Together for the end of LGBT criminalisation

This is an opinion piece by Phil Groves and we hope you may comment via our Facebook Page

Decriminalisation of LGBT people everywhere is the stated aim of the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

At the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in London hopes were entertained by those campaigning for the decriminalisation of LGBT people. The British Government was committed to encouraging change, but the Kenyan President left saying gay rights were of no importance. He was clear change is not going to happen.

Why? He insisted that the opposition to LGBT inclusion is rooted in their culture. You have your culture and we have ours and we agree to disagree.

Desmond Tutu has said that in Africa the need is for the Gospel to transform the culture otherwise change will not happen. If change is to come we need to go beyond agreeing to disagree and engage, but there are problems on the way.

Theresa May announced £5.6m backing for a programme to effect change across the Commonwealth intended to support the reform of laws that discriminate against women and girls and LGBT people through culture change. On face value the programme looks promising, but there will be obstacles on the way.

The first obstacle is the history of colonialism. The UK government and Theresa May herself lost authority during the week of the meeting due to the scandals over what is known here as the Windrush generation. The UK government had been warned by its supposedly equal partners in the Caribbean that it was treating some people who came to the UK from 1948 onward at the invitation of the British Government as if they were illegal immigrants. These people had worked and paid taxes ever since their arrival, but because of a failure of simple form filling, some were refused health treatment and threatened with expulsion.

How can Western governments stand for human rights when they are creating hostile environments for their own people, let alone refugees and people in severe need?

The story has led me to consider the complex realities of moral authority in a world shaped by colonialism. It is impossible for British people to tell African and Asian nations how to treat LGBT people without us facing our own history. It is especially difficult to confront that history when we are rarely taught the dark side of our past.

It can be done and one incident came to my mind:

In February 2007 I was working in the Anglican Communion Office as we prepared for a Primates Meeting in Dar Es Salaam.  There was a plan for Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the ending of he transatlantic slave trade by visiting the cathedral in Zanzibar. This historic building was built on the site of the salve market and the altar is on the very dais the slaves were paraded for auction. The aim was to highlight the achievements of Wilberforce and other great English Christian men.

What could be more fitting location to celebrate such an unambiguous expression of the true gospel of freedom and justice?

I pointed out a problem.

The slave trade in East Africa did not end in 1807. If anything it picked up momentum. It had provided slaves for plantations all around the Indian Ocean for hundreds of years, but in the mid 19th Century new traders came for the Brazilian market now devoid of West African slaves precisely because of the British policing of its own ban on West African slavery. The 2007 law led to an increase in East African slavery.
Zanzibar was not the place to celebrate this anniversary.

To add to the complexity, while the Cathedral is a monument to the ending of slavery, it is also a monument to Colonialism. It is a Gothic building and recognisably European. It is a statement of the new world order in the heart of the most powerful East African precolonial state.

The East African slave trade was historically run by Arab traders. However, as with most things in life, the story is more complex. Tippu Tip, the most powerful (and ruthless) slaver of all, was the grandchild of a slave. He was an African. The slave trade had generated its own leadership and they were fiercely independent. The ending of slavery was the ending of independent African rule.

Victorian British Christians were full of righteous anger toward the trade and one of the greatest Victorian heroes was David Livingstone. If the task of the missionary is to convert people to Christ he utterly failed. If the task is to change the world he was a huge success. His writings, lectures, reputation and the stories told about him raised awareness of the awfulness of the human suffering inflicted by slavery. He was a great propagandist and what he converted people to was colonialism. His idea was that to end slavery the ‘dark’ interior of Africa needed to become ‘civilised.’

It was the might of the British Navy that ended the slave trade in East Africa. In 1876 the gun boats forced the hand of the Sultan of Zanzibar and demanded the sale of the slave market to a British Missionary Society. The trade did not completely die out and when twenty years later a more independent minded Sultan rose to power the British crushed him in the shortest war in history. It lasted 45 minutes. No one was in any doubt about the new world order. The British and the Germans were now in control and anyone who threatened their rule was crushed.

Slavery was ended, but the new evil of colonialism emerged. People were free to earn money, but they were not free to rule their own destiny. They were offered ‘education,’ but as if they were Europeans. Indeed the idea that African youths were not ‘educated’ is in itself a racist concept. African boys and girls had been nurtured for centuries to the point of learning all they needed to become adults. It was education, even if it was not the ‘Three Rs’ of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (with the forth R of Christian Religion).

This story serves to demonstrate a dilemma: the anti-slavery movement was genuinely motivated by a desire for justice and the freedom of all peoples. Sadly, it was put into effect through coercion and violent action.

The campaign for LGBT people in the commonwealth countries of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean is right. The hate towards God’s children must end, but this can only happen if those of us in the West face up to our own history of oppression. It is us who wrote those laws and incorporated them in the founding constitutions of the newly independent nations – nations that were and are shaped by colonialism. We cannot reverse them by threat and by withdrawing aid.

In January 2007 I dashed off a paper that was handed to Rowan Williams. It caused a rethink and a different narrative emerged. The new story was the encounter of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with the reality of slavery two generations before. The video still deserves being watched. It speaks of empathy. The Archbishops manage to convey horror and hope, but the video is not self-congratulatory, it reminds us that there are more slaves in the world now than there were then.

Change must come. People must be free, but our attitude cannot be one of smug righteousness. We who are British need to learn humility. We need to walk alongside LGBT people in our former colonies and hear their stories and support their walk to freedom.

Ultimately cultural change has to come from within, it cannot be imposed from outside. There are African, Asian and Caribbean Anglicans with the courage to speak and to lead. At the meetings around the Commonwealth Heads of State the churches were frequently criticised for their role in the ongoing abuse of women, cultivated by theologies of male dominance. We were also criticised for the demonetisation of gay people.

However, Archbishop Thabo Makoba was highlighted as an exception. He was praised by a lesbian activist for speaking out for gay rights. The great news is he is not alone. People such as the Archbishop of the West Indies and the Bishop of Jamaica are taking a lead alongside Fr Sean Major-Campbell. Anglican human rights lawyers such as Alice Mogwe in Botswana and Maurice Tomlinson – now a Canadian citizen, but still visiting and campaigning in Jamaica – are making a difference. There are others too.

Jesus showed that change happens through vulnerability and humility. To walk in his way we need the Holy Spirit to give us the confidence to speak of justice without compromise and to do so with the humility of forgiveness.