17 May is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Such a day has become necessary to remind society of the way in which we apply inconsistent moral standards on a daily basis against people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia comes at a critical juncture in Africa. Whilst we have seen a trend towards increased use of penal laws and hate speech against persons purely based on their sexual orientation, there is also a glimmer of hope as we celebrate the new resolution of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the protection against violence and other human rights violations against persons on the basis of their real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity.
Hopefully, 17 May will also serve as a day of introspection, asking ourselves whether we have in any way promoted or condoned the display of negative attitudes towards gay men, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender persons or anyone whose physical appearance or behaviour does not fit our ideas of what a man or woman should behave like. Have we ignorantly promoted the idea that being heterosexual is somehow superior to being attracted to someone of the same sex? Have we judged someone based on their sexual orientation when we would not ourselves want to be labelled simply as the sum of our sexual desires? Have we remained silent when those around us urged that persons should be expelled from our society, should be locked up or even face the death penalty purely because of their sexual orientation? Have we done enough to combat the hatred advocated by others against any person whose inherent characteristics are different to their own?
Launching a guide book for schools on challenging homophobic bullying last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted that “there is never a point at which – because you say a particular form of behaviour is wrong – that that justifies you saying that it is OK to bully someone.”
It is worth considering the line of thought espoused by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who explains that: “Hate has no place in the house of God. No one should be excluded from our love, our compassion or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity — or because of their sexual orientation. Nor should anyone be excluded from health care on any of these grounds … My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love? The wave of hate must stop. Politicians who profit from exploiting this hate, from fanning it, must not be tempted by this easy way to profit from fear and misunderstanding. And my fellow clerics, of all faiths, must stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.”
Ironically, whilst many are quick to deny gays and lesbians the right to dignity based on religious beliefs, we often forget that the right to dignity is not just a human rights concept foisted upon society, but a fundamental tenet of many religious denominations. The idea that all persons have inherent dignity is taken from the notion that we are all made in the image of God. The Cathechism of the Catholic Church, for example, explains that “being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with others.”
When asked whether there would be a justification for criminalising consensual same-sex sexual acts, Pope Francis noted: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying … wait a moment, how does it say it … it says: ‘no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society.’”
It is no coincidence that part of the push for the right to dignity to be included in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was by catholic bishops. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Respect for human dignity requires that we reject all types of inhuman treatment, humiliation or degradation by one person over another. It requires that we recognise an individual’s right to make choices to achieve self-realisation. It further requires that we do not treat a person or group of persons unfairly because of personal traits or circumstances. Lastly, respect for human dignity requires that we create the necessary conditions for each individual in society to have their essential needs satisfied.
Even at this time, many people continue to be harassed, arrested and persecuted based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Many people are kept in horrifying conditions in prison and denied their right to dignity simply because they are suspected of consensual sexual acts with someone of the same sex. Not only does the majority of society remain quiet when such rights violations are perpetrated, but we vilify and shun those who choose to stand up for the rights of gay men, lesbians and bisexual and transgender persons. By denying the right to dignity for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons, have we sacrificed our own humanity?