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End criminalisation now

24 June 2016

Anglicans should put their weight behind efforts to improve the lot of LGBT people in the Commonwealth, argues Kevin Childs

TO DATE, 77 countries still crim­inalise homosexuality, which ef­fect­ively condemns as “unap­pre­hended felons” up to 145 million men and 40 million women.

In these countries, persecution, intim­ida­tion by the police, mur­derous violence, discrimination at work and at home, and an absence of access to health­care are the norms for LGBT people.

One statistic might suffice: in those parts of the Caribbean that criminalise same-sex intimacy, the prevalence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men is ap­­prox­­imately four times higher than in countries that do not criminalise.

More than half of these countries are in the Commonwealth; they maintain laws that were originally introduced by the British Empire more than 100 years ago (Comment, 13 September 2013).

Nevertheless, on numerous occa­sions, Anglican Churches have either remained silent about crim­inalisation, or — as with bishops in Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, and in the Caribbean — actively supported the retention of these laws.

ANGLICAN Churches are at logger­heads. For the past 20 years, ques­tions about sexuality have hijacked meetings in the Anglican Commun­ion. Some say that sinister powers are afoot, manipulating Afr­ican and Caribbean bishops using money and aid to be spokesmen (and it is predominantly men, still) for a non-inclusive Church.

The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) was inst­ituted by a group of conservatives to push the Communion towards a less liberal stance on issues such as homosexuality. Churches in the United States and Canada, as well as those in Southern Africa, have been attempting to balance more inclusive values with reconcilia­tion with their peers. Conflicting mono­polies of truth abound.

What is more pressing, how­ever, is that arguments about marriage and gay clergy have obscured the real crisis in the Communion: its failure to unite in condemnation of laws criminalising same-sex intimacy between consenting adults.

Arguments put forward by leading Anglicans in these juris­dictions in favour of criminal sanc­tions often smack of the sort of culture wars that the global North has been engaged in over the past 50 years or so. There is evidence of global North conservatives taking their culture wars to the South, arguably having lost them in the north.

Consistently at gatherings of the Communion, whether the Lambeth Conference or Primates’ Meetings, the conservative agenda has pre­vailed, and that pernicious doctrine, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” has stifled the reality of the persecution of LGBT people by the State, by faith groups, and by ordinary men and women. These laws not only allow discrimination to take place with impunity: they actively en­­courage it by deeming LGBT people as deviant.

And yet, in contrast, in England 50 years ago, leading Anglicans supported the repeal of laws that criminalised homosexuality. We might be forgiven for asking why the lives of English gay men in the 1960s were more worthy of protec­tion than the lives of Ugandan or Jamaican LGBT people are today.

IN JANUARY, Anglican Primates imposed what were, in effect, sanctions on the Episcopal Church in the United States over its decision to change its marriage canons to include same-sex couples (News, 22 January).

At the same time, a communiqué emerged condemning, for the first time, legal sanctions against LGBT people. This is a Communion that gives, and takes away, in the blink of an eye. Perhaps not surprisingly, some Primates were soon ignoring the communiqué, and returning to their old positions.

Why is it that the Episcopal Church in the US is sanctioned for offering a space for its LGBT mem­bers, but the Churches in Uganda or Nigeria can support persecution without chastisement? This is an untenable situation for the Com­munion; it is why criminalisation represents a continuing, existential crisis for Anglicans.

The Communion needs to draw back from the brink of collapse and, more importantly, use its influence to end legal sanctions from the Victorian era which persecute LGBT people.

A NEW report, Anglicans and Sex­ual­ity: A way forward?, pub­lished by the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics, calls for an independent commission to look at all aspects of criminalisation, and to recommend solutions to allow the Anglican Communion to regain the moral high ground by throwing its weight behind decrim­inalisation.

It could take evidence from ex­­perts, activists, and victims of per­sec­ution; it could produce ir­­refut­able arguments about why the Com­munion needs to get off the fence; it could command the respect of An­­gli­cans around the world in a way that a group of liberal London-based academics and activists can­not.

This is not an easy task. There are prejudices that need to be addressed on all sides of the debates about homosexuality. There are, inevit­ably, conversations to be had, as well as the necessary process of col­lect­ing evidence, often under diffi­cult cir­cumstances. Some people will be reluctant even to consider these issues; others will turn their backs.

There cannot, however, be any question that the victimisation of men and women on the basis of their sexuality, through the law, through the media, and through
the pulpit, is in any way an acceptable reality for the Com­munion.

The Anglican Communion has enormous influence, for good or ill, among people in the global South where criminal sanctions per­secute LGBT communities. They have the real capacity to influence change. So let it be for good.

Read the news story on the Institute of Public Affairs report here 

 Dr Kevin Childs FRSA is an in­­dependent lecturer in history and art history, and one of the authors of Anglicans and Sexuality.

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