by Monte Sahlin
By Yolanda Elliott, February 28, 2014
This week, international news sources have confirmed that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law a bill that imposes prison sentences of seven years to life for same-sex intimacy, 7-year sentences for those who perform same-sex marriages, and 5-7 years in jail for people and NGOs accused of “promoting homosexuality” or seeking support through the internet or local religious ministers. Once dubbed the “Kill The Gays” bill, it’s now the “Jail the Gays” bill. (Read the 2014 version of the law.)
Advocates of compassion and human dignity, including the organization I serve, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, have spent the last four years challenging this law. Our denomination is one of the largest Protestant denominations in Uganda, and a growing number of Adventist converts worship in East Africa. The Seventh-day Adventist church could be using its influence in the region to quell homophobic attitudes and laws, but instead it has remained silent in the face of oppression, discrimination, and violence, and it has just planned a summit in South Africa that will only further marginalize vulnerable populations there.
Bill not about public health or protecting the vulnerable
The Adventist church has historical and current ties to President Museveni and should be as outraged about this law as we are—but it is not. In December 2012, SDA Kinship asked the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to respond to the proposed bill “in a Christ-like way” and clearly refute the bill’s threats to LGBTI Ugandans’ life, liberty, and security of person. Church administrators eventually disclaimed a local church leader’s support for the bill, but did not stand up for LGBTI Ugandans or explain why imprisonment and execution don’t show Christian compassion.
Adventist leaders have visited Uganda to promote the church’s interests and public health work on HIV/AIDS, but this new law doesn’t promote health or protect the vulnerable. Uganda had already criminalized same-sex intimacy, is stigmatizing non-heterosexual women, and threatens LGBTI people living with HIV/AIDS with mandatory medical exams and life imprisonment. UNAIDS and international HIV-AIDS charity AVERT reports that Uganda is the only East African country whose HIV rates are increasing, and the main modes of transmission there are unprotected sex and mother-to-child. This law will not help public health workers, protect children, or support the mission of the church in the region.
The denomination dismisses concerns
This outrageous law has now been signed, and our church should have unambiguously condemned the stigmatization and criminalization of a vulnerable minority. Instead, its latest letter to SDA Kinship erroneously claimed that the Ugandan bill had been vetoed, and referred us back to the church’s 2012 statements:
“This statement applies by extension to other parts of the world where similar measures have been or are being taken against the LGBT community.” —Orville D. Parchment, assistant to General Conference President Ted Wilson
So even though the bill has passed, Ugandan LGBTI people have been imprisoned for their sexual orientation, Ugandan LGBTI people are verbally abused and maligned by their president, and Ugandan civil society groups are actively being threatened by informers and newspaper harassment, the Adventist church believes its past comments are enough to challenge Uganda’s legislation and “by extension” any other anti-LGBTI law enacted anywhere else in the world.
We conclude that the Seventh-day Adventist church—our church—has no intention of condemning Uganda’s Jail the Gays bill; the US evangelical influence, anti-LGBTI religious rhetoric and falsified science that fueled it; or any other marginalizing and criminalizing legislation in Nigeria, the US, Eastern Europe, or Asia. We have urged our church to “affirm the human dignity, liberty, equality, and non-discrimination of all Ugandans by publicly advocating for the safety of those put at risk by this outrageous law and by taking specific actions to provide physical protection for individuals where it may be needed.” It has not.
Planning an echo chamber at African sexuality conference
Not only has the Seventh-day Adventist Church refused to challenge anti-LGBTI legislation, it’s also preparing a summit for church ministers and administrators on what it calls “alternative sexualities” in Cape Town, South Africa, in a few weeks. The conference, In God’s Image: Scripture, Sexuality, and Society, isn’t open to the public, and offers attendees a single, non-affirming perspective on non-heterosexual orientation and LGBTI lives. It is dangerous for our church to organize such an echo chamber for conversations about sexual and gender minorities when LGBTI Adventists on the very same continent are at risk for beatings, prison terms, and mob violence.
I can’t fathom why my church is spending so much money and effort to transport delegates who agree with the “company line” on sexuality and gender to a continent where several countries are passing brutal anti-LGBTI legislation. It hasn’t invited even one member of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International to attend the conference or speak to delegates about our community’s faith, experiences, and families. But SDA Kinship has worked with and for LGBTI current and former Adventists since 1976 and has members from more than 80 countries worldwide including Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, and India. No one scheduled to present at this conference is an authority on our lives, but we’ll be their topic of conversation for four long days.
Time to end the silence and stop the harm
The Adventist church has consistently excluded SDA Kinship from conferences like this one and sought to avoid having any contact with the Seventh-day Adventist lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community or our relatives and friends. We cannot be silent about this un-Christlike treatment. We’ve shared the letter we sent conference participants, GC President Wilson, and Vice-President Mwansa two weeks ago in the same spirit of transparent dialogue that we so wish our church would use with us. They haven’t yet responded to us.
From Colin Cook’s Quest Learning Center and Homosexuals Anonymous (1980) to scheduling Coming Out Ministries’ appearance at this summit next month, the Seventh-day Adventist church has subsidized or promoted reparative or change “therapy” and so-called “ex-gay/holiness-not-homosexuality” ministries that target vulnerable LGBTI people, same gender couples, and the congregations they participate in.
Our members who’ve graduated from these ministries know their teachings, and leaders’ accounts of abuse, addiction, and “change” or “victory” through spiritual discipline or divine intervention. But we know better than to confuse destructive patterns of substance abuse, domestic violence, or sex addiction with a person’s underlying gender or sexual orientation. We’re glad for those who, with therapy, have lessened their distress about who they are. Having picked up the pieces these ministries leave behind, however, we also know that “interventions” based on treating non-heterosexual orientations as essentially sinful, deviant, or inferior have devastating psychological, relational, and spiritual impacts on youth and adults alike. We will never impose those impacts on our members; these stories are not our stories.
We respect our members enough to honor their consciences about their faith and what they believe God requires of them in this life. Some have chosen committed relationships, some have built families with children, and others are celibate; all must be convinced in their own mind as the Lord leads them. We believe that love is worth celebrating, and we support all of our members as they grow in grace. We wish our church would do the same.
Being silent in the face of oppression is complicity. Excluding key voices and perpetuating harmful stereotypes isn’t dialogue, and in the context of the extreme anti-LGBTI legislation just signed into law, it’s dangerous.
Yolanda Elliott is president of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, an organization that includes and speaks for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex current or former Adventists and their heterosexual family, friends, and allies. SDA Kinship has worked with and for this population since 1976 and has members from more than 80 countries worldwide.