The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
In the beginning of my time living in Ramogi, Uganda this past summer, my AJWS cohort and leaders from our partner organization often fixated on lengthy conversations about homosexuality. We were told that in Uganda, if someone is suspected of homosexual behavior, his or her (mostly his) picture is published in the newspaper. When we pressed about what happens after that, our group was assured that not much happens after that, perhaps because the sharers could sense our collective disapproval. And later on, one group leader quietly disclosed to us that AJWS works with an LGBT grassroots organization in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and it is fairly well established these published faces are murdered.
Lo and behold, The New York Times ran an article on Jan.4 titled â€œGay in Uganda, and Feeling Hunted,â€ about the introduction of a bill threatening homosexuals to life in prison and even death. I guess the murders up and until now have not been technically legal, although they were most assuredly allowed. â€œIsolation, insults, threats and violence: this is what Ugandaâ€™s mostly closeted gay community has dealt with for years,â€ is how the article opens. An editorial ran on the same-day titled â€œHate Begets Hate,â€ calling the United States to act on the recent news that â€œUgandaâ€™s government, which has a shameful record of discrimination against gay men and lesbians, is now considering legislation that would impose the death sentence for homosexual behavior.â€ This act is called The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 and is predicated on the belief that homosexuality is a choice that can be un-chosen, a belief brought by three American Evangelicals who â€œgave a series of talks in Uganda last March to thousands of police officers, teachers and politicians in which, according to participants and audio recordings, they claimed that gays and lesbians are a threat to Bible-based family values.â€
And their influence on this bill is transparent; in the introduction, it states â€œThis legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristicâ€ and further on contends, â€œThere is also need to protect the children and youths of Uganda who are made vulnerable to sexual abuse.â€ Blaming and demonizing the offenders in question, or more like the victims, is such an uneducated way of dealing with this realityâ€¦right?
Maybe not; these accusations, apparently, are also among those thrown at gay men in the Orthodox world state-side as well. Anyone within armâ€™s length of Yeshiva Universityâ€™s (YU) orbit has most likely heard growing clamor over the panel entitled â€œBeing Gay in the Orthodox Worldâ€ on Dec.22 2009, hosted by Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the YU Tolerance Club. It featured three alumni and one undergraduate speaking openly about their experience being gay men in the Orthodox and YU world.Â Though I could not attend, I was beaming to hear that the hall was so packed that people were being turned away from the lack of standing room. I did, however, attend virtually on Vimeo and advise others to do the same; in addition, you can read a full transcript here.
Listening to the panelists, I had to wonder, is the current climate in Uganda really that far away from Washington Heights? In many ways, yes, but in some ways, no.
â€œThe reality is that I face homophobia all the time. Sometimes itâ€™s deliberate when people write â€˜fagâ€™ on (name)â€™s campaign signs or when people ask my roommate if they are afraid of me coming on to him at night. Or when people liken me to adulterers or people who commit bestiality or incest. Or in Sociology when people raise their hands and say, â€œIâ€™m not homophobic; I just wouldnâ€™t let my kids near gay people,â€â€ said Avi Kopstik, founder of the YU Tolerance Club and the only undergrauate on the panel.
A number of panelists referenced a â€œbestialityâ€ sign posted around school, and one even held up a copy mid-speech. Itâ€™s a flier that likens homosexuality to bestiality.Â Not only is this simile egregiously uneducated and inaccurate, but more importantly, it is downright hateful.Â In an educational institution situated in the heart of the one of most diverse metropolises in the world, it is astounding that this sort of antic isnâ€™t completely obliterated from student life. On a personal aside, for these four panelists to have the courage to speak openly in this environment is amazing to me. And to give credit where it’s due, with a room that packed and an applause that loud, it indicates an impressive level of tolerance in the institution as well.
But the fact that the rabbinate published letters and made speeches criticizing the panel but not the hate is shameful. I donâ€™t want to get into the panel criticisms and volleys themselves, or the religious debate coupled with it, but I think we all can agree that tolerating intolerance, whether in Uganda or YU, is unacceptable.