As some African nations continue or contemplate a legislative clampdown on gay and lesbian people, The Southern Cross, South Africa’s Catholic weekly, urged Catholic Church leaders to do more to confront societal homophobia and laws that it might inspire. In an unsigned editorial published on Jan. 29, Southern Cross editors said, “It would require a very peculiar reading of the Gospel to locate Jesus anywhere else but at the side of the marginalized and vulnerable.”
They argued, “Where there is injustice, we must expect the Catholic Church to stand with the powerless. Therefore the Church should sound the alarm at the advance throughout Africa of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing homosexuals.”
The editorial was published just a few weeks after President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law in January. The Nigerian law targets more than same-sex marriage, however. Under the new law, it is illegal not only to engage in an intimate relationship with a member of the same sex but also to attend or organize a meeting of gays or patronize or operate any type of gay organization.
Amnesty International, urging that the law be immediately repealed, complained that arrests of gays and lesbians have already been made under the new law. “Locking someone up for their sexual orientation violates the most basic human rights standards,” said Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher. Activists blame the anti-gay tension on a colonial juridical legacy, but also on recent pressure from some U.S. evangelicals, who have promoted this new wave of anti-gay legislation.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has at least temporarily backed off from similar anti-gay legislation passed by Uganda’s Parliament, even while reaffirming his vehement condemnation of homosexuality as an “abnormality” imported from the West. The Ugandan bill provides for life imprisonment for homosexual acts and also makes it a crime not to report gay people.
The recent legislative moves in Nigeria intended to “persecute people on the basis of their sexual orientation” may soon be replicated in Cameroon and Tanzania. According to the Southern Cross’s editorial, “such laws are not only unjust, but they also have the potential to tear at the fabric of society if they are misused to facilitate false denunciations for gain, advancement or vengeance.” The Southern Cross is South Africa’s only Catholic weekly and is majority-owned by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which includes the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland.
Noting that homophobia is deeply rooted in African societies and is often deployed as a populist tool by its political leaders, the editors acknowledge that the church too has much to answer for. “Alas, the Church has been silent, in some cases even quietly complicit, in the discourse on new homophobic laws. This absence of intervention for justice may well be interpreted, wrongly or not, as approval of injustice, in line with the maxim Qui tacet, consentire videtur” (“Silence gives consent”).
The editors urged church leaders to speak out directly against these new laws and homophobia as a cultural problem, mindful of the church’s teaching on the treatment of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.