Last week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that imposes 7-year-to-life sentences 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.
Advocates of compassion and human dignity, including the organization I serve, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International (SDA Kinship), have spent the last four years challenging this law. SDA Kinship is a fully affirming organization extending unconditional love to LGBTI people who are current and former Adventists and their families.
Our denomination is one of the largest Protestant denominations in Uganda, and a growing number of Adventist converts worship in East Africa.
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," says Orville D. Parchment, assistant to General Conference President Ted Wilson.
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. Instead, the church is planning a summit in South Africa that will only further marginalize vulnerable populations on the African continent.
The Adventist church should be outraged about this law—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 rejected a local church leader's support for the bill, but they did not stand up for LGBTI Ugandans or explain why imprisonment and execution don't show Christian compassion.
Furthermore, this law will not help public health workers, protect children, or support the public health mission of the church in the region. 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.
Even before the bill was passed into law, Ugandan LGBTI people have been verbally abused and maligned by their president, and Ugandan civil society groups are actively being threatened by informers and newspaper harassment. Yet 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.
Nor does it seem willing to condemn the US evangelical influence, anti-LGBTI religious rhetoric, and falsified science that fueled the passage of this legislation. 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.
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.
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, yet our church hasn't invited one member of SDA Kinship to attend the conference or speak to delegates about our community’s faith, experiences, and families.
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.
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.
The Adventist church has consistently excluded SDA Kinship from conferences like this one and has 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 published a letter we sent conference participants, GC President Wilson, and Vice-President Mwansa three 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.
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.
Image by R. Otieno via SDA Kinship