It is undeniable that religion and LGBTI+ rights have what can only be described as a ‘difficult relationship’. Across the Commonwealth, leaders from many different mainstream religions have argued that their faith justifies discrimination, stigma and even violence towards LGBTI+ people. In fact, many of the laws which still criminalise LGBTI+ people today were enacted by Christian colonists who wanted to ‘inculcate European morality into resistant masses.’
So, in some ways it would be easy to dismiss religion as the enemy. Yet many LGBTI+ people find deep acceptance and meaning in their faith. And some faith leaders have been at the forefront of arguing for LGBTI+ rights in hostile countries, stating that the teachings of their faith instruct them to approach all people with love, acceptance and understanding.
It was Church of England clergy who led calls for decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in Britain in the 1950s. More recently, brave activists like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Uganda and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have repeatedly called for respect for the rights of LGBTI+ people in Africa.
We recently met with LGBTI+ rights activist Davis Mac-Iyalla. Originally from Nigeria, Davis has also lived in the United Kingdom and is now based in Ghana, where he is Executive Director of the Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa. We asked him about his thoughts on religion and LGBTI+ rights.
“Religious leaders have used religion as a drumstick to beat LGBTI people,” he told us, “There is a lot of misinterpretation. Religion is beautiful. Religion is accepting that LGBTI people are loved by God. You are not a criminal because you are homosexual or same-gender loving person, the problem is how it has been interpreted.”
“In places like West Africa where I come from, people haven’t had the opportunity to have a different narrative from the popular homophobic, conservative narratives that has always been there. One of the things that we are trying to do is to debunk those narratives and begin to allow people to see the beauty that is in the lives and stories of LGBTIQ people. I don’t think that religion is against LGBTIQ people, LGBTIQ people are children of God, are loved by God. They just need to hear the real and the right message which hasn’t been shared because of those who evangelise Africa.”
Davis told us that there is a real thirst from LGBTI+ of faith for their voices to be heard: “In 2014, Pope Francis called for the Family Synod and began to raise the issue of family and that then got me thinking: what is a family? What are the types of family?
“Reading the submissions from around the world, my friends and I discovered that there were no submissions from LGBTI people in West Africa. So I went back to West Africa to interview LGBTIQ Christians so that they could also contribute to those conversations. I always wanted inclusion of everyone in these types of conversations.
“When I went to West Africa, somehow everyone wanted to speak to me. It was not only LGBTIQ Christians, it was also Muslims, Hindus and people from other faiths, they all wanted me to hear their stories. I ended up with an interfaith story, rather than the Christian story that I went for. That’s when I got the idea that I needed to work for people of all faiths and that’s where the Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa idea came from.”
The Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa now works to build bridges across all religions and faiths and to change attitudes to LGBTQI people. They work with the LGBTQI community and with faith-based groups to increase awareness and understanding.
In many parts of the Commonwealth, it can feel that religion is a barrier to LGBTI+ rights. Yet for every religious leader preaching intolerance there is another preaching acceptance and love. TCEN members can help the shift to happen by elevating those voices, so that people and all faiths and none understand that there is more than one narrative when it comes to religion and sexuality.
Kaleidoscope Trust provides the secretariat to The Commonwealth Equality Network. We also work with organisations and human rights defenders from across the Commonwealth to build a global movement for LGBTI+ rights, supporting our partners with capacity building, advocacy and projects which improve the lives of LGBTI+ people in some of the world’s most discriminatory places. Find out more about us at www.kaleidoscopetrust.com