How many people turned up? In the aftermath of the Changing Attitude General Meeting held in Abuja in November 2005, this was the contentious question. Changing Attitude Nigeria announced that more than 1000 people were there on Friday night. Canon Akintunde Popoola, Director of Communication for the Anglican Church in Nigeria, claims he searched in vain for the meeting and that if it took place at all (which he doubts), the numbers attending were tiny.
At least the Church of Nigeria has now conceded that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people exist in Nigeria — a change from the repeated claim that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Africa. Now numbers matter — are there many or few LGBT Africans?
There are no statistics, and there has been no empirical research to demonstrate what percentage of the African population might identify itself as LGBT. Such research would be almost impossible at present. Many LGBT Africans who are aware of their sexual identity either suppress it or remain hidden. Others will remain unaware in the absence of role models and with widespread ignorance that their ambivalent feelings about members of the opposite sex might indicate a homosexual attraction.
In the Global South, people who are not heterosexual are beginning to identify with the Western model of gay or homosexual. Many more would identify themselves as men who have sex with men (MSM), or, while identifying themselves as gay, will conform to family and social expectations, marrying and having children, while continuing to engage in relationships with other men.
Other Voices, Other Worlds by (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006), the recently published book edited by Bishop Terry Brown provides circumstantial evidence for the universal presence of LGBT people across the globe. All of the many contributors assume there is an LGBT minority in every culture. Positive evidence comes from self-identifying LGBT people, groups and communities. Evidence is also provided by the media, churches, and governments, whose attacks on LGBT people wouldn’t be so sustained if LGBT people were merely figments of paranoid imaginations.
In the book, from Singapore, Leng Lim, Kim-Hao Yap and Tuck-Leong Lee assert that a huge body of literature in sociology, anthropology, history, and the performing and poetic arts shows the existence and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people across Asia.
It is difficult to obtain evidence from African countries. Rowland Jide Macaulay says homosexuality, though widely practised, still remains the most secretive lifestyle in Nigeria. Esther Mombo of Kenya says the truth is that homosexuality exists in Africa, even in the most sacred echelons. “Homosexuality transcends cultures and continents.
On a recent visit to an unspecified country in southern Africa, David Atkinson says that when he asked a pastor who was also a medical doctor about homosexuality, the reply was revealing: “If you are asking the pastor, it does not exist; if you are asking the doctor, it is as significant feature of life as anywhere else, but we do not talk about it.”
But back to the numbers question. How many LGBT people are there in other cultures? Renta Nishihara, writing about Japan, uses a statistical range of between three and ten per cent to estimate the number of LGBT people.
The impassioned debate in the Anglican Communion about the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Church has assumed that the majority live in the West.
At a conservative estimate (and conservative Anglicans will dispute the percentage), if only three per cent of the population of the United Kingdom identifies itself as LGBT, and the active membership of the Church of England is approximately one million, then there are about 30,000 LGBT members of the Church of England.
The percentage of LGBT people is almost certainly similar in every country and society. What changes are the social constructions around identity and the way individuals express themselves or suppress their desires. Assuming that the Global South has the same proportion of potentially gay/homosexual/MSM/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people as the West, then Nigeria, with an Anglican population of 19 million must potentially have 570,000 LGBT Anglican members.
The reality this figure reveals for the first time is this: the majority of LGBT Anglicans live in the global south.
Conservative church leaders attack Western churches for their ministry to LGBT people, their support for the blessing of gay relationships, and the ordination of LGBT priests and bishops. They assume this is a Western phenomenon. They assume it is contrary to God’s loving purpose for humankind. They assume the movement to grant dignity and equality to LGBT people can be defeated.
As the work of Changing Attitude Nigeria, Integrity Uganda, and of individuals in other countries is beginning to show, LGBT people are already worshipping as members in every single province of the Anglican Communion. The Global South leaders who preach and teach against homosexuality are preaching against tens of thousands of their own members.
They are wrong, and history will prove them to be wrong — God will prove them to be wrong. This crisis will come to be seen as God’s way of breaking through the anxiety about sex, which has predominated for 2000 years of church history. The crisis is God’s way of forcing the heterosexual majority to confront their fears, and learn to integrate sexuality with spirituality.
This gift is one of the greatest that LGBT people have to offer the Church. Through our marginalisation, we have learnt to be pastoral, compassionate, prayerful, and honestly sexual.
This intertwining of sexuality and spirituality will be a great gift to the Anglican Churches of the Global South from their tens of thousands of lesbian and gay members — once they stop persecuting and begin to value them.
This article was published by the Church Times, London, on Friday 2 June 2006
Other Voices, Other Worlds – The Global Church Speaks Out on Homosexuality, edited by Terry Brown is published by Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, ISBN 0232525692. It can be ordered online via the Changing Attitude online bookshop.
Other voices from other parts of the Anglican Communion which are heard in the book include David Russell, South Africa; Rose Wu, China; Aruna Gnanadason, India; Stuart E. Brown writing about Muslim attitudes; and Julius Powell Jnr, Jamaica.