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Yona Okoth (pictured below) was the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda from 1984 to 1995. He described himself as “ just a man from the jungle” and rose from obscurity to head the 10 million member Church of Uganda representing a third of his country’s population.
I met him in 1991 when he asked for help to combat the spread of AIDS. He had an “AIDS conversion experience” in 1988 after he dramatically spoke at the Lambeth Conference of worldwide Anglican bishops.
“We do not have AIDS in Africa,” he said, and all the African bishops agreed with him. He returned to Uganda to find his driver had killed himself, and his children and grandchildren were infected with the deadly virus. He spent the rest of his ministry tirelessly working to prevent the spread of the disease.
I would arrange tours for him in the USA and the UK where we would raise funds and support for his AIDS work. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised by Yona through grants from USAID and congregations like mine in South Orange County, California.
David Bahati was educated and fed by the American gay community for years
Other bishops would also come over, including Bishop William Rukirande from Kabale, to raise money for his AIDS orphans (many of the bishops were taking care of the children of dead relatives of local community children). My congregation – gay and straight people alike — gave him thousands of dollars to educate and feed these destitute children, one of whom was David Bahati -William’s now infamous ward.
Bahati would grow up to become the Member of Parliament who introduced the draconian “Kill The Gays” bill that is still pending before the Ugandan parliament. Little did we know, LGBTQ money would support someone who has become the poster child of the USA Christian Right’s anti-gay agenda in Africa.
Bahati became a member of “The Family,” a secretive and highly influential network of international “born-again” politicians and religious leaders who have tried to impose a theocratic view of the world upon many African countries in the past 20 years. Bahati represents the present day Church of Uganda that was bribed and eventually bought by American- led fundamentalists seeing homosexuality as inherently evil and an imposition of Western decadence.
Bahati is absolutely convinced that the Western gay agenda is focused on the recruiting of hundreds of thousands of Ugandan schoolchildren and, next to President Yowero Musevene, his name is so well known that he has become an international celebrity of sorts. What Bahati fails to communicate is the positive and philanthropic role that Western LGBTQ people played in his own upbringing. Where Bahati represents a church and state that has led the world in homophobic misinformation, Yona represents an African religious leader who did not have a homophobic bone in his body.
A lesbian encounter
In the mid-1990s, Yona and I were in Atlanta for a series of events and speaking engagements and he was the guest of honor at an art gallery opening. The gallery was owned by an attractive lesbian couple and the evening was elegant and engaging.
Yona was enjoying all the attention poured on him by this largely lesbian community who wrote many checks for his AIDS work. At the end of the evening, we said goodnight, ran through the rainy streets to our car to return to our hotel. As I started the engine and turned on the windscreen wipers, the Archbishop asked me a very difficult question:
“Albert, what do lesbi-yans DO?”
“Swish swash, swish, swash” as the sliding blades cleared a way for me to see the road ahead and an appropriate response to this teachable moment. The Archbishop knew I was gay and never had an issue with that, but with all these beautiful women around him all evening, he was obviously curious as to the sexual practices of women who made love without men.
“Well, your Grace, there are many ways to make love …” I searched for words.
“Yes, but what do Lesbi-yans DOOO??” he asked with even more Episcopal authority.
Swish swash, swish swash, swish -swish as the wiper blades moved even faster.
“Well …. they use their tongues and fingers like heterosexual couples do!” This was still clearly not enough information to quell his African heterosexual search for truth.
“And they sometimes use dildos,” I stammered.
“What’s a dildo?” my now engaged passenger asked.
I am glad the car was dark and he couldn’t see my red face! This was what parents must go through when the kids want to know everything about the birds and the bees. But he was really interested and engaged, and so the conversation needed more truth. I couldn’t just delay his questions for a later conversation with a lesbian, so we continued:
“It is an artificial penis, your Grace.” Swish swash, swish swash … endless silence. Africans sometime have this deep MMMMMMMMMMMMM sound that comes from the bowels that usually means “how very interesting.”
“They are usually made of rubber or plastic.” I thought the African continent might be familiar with wooden versions of a dildo and I had certainly seen phallic African art and fetish objects before, so was he completely oblivious to sex toys, I wondered?
There was a long silence with more swishing and swashing through the rainy Atlanta night and I couldn’t wait to arrive at out hotel and escape the African sexual Inquisition!
Yona had admitted on many occasions how difficult it was for Ugandan heterosexuals to discuss intimate sexual issues when it came to AIDS prevention. The British missionaries to Uganda had certainly ensured their “position” would remain the dominant one – guilt, shame and all. But we had a great open relationship and I loved his courage and leadership. He wanted to know something new and these strong Southern women had intrigued him. He was also not afraid to wave a condom or two in his Kampala cathedral to make his point clear that ABC (Abstinence, Be Careful and Condom use) were tools to help people survive AIDS. Millions of condoms were distributed under USAID’s auspices to his churches and millions of lives were saved by his courage.
“We should have dildos for the widows of Uganda!” he exclaimed in a eureka moment.
Collecting dildos for the widows of Uganda
I immediately thought of a new campaign we could wage among gay and lesbian bars throughout the country where barrels could be placed to collect dildos “for the widows of Uganda.” God knows, there were millions of them.
Archbishop Yona had figured out a way Ugandan women, who may have been infected by their late husbands, could continue to find some pleasure in life. It was completely rational and without any guile or homophobia. It was also a deep humane and compassionate response where he was thinking of ways he could help his people live with this terrifying disease. It was probably one of the most beautiful and honest conversations I have ever had with a friend and ally where our different sexualities were honored and extremely humorous! Here was an African in whom there was not only no guile, but no homophobia.
Yona will always represent the best of African spirituality and sexuality. It is amazing to think where the Church of Uganda stands today and where it was under Yona’s leadership. In the wake of billions of dollars of Bush Administration “faith based “ initiatives in Africa, the ABC’s of HIV prevention would be replaced by “abstinence only,” family planning funding would be prohibited and anti-LGBT evangelists would be free to lie and bribe their way to the Bahati era we now witness. The fruit of the Christian Right in Africa is rotting and the stench of political and religious corruption is disguised by a so called “pro-family” agenda.
American Fundamentalism: A recent intrusion
We can trace this infusion of USA Christian fundamentalist homophobia back to the late 1990s when Yona retired and was replaced by Archbishop Nkoyoyo. The Church of Uganda was always evangelical and conservative but never homophobic as it is today.
Nkoyoyo attended the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops and opened the floodgates for American fundamentalism to import its homophobic agenda on millions of Africans. (Half of the 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBTQ are in Sub-Sahara Africa.) This agenda continued under the present Archbishop Henry Orombe, who supports the Bahati nill.
Multiply Uganda by 75 times and you begin to see the power of rigid religious fundamentalism in mainstream churches like the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church. The wave of neo-colonial evangelism in Africa also meant more progressive churches withdrew from Africa or were disinvited by the new wave of Archbishops.
Celebrating the best of Uganda: Bishop Christopher
My organization, the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, is supporting Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda and his inclusive Center in Kampala. The bishop will be visiting San Diego for two days before going on to be Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade.
We are having a fundraiser for Bishop Christopher on Saturday, June 16, from 10.30 am to 1 pm at a private home in Talmadge.
Funds will be used to bring 26 people from countries where it is illegal to be LGBTQ (and often illegal to access HIV prevention and health services because you are a criminal!) to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July) You can read more about “The Spirit of 76 “ initiative HERE.
An eternal friend and hero
Yona will always be my hero. His wonderful humor are the antidotes to the recent homophobia that have been imposed upon his beloved church and his country. He represents the best of what African can be and my hope is that we get through his dark and frightening tunnel as soon as possible and return to a shared focus on the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.