Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Transgender Africans Speak of God

Some of the most inspiring words I heard at the Lambeth Conference came from Viktor Juliet Mukasa, a transgender activist who heads up the group Sexual Minorities Uganda. Only, Viktor was not at Lambeth. Not in body anyway, but most certainly in spirit along with LGBT comrades from several African countries whose voices rang out in the film Voices of Witness: Africa, a preview of which was shown at Lambeth on July 23 and 28. I first heard of Mukasa last summer, when I read and blogged about a press conference organized by Sexual Minorities Uganda, a group he founded. Group members wore colorful masks to dramatize what it is like to be a sexual minority in Uganda right now.

In Voices of Witness: Africa, Mukasa and others (including Mia Nikasimo, a transwoman and lesbian from Nigeria who posted to this blog last week) talk about a number of topics, but what struck me the most was the impassioned way they talk about their relationship with God. Mukasa recalls, “at some point I just felt that I was free, I was reconciled. I knew that God was not mad at me. I knew that he loves me and he delights in me… because I used to see him as a lion, a lion that is going to eat me up all the time… I was scared of facing God so many times. And now I see a friend who just brings me peace.”

Another transgender Ugandan in the film, Pepe Julien Onziema, speaks of “Prayer. Prayer keeps my head up. I pray to God in the morning, I pray when I’m receiving my meals — I pray all day, yeah? For me it’s prayer, I thank God for everything that I have.”

In response to the question, “what do you want to say to the church?” an animated Mukasa responds, “ask me how I live! Talk to me and I’ll tell you! How do I relate to my God, the God that you talk about so much — how do I relate with him?!-- before you go proclaiming me a sinner, you know? I think the fathers of this world should really go back to God, too, the way they ask everyone to go back to God? They should continuously go back to God and seek his wisdom about homosexuality.”

Mukasa’s words ring with that much more power because of the hell that Christian churches of various denominations have put him through. According to the New Internationalist article “Trial By Fire” (which wrongly uses female pronouns for Mukasa), he went through a horrific ordeal at a Ugandan Pentecostal church in which ministers stripped him and abusively laid hands on him in an attempt at “healing.” This experience, among others, convinced him that “the church in Uganda plays a big role in the oppression of people belonging to sexual minorities. ‘They are violating the human rights of many without anybody raising a finger. I feel they have diverted from what they were called to do, because if you take me through something like that you’re making me sad, humiliated, making me hate myself. This is not what God wants – as a practising Christian, even if I do not go to churches, I know God’s attributes of love, patience and tolerance.’”

In an essay posted on the International Lesbian and Gay Association's website, Mukasa further explains, "Some people, like myself, are born with a sense of ourselves as male in some ways, even though we are biologically female. As a transgender person, I am constantly demanded to explain and justify why I am not fitting into other people's idea of what a woman or a man should be. As a Human Rights Defender, I am working to protect the space for people to exist freely without facing harassment, threat, or violence for not fitting into traditional gender categories."

Back in Voices of Witness: Africa, Onziema adds, “I hope, at this meeting [the Lambeth Conference], I hope there will be some changes. I know my country is boycotting it, but that is not going to stop us from believing in God and from continuing in our struggle.” And on that eloquent note, the film preview ends.

I thank God for all transgender Africans, and particularly for the witness of Mukasa and Onziema: for the clear distinction they articulate between church and God, and for their willingness as trans people to speak of God and their respective relationships with God even in the wake of horrific, religiously-based oppression. I pray that they would keep seeking and proclaiming their truth, that they might know how important it is for others to hear their experience, and that they might be empowered to keep walking forward, knowing that people around the world hear and stand with them.


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