Category Archives: Uganda

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Wrapped in the flag

 

shredded-flag

Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style

Inquisition

Beware the bombastic yet empowered moralizer, poised to point the finger of sin and approbation at anyone who dares stray from societal norms. Every society has them – ambitious politicians whose arrogance is only exceeded by their all-too-convenient conviction that they alone have a grasp on Truth. They know their constituents; they therefore know how to manipulate public sentiment so that their own sanctimonious moral rectitude will propel them to even greater positions of power, wealth, and influence.

After all this time, citizens everywhere should know these scoundrels for what they are, and send them packing. They should, but they often don’t. Such political mischief-makers often succeed in ascending their respective hierarchies largely by stepping on others, or worse…while casting their actions in the guise of protecting family values.

But perhaps I should be less hasty to condemn these guardians of public morality. After all, their convictions may be sincere (and advantageous). Worse yet, such convictions may simply be wrong and even harmful. In the secular world of democratic governance, all convictions ought to be held to the hard and dispassionate light of reason and fact. People of integrity weigh their convictions with considerable care and tenderness, knowing how interdependent we all are, and how each person deserves to be respected for their basic dignity and worth. No one ought to be “used” or manipulated to achieve one’s selfish goals, each person has value – even those who are, well, “different”. Oddly, after centuries of social progress and development, we still find empowered people who seem shocked – even outraged – by human diversity.

It is a very convenient outrage.

Demagogues and bombasts know an angle when they see one. It’s always easy to castigate “the other” and make the vulnerable the target for all that’s wrong in society. Such political climbers dispense with reason and fact at the outset, and instead play to public bias, fear, ignorance, and superstition to motivate – i.e. to use – their followers to their own political advantage. In so doing, they cannot help but being aware that they are harming those who “don’t matter”, people who are already marginalized simply by being different from the majority. Exploiting and disparaging the most vulnerable among us is among the oldest tools of political expediency, but it is also among the most cowardly and ethically bereft. For any democracy to grow and thrive, those who have been entrusted by the public to exercise positions of power and influence should be subject to scrutiny – and rejection – whenever such public officials exercise their office in callous and self-serving ways, while purporting to be moral champions.

It would be easiest to begin at home, with a hard look at the ultimate demagogue within my own society – Donald Trump. Fortunately, there’s already a flourishing industry in America devoted to holding this empty and arrogant blow-hard to account, and I have to believe that an appropriate reckoning will take place on November 8th. So instead, I put before you two other politicians, both exemplary in their self-serving and condescending moralizing, each of whom is currently very busy using their public positions to clamor for yet more of the political spotlight. Their respective quests for fame and political advantage are strategically and cynically intended to harness existing reservoirs of public prejudice and fear of “the other”. Both ignore well-established facts about diversity and human nature, choosing instead to exacerbate that ignorance to create even more animosity and hatred – all directed against people who are distinctive for their vulnerability and lack of power: sexual minorities. Each of these two men is not only doing a great disservice to the people they are targeting, but they are also deepening intolerance and prejudice to the detriment of their own respective societies’ coherence, growth, and progress.

In short, these two are all about themselves, and they’re riding roughshod over the principles of universal human dignity that all societies must embrace if they are to cohere and flourish. Continue reading Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style

Disheartening news from the frontlines of exclusion

ikoba-bishop-Stanley

With so much attention, it’s no surprise that word leaked out before the official announcement. The world’s gathering of archbishops and chief bishops (“primates”) of the Anglican Church that concluded today at Canterbury, England is known as the Anglican Communion Primates Meeting. As meetings go, this is no trifling matter. Anglicans are the world’s third largest Christian denomination with a membership estimated at 85 million members…but it is now a house divided unto itself. The Primates Meeting ended in deep discord regarding LGBTI persons, and same-sex marriage in particular.

This rift has been growing for some time, and some observers are taking modest consolation in the fact that the most conservative (dare I say homophobic?) element – the bishops from Africa – did not walk out of the meeting in protest. Well, one did. Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Anglican Church of Uganda (pictured above) left the meeting on Jan. 12th. I have deep feelings for Uganda, a country I have been visiting regularly since 1982 and in which I have lived and worked, but there is no denying that Uganda has acquired global pariah status for its pervasively toxic attitudes towards its own LGBTI citizens. When it comes to attempts at a civil and caring discussion on LGBTI concerns, and on the vexing question of the reality of human dignity as a universal value, Ugandans are frequently seen “leaving the meeting”…

The roots of this institutional rancor come from the courageous and – to my mind – demonstrably Christian position taken by the American Episcopal Church, which is part of the global Anglican faith. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last June, delegates felt led by the spirit to change canonical language that to date had defined marriage as only being between a man and a woman, and they took a similarly affirming position in support of the dignity and humanity of transgender and intersex persons. Thanks to their leadership and compassion, the affirming door of the Episcopal Church now welcomes same-sex couples and all who identify as L,G, B, T, or I. Thankfully, at least in the United States that is how it will remain. The words of America’s Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry are worth pondering:

Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome…Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”

This inspired and principled stance has now been rebuked by a majority of the Anglican primates. Not only that, but the circle of exclusion has now been expanded not only to affect those who have borne such exclusion for far too long – LGBTI Anglicans and their allies – but to the American Episcopal Church itself. For the next three years at least (and realistically for much longer) Episcopalians will no longer be able to serve on certain Anglican committees. They will also be excluded from voting while they are with their fellow Anglican bishops. In short, they have been institutionally silenced, even if I know that their voices will continue to be heard in other venues. Continue reading Disheartening news from the frontlines of exclusion

Standing accused by Mr. Cruz

Robert-Lewis-Dear

I suppose I have better things to do than waste my time responding to the demagoguery and boastful ignorance of Ted Cruz, but there may be a time when a girl has to stand her ground. You see, I am an activist (for human rights, and for my Quaker values). And I’m well to the left of center on the political spectrum, so perhaps that makes me a “leftist”. And yes, I am transgender.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has now publicly suggested that the person – Robert Lewis Dear – accused of the heinous murder of three innocent people last Friday at the Planned Parenthood Center in Colorado Springs was a “leftist activist” and “transgendered” (BTW Mr. Cruz, that’s like saying that you are “Republicaned”. The “-ed” isn’t needed).

Blatant fear-mongering and associating vulnerable people with evil is hardly original. Women have been demeaned, subjected to sinister superstitions and accusations of witchcraft, and otherwise objectified for millennia, and there’s no shortage of stigma aimed at persons with disabilities or members of small (i.e. not powerful) ethnic minorities. All of these vulnerable persons and groups, which include transgender persons and sexual minorities, make such easy targets. By making us into “the other” it’s simple for the likes of Mr. Cruz to lay the blame for just about any “offense” at our feet. After all, dictators-for-life like Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and many faith leaders in that country have made beautiful Uganda into a pariah state with toxic levels of intolerance in terms of human rights violations, by blaming gay people (I don’t think he knows or cares to know the difference between gay and transgender folk) for all manner of social ills. Targeting “the other” is a proven method to distract the public’s attention away from rampant corruption and incompetence. And while the man accused of the horrific murder in Colorado Springs awaits due process of the rule of law, Mr. Cruz has already “othered” him by labeling him transgender – which supposedly serves to explain his alleged crime. It also spares Mr. Cruz and his supporters any awkward obligation to discuss gun control implications.

None of this is new. Self-righteous, narrow minded, and poorly informed people like Mr. Cruz routinely have been using all manner of derogatory words to dehumanize transgender persons, and to strip us of our dignity. One needs look no farther than the recent rejection of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in Texas, where certain “religious” groups and conservative politicians successfully persuaded the majority of that city’s voters that transgender women are sex-crazed predators and “confused men” stalking young women and girls in ladies rest rooms. In many other parts of the world, and even here in the United States, all too often these types of derogatory words give way to (or directly lead to) acts of extreme violence directed at transgender persons. People are quite literally put to death for having the audacity of being themselves. Continue reading Standing accused by Mr. Cruz

It has to stop. Now.

 

Beyonce

As someone who has been in love with Uganda since my first visit there 33 years ago, it is troubling that many people around the world now associate that country primarily for its extreme intolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. I have lived and worked in Uganda, and am a frequent visitor there. I am blessed with many Ugandan friends, and I know that there’s much to love and respect about this country. Yet as much of the rest of the world begins to mature into a greater recognition that human beings are by nature complicated and diverse – and that “normal” now needs to be redefined to embrace universal human dignity regardless of varying sexual orientations and non-conforming gender identities – Uganda sadly stands out as one prominent exception.

Uganda has indeed earned its status as a global pariah of homophobic intolerance, with almost all of its leaders and the vast majority of its population clinging tightly to these bigoted convictions. Yet Uganda is also a proxy for many other countries who share a similar lack of recognition of the dignity that each and every person ought to be distinguished by and respected for, regardless of their diversity. There are far too many “Ugandas” throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union, but (for reasons that ought to concern all of us much more) they do not attract equivalent or warranted media attention or the opprobrium that is their due.

It was therefore with deep heartache and particular dismay that I just received yet more troubling news from Uganda.

On October 21st my dear Ugandan friend, Beyoncé Karungi, was attacked and severely beaten by five men. Only the intervention of a courageous friend saved her from even worse injuries or death. Beyoncé was targeted because she is transgender, and this isn’t the first time she has suffered violence at the hands of her countrymen. But Beyoncé is also a leader among human rights activists, the founder of Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU), and a very generous woman who has taken many young and highly vulnerable Ugandan transgender women into her care. Being evicted from their homes at an early age is not uncommon for Ugandan transgender persons, but through the kindness and concern of Beyoncé some have found at least temporary refuge in her modest home or in other “safe homes”. Following this recent attack and Beyoncé’s temporary incapacitation, these young transwomen are left particularly vulnerable at a time when vicious attacks on Ugandan transgender women and transgender men are sharply on the rise. Within the past month, we now know that at least two transmen and three transwomen (including Beyoncé) have been assaulted.

Ugandan LGBTI civil society has been the principle bulwark protecting LGBTI Ugandans against hatred and violence arising from a vicious and manipulative political culture and from homophobic incitement having its roots in certain perverse forms of Christian evangelism. Transgender Ugandans have largely been understood simply to be “gay” (even though many are heterosexual), but the transgender phenomenon isn’t well understood in Uganda. It’s still too early to say whether the recent upsurge in transphobic violence is specifically taking aim at gender nonconforming people in their own context as transgender persons, or whether this is but another bout of undifferentiated gay-bashing. In either case, Uganda’s police care little about this type of persecution and do even less to intervene to protect Uganda’s LGBTI citizens. Indicative of this, Beyoncé took almost no time to conclude that making a complaint to the police about her attack would be both useless and counter-productive. Continue reading It has to stop. Now.