Our internet has been intermittent over the last few days, leaving me mostly ignorant of the news from the States. However, last night we enjoyed a connection for just long enough for my Facebook feed to explod with the news that DOMA had been overturned! That, combined with an epic thunderstorm, left me the happiest I’ve been in weeks. I feel the need to note that the last time I was overseas, DADT was repealed. Perhaps I should just stay until there is equality for all!
Seriously, though, if you haven’t read Justice Kennedy’s majority decision, you should take the time. It is a ringing statement on how the right to marry confers dignity and personhood and the federal government’s denial of that right constitutes a deprivation of an essential liberty. Once you make it through the legal jargon (unless that’s your jam, of course) you might cry. Some (Justice Scalia comes to mind) might quibble over whether or not Kennedy proved his point. He cites the Fifth Amendment, which entitles us to due process, rather than the more likely-seeming Fourteenth, which addresses equal protection under the law. Moreover, as Emily Bazelon pointed out at Slate, “Kennedy also didn’t make clear whether he was striking down DOMA because it failed the rational basis test—Congress had no good reason for it—or because it failed to pass the higher bar of heightened scrutiny.” She continued, however, “You know what? Good. I think what really matters is that Kennedy’s opinion passes the common-sense test. The government can’t single out a group of people for second-class treatment because it just finds their behavior yucky or unfamiliar, when what they’re doing turns out to be perfectly harmless (and even a social good). “
The victory of common sense and equality and human rights and progress and, yes, cliché though it may be, love, are all reasons to celebrate today. But they are not reasons to rest. This was just one step in the long and winding road to equality for the LGBT community and, even as we’re toasting the Supreme Court, we need to continue marching on. Roughly one-third of the world’s countries continue to criminalize consensual same-sex conduct. Seven have named it a capital crime.
Arguably, LGBT individuals are persecuted nowhere more viciously than in Africa. Where much of the rest of the world has seen advancements in queer rights, ranging from full recognition of marriage and adoption rights to smaller, though still significant advances in visibility and activism, Africa seems to have been backsliding. According to a report released by Amnesty International, the incidence of human rights violations based on orientation, gender identity, and same-sex relationships are on the rise across the continent, including ‘corrective’ rapes and murders of LGBTI individuals in South Africa. In The Gamiba, it has been reported that there have been mass arrests of those who are or are suspected of being LGBT, while in Malawi the maximum prison sentence for same-sex sexual conduct is 14 years for men and five for women. In February of this year, the Nigerian House of Representatives passed a bill that would not only impose a 14 year prison term as punishment for same-sex marriage (I have no idea why 14 is the magic number), but also criminalize aiding and abetting such marriages or even belonging to a queer-rights advocacy group. Cameroon is said to prosecute more homosexuality cases than any other country in Africa, based on such solid evidence as effeminate clothing and text messages. Possibly most infamous piece of anti-LGBT legislation was drafted just across the border from where I sit, in Uganda. Though it has not yet passed since it was first introduced in 2012, the bill calls for the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’: namely, having more than three homosexual encounters or having one while HIV-positive. The bill would also punish Ugandans who fail to turn in those suspected of being LGBT to the authorities.
Given the state-sponsored homophobia (I don’t care what the AP says, ‘anti-gay’ just doesn’t cut it) of its neighbor, the DRC seems downright progressive. Sexual activity with the same sex is legal and the age of consent is equal regardless of orientation (forget for a moment, if you can, that the age in question is 15 for girls). Indeed, in what may be one of the few ways Belgium did not complete eff up this country, homosexual acts have never actually been criminalized here (they were made legal in Belgium in the late 18th century).
Unfortunately, legal does not mean either equal or even accepted. The Congolese constitution explicitly only recognizes the right to wed a person of the opposite sex, and same-sex PDA can be prosecuted under public decency laws. Even in absence of legally enshrined discrimination, the LGBT community remains vulnerable to harassment, humiliation, extortion, hate crimes, and honour killings. Indeed, in their comprehensive annual report, the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association observes that “the absence of criminalisation does not demonstrate the absence of risk of persecution and/or sufficiency of state protection. The question of legality of gay sex is only one element, and cannot alone be taken as an answer to the question of risk of persecution based on sexuality. Mocking, shame, ostracism, scorn, violence and prayers for salvation are reported means of keeping homosexuals in the closet or making them ‘normal’.”
I had the misfortune to experience the latter first-hand. A few short weeks ago, while ‘shopping’ for a parish in Bunia, I was treated to a lecture on threats to the Christian family. They were, in descending order of severity: same-sex marriage (and the LGBT community generally, I gathered), women’s rights (as they would replace the man as the head of the family), polygamy, and the rights of the child (because that clearly leads to premarital sex). When the pastor kicked off his message by praising the Dominique Venner suicide at Notre Dame, I knew we were in trouble (never mind the cognitive dissonance inherent in protesting the moral decay of society by committing a mortal sin).
There was one interesting moment when he began to talk about the great plague. I thought that hearing the HIV/AIDS epidemic might be interesting enough to justify sitting through the rest of it, especially given the impact of homophobia on the success of treatment campaigns. Alas - he was in fact referring to the imminent collapse of Congolese society, which he flamboyantly dubbed the ‘American Disease’.
In fairness to the church, I feel compelled to acknowledge that this was a guest pastor. The main one urges the congregation to get tested for HIV on a regular basis and tells them where the nearest clinic is, according to the colleague who invited me. Though it was same this enlightened soul that added television and the internet to the list of threats facing the Christian family following the conclusion of the main speaker.
I suppose there was some silver lining. My colleague and I did have an interesting discussion following the sermon. I was…a bit hot under the collar, possibly due to being an incurable carrier of the American Disease, but even she (the earnest daughter of Ivoirian missionaries) seemed perturbed. She said she found his message to be ‘strong’, and worried about those in the congregation who might be struggling with their sexual identity. According to her research, not all people choose to be gay, and that sort of talk might not be very helpful.
In response, I did the only thing I could think of: I prayed.
For those who get tattoos and quote Leviticus against LGBT rights, I pray.
Please forgive all of my parentheticals! And thanks to Unvirtuous Abbey for the post title.