Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is an advocate for LGBT rights at a time when Uganda’s Parliament has reopened discussion on a bill which would penalize gays and lesbians with prison sentences and even capital punishment. The bill would also criminalize “promoting” homosexuality and protecting the identities of homosexuals.
Senyonjo first began counseling gays and lesbians and lobbying for their rights in Uganda in 1998. Guided in his activism by his understanding of human sexuality, and a firm conviction that God does not discriminate, he has endured personal attacks on his character and on his faith while fighting against the misinformation and hate speech surrounding the African LGBT experience.
Senyonjo recently sat down with AllAfrica to discuss the continuing struggle for LGBT rights in Africa and his work with other marginalized groups at the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
Tell us about the foundation: what kind of programs do you have?
We have programs which help with HIV/Aids, education, human rights, dealing with domestic violence, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues. There is a lot of misinformation about [LBGT issues]. We are very inclusive because many people are trying to exclude people who are different from them.
All human beings have found that they are sexual beings. The majority are heterosexuals but there is a minority who are LGBT, and we are discovering this because they are coming out. In the past maybe they were hidden. But they are coming out and they need to be accepted. This is actually a big problem, not only in Uganda, but all over Africa.
I am glad we are talking to AllAfrica because I think we are going to have many problems not only in Uganda, but all over Africa with bills that are against homosexuality. There has been a lot of opposition against that [Uganda parliamentary] bill, saying it is draconian and inhuman but some people still want to bring it up, so a lot of information needs to be brought about. People need to understand what is human sexuality. You don’t need to punish someone for having a sexuality.
When did you get involved with LBGT activism?
In 2001 I started counseling LGBT people when I retired as the assistant bishop of the Anglican Church in Uganda. I began getting involved with LGBT and marginalized people in 1998 when some young men came to me, rejected by their family, by their peers. They were rejected by the schools as if they were not human beings.
One young person who was working with them, a youth worker, introduced them to me. He said these people are so rejected, what can you do? And he knew about what I was doing as a counselor. I listened to their stories, these young people, and of course I discovered that they were gay.
For being gay they were hated, even being told that God did not love them, which was really terrible because some of them were even contemplating suicide because of that kind of rejection. If people say, ‘Even God doesn’t love you unless you change’, the message they hear from the church is: ‘Change your sexuality if you are to be loved even by God.’
I did some courses on human sexuality and marriage in my doctoral program, so I could understand. I said, ‘No. I believe God loves you. I am a bishop. I know that God loves you. Because God has created you different it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love you.’
So they took heart when they heard this. They are alive today but I have known many who have committed suicide.
It has been not easy for me; I have suffered. My church didn’t like my approach so they make it very hard for me.
Tell us about the role of education in understanding LBGT rights.
At my center now we are trying to do something about giving more information about human sexuality. A lot of prejudices are found against homosexuality due to lack of information. You can talk about culture and say things are being imported, but it is misinformation. Many people don’t understand that homosexuality or LBGT is ingrained just like heterosexuality in people.
I am a heterosexual. I love my sexuality; I love being heterosexual. I do, but then why should I not let the other be whoever he or she is? Why not? If I love that person as I love myself.
How has the dialogue about homosexuality changed and been shaped since you began your work?
There is a kind of quiet. It is still to be tested… So long as people can listen there will be a change of attitude. If people have compassion, you don’t think of having bills intended to imprison for life or even hang homosexuals. We all have compassion in us as human beings because we have a spirit.
When did you first begin to split with the church?
It was in 2001, when they heard that I was not condemning homosexuals. I was trying to make people understand that homosexuals were human beings like everyone else. They said, ‘No, no, no,’ and they should be condemned and changed and it was not right. That is how it started.
What is the best way to tackle the struggle for LGBT rights?
There shouldn’t only be one way of doing it. Where possible we definitely need decriminalization of LGBT. I heard people saying, ‘There’s been decriminalization of LGBT in South Africa but still people are suffering and being hunted down.’ It is true but if the law is there and it’s for the good of the people, along with that there will be education, awareness. All this can go together because the world is becoming one. Many young people are getting more understanding by looking at TV and the Internet. So you cannot shut this out.
Because of the rejection of the church, we have a chapel to provide some spiritual help so young people don’t feel like God has rejected them.
Every Sunday between 4:30 and 6:00 we have a service. It is a small space. It was a garage but we made it into a chapel. And when people get threatened, we have rooms where they can come for a day or two and run away from the storm. We would prefer to make it bigger, to make it a guest house, but we are not yet able because of funds. But people can come, know there is a shelter and people can understand that they are human beings.
The other program is about education: awareness. We have a program where we are trying to have a discussion about all these current problems, [including] domestic violence. Many of our people have a lot of violence in their homes and we need to talk about it. How do you deal with this violence? Why do we have so much violence? What are the remedies? Not necessarily to go to court but trying to solve these problems. When we fail we can bring in other enforcement agents. We need to develop an understanding of our human rights.
Then we talk about LGBT people. Our LGBT brothers and sisters, how do we live with them? What is happening? We have a straight-gay alliance where LGBT people and heterosexuals are working together. For instance, there is a gay man who has a sugar plantation where he is employing a number of people. Some of the people he employs are gay. Many of them are not gay but people are working together as human beings in this kind of gay-straight alliance. Then we have an HIV/Aids program which makes it possible for LGBT people to come for counseling and treatment without being threatened or intimidated.
How does an individual hear about the St. Paul’s Foundation house?
We have employed a social worker, a project director, an educator, a nurse and a secretary. They are contacting people, even hospitals, to find friendly people that can refer our patients. It is like a network. The center is located in Kampala.
At the center we have HIV/Aids education, straight-gay projects, the chapel and the guest rooms. We realized that in order to serve the community we need to educate everybody, to be open to all people. This is what we call reconciliation – we call it the reconciliation and equality center. People know we are going to have reconciliation, whatever sort. When we have a human rights problem we can try to help by reporting to the police or if someone is missing.
Why is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill still around?
It is popular. I think it is popular politically because… the ordinary person [is told] that LGBT people are destroying the family, or that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of LBGT people. If people are not reasoning enough you will definitely have hate. In our faith this is a big problem-how we use God to create even hatred – God who says to love one another. But people don’t like to hear that.
What about President Yoweri Museveni – what is his role in this discussion?
He is reasonable. I think Museveni is very clever because the bill is not really needed. Even in the Cabinet it was recently said that we don’t need this bill. But because of some self-seeking politicians who know that they are popular by supporting such a bill they say, ‘No, no, no. We want the bill.’
Does decriminalization allow homosexuals to be targeted?
Not only in Uganda but everywhere it happens there are dangers. The question is: is it good for people to come out of the closet or remain in the closet? I cannot say much about that but I think there is no right time. When the egg is ready to hatch it hatches. When you pass a law it should have enforcement. That is why you have to educate the police because if the police decide they do not like the law protecting LGBT people they will just turn their head because they do not agree with the law. So when you pass the law you need to have extensive training programs…
When you decriminalize homosexuality, the homosexuals will still be in danger… Even if you pass a law there may be times where you say, ‘Should I still be quiet even though the law is there, or I think my neighbors are so unfriendly that I should run away because they might still harm me? Or should I do something about it, go to court…’
At the moment I think we need laws that decriminalize because with that you might have some danger, but if you have criminalization laws, there might be even more danger. But still some people will keep quiet and some people will run away.