The Conspiracy

The Global Citizen: Tolerating Intolerance

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 “Gay in Uganda, and Feeling Hunted,” 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. “Isolation, insults, threats and violence: this is what Uganda’s mostly closeted gay community has dealt with for years,” is how the article opens. An editorial ran on the same-day titled “Hate Begets Hate,” calling the United States to act on the recent news that “Uganda’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.” 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 “gave 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.”

And their influence on this bill is transparent; in the introduction, it states “This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic” and further on contends, “There is also need to protect the children and youths of Uganda who are made vulnerable to sexual abuse.” Blaming and demonizing the offenders in question, or more like the victims, is such an uneducated way of dealing with this reality…right?

Maybe not; these accusations, apparently, are also among those thrown at gay men in the Orthodox world state-side as well. Anyone within arm’s length of Yeshiva University’s (YU) orbit has most likely heard growing clamor over the panel entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” 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.  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.

“The reality is that I face homophobia all the time. Sometimes it’s deliberate when people write ‘fag’ on (name)’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, “I’m not homophobic; I just wouldn’t let my kids near gay people,”” said Avi Kopstik, founder of the YU Tolerance Club and the only undergrauate on the panel.

A number of panelists referenced a “bestiality” sign posted around school, and one even held up a copy mid-speech. It’s a flier that likens homosexuality to bestiality. Not only is this simile egregiously uneducated and inaccurate, but more importantly, it is downright hateful.  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 isn’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 don’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.

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14 Older Responses to “The Global Citizen: Tolerating Intolerance”

  1. Olal Otunu
    January 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    What an American-centered view of the situation! The New York Times Editorial makes it sound like, without the anti-gay Americans’ visit & conferences, We Ugandans never would have come up with this anti-gay sentiment on our own. Like we’re a bunch of idiots with no original thoughts; blank slates just waiting to be indoctrinated by the white man. What a completely condescending view of us Africans! The truth is, many Africans, all over the continent – without the proselytizing of the American evangelicals, have such views. Why not analyze this fact? Why do you always make it about YOU, America?? Get over yourselves!

    The West presents its culture as universal–using terms as human rights, universal freedom, global war on terror etc….The assumption is that other societies can only become civilized if they abandon their cultures and embrace the Western ethos. Behind this agenda there is race, racism and racialism….this is intended to subjugate non Western peoples.

    Have you ever heard Europeans or Americans condemn Saudi Arabia or Asian countries for their laws against homosexuality? ( they are even more harsh). Why do Western countries specifically point out African countries? Why is the West so obsessed with homosexuality in Africa? We have more pressing issues to deal with.

    This is a cultural challenge. We face a second wave of colonialism, both subtle and ruthless at the same time. We Africans have a duty and obligation to protect ourselves from Western contamination, totalitarian liberal activism, and intellectual cynicism.

  2. Dane D'Alessandro
    January 6, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Olal, I think the harrassment and murder of gay people in any country (Uganda, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and the US for that matter) is wrong, regardless of culture or colonialism. There is no harm in pointing that out and shaming countries for it. All countries should stand up and point that fact out, regardless of from where the hate originates. This is a news item in the US, because US Evangelicals have no business preaching their uninformed viewpoints in Uganda.

  3. jimmydeancooper
    January 6, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    Clearly, the Uganda and its people can think of working cutlutres for themselves. too bad they need Western Aid to enjoy their great cultural hertage to its fullest:

  4. gayuganda
    January 7, 2010 at 3:21 am #

    Olal Otunnu, I hope it is not the guy who has just stepped down as an Undersecretary for the UN.

    You are showing a lack of understanding, a fall back on the old arguments of ‘western contamination’, neocolonialism, and others. Very typical of our lack of understanding.

    I am gay, and I am Ugandan. Both are facts. I was born, in Kampala, my parents come from upcountry, where I regularly went for holidays. I studied in Uganda, etc, etc. But, you will dismiss all this as immaterial. because, I must have been influenced by ‘westerners’.

    I say, we Ugandans are acting stupid with this law. And, we cannot blame the world for our stupidity. These guys did come to the Ugandan parliament. They convinced the MPs of all their petty foibles. The MPs were quite willing to believe the falsehoods, because the guys came from America… And, they did no research because they assumed all the falsehoods were true.

    That is our problem. that is our issue. Stop blaming others because they see your stupidity and label it that. Now, I am a Ugandan who tells you it was, and continues to be stupid. You will dismiss me as hopeless because I admit that I am gay. Well, that is your prerogative.

    But, it doesnt stop you looking stupid in the eyes of the whole world. Nor does it stop Uganda from looking stupid.


  5. Yaelle Frohlich
    January 7, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Faigy, you, like so many others who admit that you were not able to attend “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” and who don’t even attend Yeshiva University, feel that you have the authority to comment on the general atmosphere of YU.

    You have apparently seen the videos of the event and read the “full transcript,” which the author of the Curious Jew blog explicitly states should not be used for official quotation. Do you really think that the attendance of 700-800 people at the event–by the way, Yeshiva University has fewer than 3,000 undergraduate students–and the ensuing thought-provoking discussions indicate that YU students are largely insensitive and closed-minded to the plight of Orthodox homosexuals? Halakha was not discussed by the panel or its moderators in depth, and neither, I would point out to you, were the biological or psychological aspects of homosexuality.

    Yeshiva University’s administrators acted with courage, daring and compassion to host such a religiously controversial event. In Uganda, according to the New York Times article, a lesbian can get raped with impunity by a farmhand to “cure” her homosexuality, infected with HIV and shunned by her own grandmother. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it might be a stretch to compare Yeshiva’s anti-gay proponents to those who welcome the rape and murder of homosexuals on a different continent. Your comparison of YU and Uganda is offensive.

    We do learn in journalism classes that it can make for an interesting editorial to compare two coinciding current events. But for the device to work, the argument has to be plausible.

  6. Faigy E. Abdelhak
    January 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Yaelle, a few things:

    First of all, I did not feel a blog counted as “official” per se, which is part of its luxury, but I could be mistaken. The Curious Jew is also a blog.

    Secondly, I did not think or imply that majority of the student body is insensitive, as I clearly stated “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 my point was that an outspoken, although anonymous, minority posted awful flier that went unaddressed while many other aspects of the controversy were fully addressed. Silence is approval, and those fliers should have no approval.

    Thirdly, I did not mean to say that halacha or biology or psychology were discussed at the panel. I expressed that in this blog I don’t intend to get into the debate that came on the heels of the panel or that come with the issue in general.

    Fourth, from the letters circulating YU after the event, not many of the administrators or head rabbinate were on board with this event. I most definitely applaud the ones who were and enabled this to take place, for sure.

    Lastly, I recognize the comparison is a stretch and that the two situations have very strong differences. However, I found the nature of the homophobic remarks in the two places to have remarkable commonalities, even though they are worlds apart. As a blog focused on global issues, comparing domestic and global issues, especially those linked to the Jewish world, is important to me.

  7. Questioner
    January 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    “However, I found the nature of the homophobic remarks in the two places to have remarkable commonalities…”

    You may have “found” that, but nowhere in your article do you support that assertion.

    To the best of my knowledge, no one at YU is calling for homosexuals to be killed. Any homophobic statements are regrettable. They are certainly not sanctioned by the administration or the roshei yeshiva, and are qualitatively different from what you state is happening in Uganda

  8. ed
    January 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    “Is the current climate in Uganda really that far away from Washington Heights? In many ways, yes, but in some ways, no.”
    The comparison between YU and Uganda is a classic example of mediocre sensationalist journalism. Yes, homophobia exists to a certain degree in YU, but connecting the situation there to Uganda where people may get killed for their sexual orientation is a desperate and pathetic comparison that only serves to undermine the integrety of this blog.

  9. Yair
    January 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    That bigoted homophobic remarks share commonalities is not surprising. You failing to distinguish between an exception (at YU) from the rule (in Uganda), however, is.

  10. Bobbie
    January 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    This discussion seems so circular and self-serving.

    Orthodoxy and Gay/lesbian is an oxymoron. The two are at odds with each other by definition. (Has anyone even read the Bible lately? And if you haven’t, to what are you referring when you use the term Orthodox?) Orthodoxy becomes meaningless, or means anything you want.

    If you make up or “evolve” Jewish heritage, the law of Moses and the word of God, then you can have “orthodox” mean anything you want. Anything goes. And the whole above discussion is just silly. Everyone patting themselves on the back for some sort of moral superiority, when the real moral issue (and it’s source) are ignored completely and conveniently.

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    January 27, 2010 at 9:26 am #

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  12. Tyson F. Gautreaux
    January 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm #

    Not too sure how I found this blog but glad I did.

  13. Diaper Cake Party
    February 2, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner.

  14. Cake Bible
    March 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    hehe… this is a good one

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