durban at the end of June allowed space for LGBTIQ believers to speak about their experiences in the church – both good and bad, but mostly bad. There was a sense of optimism in the room, that the church and the queer community can work together.
It was perhaps Namibian-born Anthony Brown, an education professor, who best summed up the feeling of many people in South Africa’s queer community who were raised as Christians: “I was denied holy communion because my sins were too dirty to wash away. The very institution that gave me my sense of identity revoked it just like that.”
Many attendees – from a dozen African countries – nodded their heads in empathy.
While there were stories of allies in the church, the broader queer community mostly tells stories of exclusion. Many churches in Africa preach against homosexuality, so being a queer-identifying practising Christian can seem like a contradiction.
Brown was talking on a panel at a conference called Breaking Through the Backlash, which was held in Durban and set out to unpack holy homophobia in “transformative encounters between LGBTIQ people and the churches in Africa”.
The conference was hosted by The Other Foundation, the Diakonia Council of Churches and the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, and had the potential to inspire a rebellion among religious conservatives, trigger queer people who have felt abused by the church and – as it turns out – inspire a complex conversation with hopes for action where faith can build bridges between the church and the queer community.
A CONGREGATION DIVIDED
Activist and cleric Allan Boesak delivered one of the keynote addresses. He was not shy to blame the church for its intolerance of queer congregants and defying its own principles.
“A stain on the church” is how he described religious homophobia. He questioned how the church, which stood and fought against apartheid, could turn its back on minorities.
“The church’s inconsistency on how it reads the Bible is mind-blowing,” said Boesak.
“The church should stand where God stands – against the oppression of marginalised identities.”
Here was the conundrum – the church plays a hugely active role in African society and has been able to provide a place of dignity and acceptance for Africans. This acceptance was important to many of the delegates, until they were rejected when they came out as queer – an acceptance many still hanker for.
At Breaking Through the Backlash, many LGBTIQ Christians had similar stories to tell about rejection and isolation from the church. Pierre Buckley, a gay married Christian who is a lay minister in the Anglican church, said there were many queer Christians who faced inhumane humiliation, acts of violence and judgement from the pulpit.
So why are people going back and wanting to be part of a structure of pain?
It’s simple, for many of us a connection to God happens through the church.
But if leaders within the congregation are homophobic there are will be homophobic followers.
A RETURN TO FAITH
This collection of painful memories of intolerance at the hands of the church led to the inevitable question of whether we need these institutions to feel a spiritual connection.
Attendees spoke about how they saw young queer people connecting to God in newer and freer ways that were more open-minded and less reliant on the structures of the church.
Queer believers have started their own churches and other places of worship. There are countless support groups online on social media platforms such as Facebook. Many spoke of private religious connections and rituals within their families, who know they are queer.
But just as many are angry at the church, whose philosophies and practices entrenched colonialism and western norms in African societies. They believe that entirely new communal spaces need to be invented outside of the structures of the church because, in the words of writer, feminist and activist Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
“We’re looking towards a Kenya that is free from colonial views of what spirituality should look like,” said Yvonne Oduor, the operations officer for the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya.
Oduor shared how there are organisations in Kenya that have working relationships with religious leaders, but in the same breath they said often it’s the queers who are having to do the hard work to find common ground.
THE WAY FORWARD
Many questions arose from the conference. Do we act as rebels with a cause within the master’s house by queering theology, representing ourselves as human beings and refusing to reduce the LGBTIQ identity to a sexual act? Is it possible to humanise every aspect of diversity within scripture through the church, affirming queerness?
What was clear was that there’s a large amount of healing and unlearning that needs to happen.
The consensus in Durban was that a working relationship between the church and the queer community is possible and is already happening in certain pockets of the continent.
City Press’ Freedom For All series has reported, after all, on the power of the support groups created in the East Rand in Methodist church structures by the mother of raped and murdered lesbian football star Eudy Simelane. The groups were for mothers of lesbian women to find a way forward and to support their daughters.
In discussing ways forward, Hanzline Davids from Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, said: “We need to speak back to the church on our lived experiences as LGBTIQ people. The language the church uses, such as ‘brothers and sisters’, erases identities and cannot be engaged with.”
Davids brought a strong voice around making sure that we are mandating for including the entirety of the LGBTIQ spectrum in working with the church.
But if the church isn’t listening, does having these much-needed conversations matter?
Oduor says: “The church is listening to counter.”
It was clear in Durban that there was a need for increased queer visibility in religious spaces for engagements to happen, but is it fair to place the onus for making that happen on those who have suffered trauma in those spaces?
“Maybe it’s time to write our own Bible,” said Thabang Nkadimeng, a queer theologist teaching in KwaZulu-Natal.
This series on LGBTIQ life in Africa is made possible through a partnership with The Other Foundation. To learn more about its work, visit theotherfoundation.org