50.50: Opinion

Don’t queer Kenyans have a right to religion?

We are fed up with being shut out of church.

Arya Karijo
3 October 2020, 8.40am
Kenya's Cosmopolitan Affirming Church welcomes the LGBTIQ community
Cosmopolitan Affirming Church

I still remember my excitement, posting minute to minute on Facebook. The court was packed. The police were ready with riot gear. Christians with homophobic banners were singing outside. 

24 May 2019 is forever etched in my memory. I have never seen queer Kenyans show up for anything the way we did for the ‘Repeal 162’ judgement.

But after three hours, our whole community was outside the court, broken-hearted. Buzzfeed World shared an Instagram photo of me and three loved ones weeping in a group hug.

I tried to drink away that weird pain in my chest and stomach. The next morning I woke up on the carpet and realised I was alive. I made some decisions: I would not drink again, at least not drink away pain. I would move out of Nairobi to Ngong; I did not feel safe any more. And I would never go back to church.

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The court ruling and the voice of God

The Repeal 162 ruling was brutal. Upholding a ninety-year-old law which bans “carnal knowledge… against the order of nature”, Justice Roselyn Aburili told the queer community that we were living against African culture, that our love or our lives were against the moral aspirations of Kenyans. She said that if we were treated badly, that was not discrimination: it was "differentiation". 

For three years, we had campaigned to quash a law which criminalises queer lives. As a transgender woman, I had hoped to cross police harassment off my list of fears. My female queer friends hoped they could stop pretending to be sisters and love each other without the risk of fourteen years in jail. 

In her three-hour ruling Aburili and her panel of judges crushed all that.

Screenshot 2020-10-03 at 09.27.48.png
Arya and friends outside the court | Buzzfeed World

And Alfred Rotich – my bishop – lauded her snub. “The country has been defended by this ruling... we have listened to the voice of God in this ruling... the voice of God is enshrined in our constitution.” 

I was surprised how much that hurt. I hadn’t been much of a church-goer in four years. I would sneak in for Christmas carols or New Year’s mass or Ash Wednesday. But that was it. 

Five years earlier, though, my life had revolved around church. All my friends had been in the youth group and choir. I taught Sunday school and the teens group. I had met my fiancé in this tightly knit community that cared about each other's lives, illnesses, weddings and funerals.

When I started living my life authentically as a transgender woman, I knew it would pit the people who loved me against their faith, so I avoided mass and my church community.

My mum still called every Sunday to ask me to pray for this thing or the other. I hadn’t told her I didn’t do church any more. She would not believe it and it would hurt her in her old age. She brought us up in the church; the Consolata nuns had literally raised me when my parents separated.

But the bishop’s comments told me I didn’t belong in my church, and the judge’s ruling said I didn’t belong in my country. I had spent six years serving Kenya as a social entrepreneur. But apparently I was a shame to the flag.

Seeking to belong: queer and religious

One year later I still wanted answers. Is it true people like me didn’t belong here? Does Kenya’s constitution say so? Did the voice of God really speak on 24 May last year?

I sought out other queer people, asking how they were navigating religion and being Kenyan. And I met David Ochar, a pastor of the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church, which welcomes queer folk. 

He said I’m not unusual, that at least 90% of queer Kenyans are religious. But, he said, many of us have our right to worship taken from us.

“When you tell me I cannot be a Christian, I cannot sing in church because of who I love or who I am... you are... violating my right to worship. 

“When you tell me I cannot be in the youth group because you saw me... holding another woman's hand... you are violating the right to worship...

“When LGBT people are thrown out from their churches, their right to worship is really being violated.”

The constitutional right to worship

It’s not just the pastor who says I have a right to worship. The constitution does too. Article 32 says that every person has the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion; that everyone has the right to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practice, teaching or observance. 

This, like many other beautiful provisions in the ten-year-old Kenyan constitution, looks good on paper. But it’s not put into practice. At least, not if you are queer. 

Even if it’s not enforced, though, the clause made me feel a bit better. The constitution was not against me and ‘my kind’. At least, not in the way the bishop and judge had put it. 

Could the bishop also be wrong about God’s voice? And if he was, and God had nothing against me, who did? And what could they possibly gain from it?

Queer people aren’t anti-religious – religion is anti-queer

“It took me a while, but I am in a very good place with my God now. She has been there for me in so many ways. But I broke up with the church. I feel like there is so much hypocrisy in church. I was told I will not see heaven because of loving a woman.” 

I met Millicent Odhiambo, who was disowned by her family, at Queerhive, a Kenyan feminist community organisation for young queer women and gender-nonconforming people. I joined one of their weekly discussions and asked members to share their experiences of mainstream religion. 

Kay converted. “I am now a Muslim,” she says. “My Christian mum was a church leader and she used to get a lot of hate because of me. I was pushed out of youth groups. It was depressing.... They came home to pray for me, to expel demons that were making me dress like a man. Finally my mum was... told if I kept coming to church she would lose her job. So I had to stop.

“It made me think about Christians, about how they fake life.” 

Winnie speaks up next. She was very active in church and would lead worship sessions. Then her ex told her pastor she was lesbian, and “everything went south”. 

“The pastor and I would disagree in public about simple things such as the tune of a song. Then someone... started a rumour that the pianist and I have sex on the... altar.

“The people who started the rumour said they had been assigned to pray for me and refused to apologise for their lie… the pianist was fired and lost his accommodation as he used to live in the church. 

“I found another church [and] convinced the bishop… to offer my pianist friend a job. The pastor of my former church told the bishop of my new church that I was... a lesbian [and] sleeping around with a pianist. I ...quit church altogether. 

“I love God and talking about God and singing for God, but I came to realise that there was so much hypocrisy in churches today.... I haven’t really found an alternative spirituality… but I am looking for an affirming church.”

Ray Lately’s partner is a singer. When they came out to their pastor, he prevented them from serving. “Thinking about it… makes me a bit sad... how can people who preach love be the first ones to discriminate?” Ray and their partner sought faith elsewhere. “We talked to these guys who practise Nichiren Buddhism. We came out to them and they all... hugged us – ‘you guys are so welcome’ they said. I've really been happy in Buddhism.”

Ochar says his colleague in the United Methodist Church was demoted for sharing a podium with him, simply because he’s gay.

The Cosmopolitan Affirming Church was started in 2013 by people who’d had experiences like these – experiences Ochar calls “spiritual violence”.

We are bringing a liberating, progressive theology

Spiritual violence is the Sunday sermons dedicated to how ‘homosexuals’ go to hell. It is youth group debates that turn into condemnation of lesbians. It is being read to from the book of discipline and the scripture verses you have ‘violated’, being asked to confess your sin and being 're-baptised'. For some, it means being excommunicated.

Ochar says young people will find an alternative to Christianity in its current form, “A majority... who come here are young. There is a lot of questioning, reading, researching and discovery... going on. You are not just going to tell them things like we were told by our pastors from the pulpit,” he says. 

“We are bringing a liberating, progressive theology where you have to move from what you have [been] taught God [is], to your own understanding... and then have a relationship with [the] God of your understanding.”

But most denominations do the opposite. Ochar says pentecostal and evangelical churches are notorious for 'gay deliverance' myths, with preachers posing as prophets. Queer people are told: “You know you can always change,” or: “You know that was not you: you were in a dark place and now you can be delivered.” 

He tells me the Catholic Church has a conversion therapy ‘safe house’ for men who claim they are ‘ex-gay’.

After these conversations, something was clear. Spiritual violence is not "differentiation", as Judge Roselyn had put it. It is discrimination. And it violates our constitution.

To understand what was going on, someone told me to look for a Reverend Alba Onofrio who had visited Kenya and taught womanist theology, centred on Black queer women. I shot off an email.

Christian supremacy 

Reverend Alba Onofrio

I expected a stern white woman with grey or white hair. Onofrio is quite the opposite: she had a Latina accent, laughed with her eyes and was amused when I said I had only four questions. “Just four tiny little questions,” she laughed. We talked for an hour and half about my four questions.

I didn’t realise it but all four were examples of spiritual violence: how to connect them to a loving God? Onofrio listened carefully and explained that there was a force behind them all: something she calls ‘Christian supremacy’.

Soulforce, the organisation where she works, says on its website that it “sabotages Christian supremacy through radical analysis, healing and strategic direct action”. 

She defines 'Christian supremacy' as the use of the religion by systems of power such as patriarchy, governments and economic elites to advance their domination. “During the Transatlantic slave trade, many White Christians thought they were good people even if they owned other people,” she says. “We all... know that this is... reprehensible, yet Christian supremacy applied the Bible and theology to make it seem OK.

“Christian supremacy is taking something that is supposed to be sacred... and using it for something that causes harm or death or inequality.”

That’s when I realised Rotich, the bishop, was wrong. It was not the voice of God speaking in the ruling that day. It was the voice of Christian supremacy. It is not God who inflicts violence on the queer community. It is Christian supremacy. And it is not God we must fight. It is Christian supremacy.

Made In America

I found Chrissy Stroop, a writer and academic, through Religion Dispatches, and she helped me understand some of the origins of Christian Supremacy and how it became so pervasive in Kenya. The history I am living through wasn’t born here. Like her, it came from the US Bible Belt.

Stroop says her 1980s schooling was a preparation for “fighting culture wars”. An “ex-evangelical”, she grew up with Christian supremacy: she grew up where it was made.

“They mobilised us for right-wing politics. We would go on field trips to these conventions for an organisation called Citizens Concerned for the Constitution... Indiana's ‘premier pro-homeschooling, pro-Christian, pro-family’ organisation. All those are code words. These were like the Tea Party before the Tea Party conventions, and they would use us students to distribute their voter guides.

“You live in this evangelical bubble and they... teach you to be a political person, [to] get involved and write to your government representatives. ‘Go to these political conventions, go to anti-abortion protests, agitate.’” At the time, this was all new.

Most US evangelicals were ambivalent about abortion during the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision. The first time the Southern Baptist Convention took a position was 1971, when most delegates backed a motion calling for some abortions to be decriminalised. Then, The Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority were founded. Catholics began voting alongside the rest of the religious Right.

From 1973 to 1978, US Christians became strongly anti-abortion and ‘pro-family’. Puritans who initially considered politics 'dirty' started funding candidates and found themselves in positions of power. Ronald Reagan’s election was the turning point.

“This fusion of modern capitalism with White supremacist American Christianity came together in the Cold War when it was very easy to rally around anti-Communism. They all became kind of a piece,” Stroop says.

Screenshot 2020-10-03 at 09.37.24.png
Chrissy Stroop, ex-evangelical | sorrynotsorrypod.com

“A lot of prominent industrialists who are, of course, conservative, wanted to fight labour unions. On the other hand you have up and coming preachers who were very concerned with Communism.” 

“Most predominant forms of Communism... were anti-religious.” 

The unspoken part was “if the government doesn’t decide what to do with our money – we do. As Christians we're supposed to help the poor, well, we decide who's worthy of that help. And certain people aren't, right? Liberals, queers, Black people maybe.” 

Anyone asking the government to spend on welfare was accused of promoting idolatry, worshiping the government instead of God, and encouraging laziness, against US capitalism’s Calvinist work ethic.

“We talk about Christian supremacism” says Stroop, “We are generally talking about White Christian supremacism”.

They believe "they are the ones who were ‘chosen’”, says Pastor Ochar.

It’s easy to see how anti-Communist White Christian supremacy flourished in Kenya. We gained independence during the Cold War. The US was terrified of former European colonies allying with the USSR. Bible Belt missionaries were just another agent of US power. Deliverance, pentecostal and Evangelical preachers rose beside the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches introduced by the coloniser.

And it continues. Groups in Kenya who opposed our Repeal 162 campaign, or the inclusion of intersex people on the census, or other campaigns for women’s and LGBTIQ rights, are not just zealous Christians. The Kenya Christian Professionals forum, The Kenya Christian Doctors Association and their allies are well prepared for these fights. They are following a lead from the US.

And they are good at what they do, says Stroop. “They have learned how to work the political system... They're invested in putting a friendly face forward. Our establishment’s major media outlets, the pundit class, the political class are all predisposed to look favorably on any large group of White Christians… even the ones who have some extreme theology… It whitewashes the harm that they do and the press is generally very happy to do this for them.”

Two empires, power and control

Was Christian supremacy invented during the 1970s in the US? It seemed older than that. How far back in history did I have to go to explain my life in 2020?

“British imperial insecurities about masculinity are rooted in trying to preserve the empire. When you're trying to uphold...White supremacy in a patriarchal context, you also have this severe concern of racial and masculinity degradation,” says Stroop. 

There was a fear, she says, that “going native or African will make you softer. India will make you soft. There aren't explicit laws on the British books against lesbian sex because they were really concerned with the feminisation of man, because if your men are feminized, you will lose your empire, right?”

The laws upheld in the judge’s notorious ruling were from the 1930s. Their purpose was to allay British worries about diluting the power of the empire.

“Policing so-called sodomy,” Stroop says, “goes hand-in-hand with the development of the empire.” The British obsession is unquestioningly picked up by White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture in America. Fast forward to 2020 we have Victorian patriarchy being protected as African culture.”

But it goes back further than that. The British didn’t invent using Christian rhetoric to control people. The Romans did. 

The book of truth, a 'process of men'

Onofrio explains the Bible can only be read in the context of history.

In 325 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, a year after consolidating his power over the empire, gathered bishops in Nicaea in modern-day Turkey to agree which books should go into the Bible. As his armies reconquered lands on the edges of the declining empire, he ensured ideological dominance over this rebellious faith. 

The scriptures they worked from came from the patrilinial Hebrew society: for instance, they said that Jesus fed 5,000 men, not counting women and children. The people who wrote the Bible were mostly men. 

“A process of men,” says Reverend Onofrio. “You have another... 1500 years where men are handwriting copies of text and correcting them whenever they see something that they think is wrong... where men are translating them into different languages.”

Often, men with agendas. In 1604, King James VI of Scotland, a year after adding England and Ireland to his realm, commissioned the most important English translation of the Bible. As his ships conquered the first colonies of the British Empire, his scholars penned its religious text.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Holy Spirit is feminine: Ruach, the spirit who hovers over the waters in the Genesis myth, is feminine. Shekinah, who moves through the desert with the people of Israel, is feminine. Sophia, the divine wisdom in the Greek, is feminine. 

Onofrio asks “Why are we calling God ‘father’ as opposed to ‘mother’ or... ‘parents’? It was a decision made by a male priest... [Why is it] that God was a fighter, rather than a loving, caring nurturer?... We don't want God ... to be effeminate because, 'Oh, my God. What would that mean about masculinity?'”

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the passage of choice to attack LGBTIQ people. But the story wasn’t about homosexuality. It talks about the inhospitable culture of the people of Sodom who maltreated guests in their city. The text should teach us to welcome migrants and criminalise rape.

When Noah curses Ham for seeing him naked, there is no mention of race. But somehow a whole theology was fabricated around it to justify slavery and racism. Stroop says in that her middle school they had a chart showing how the descendants of cursed Ham settled in Africa, while Shem is the father of White people and Japheth the Asians: racist, and not in the Bible.

“In the United States right now, we have approximately ten thousand children… separated from their parents at the border,” says Onofrio. US government attorney Jeffrey Sessions justified this, citing the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13: "Obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."

“And just like that,” says Onofrio, “he validated separat[ing babies] from their parents and put[ing] them in cages.”

The voice of truth

In morning mass we used to sing a song by Casting Crowns: “The voice of truth tells me a different story… the voice of truth says, do not be afraid.”

The words feel appropriate right now.

I have heard the voice of truth: about Christian supremacy and its origins; about empires using the Bible to control, about modern groups using religion for economic and political domination. 

And so now, I will spend my time like Chrissy Stroop, calling out Christian supremacy. I will write it about it, I will litigate against it, I will be an activist for religious freedom for queer people. My new spirituality is radical love for human beings.

Would I sue churches in Kenya for denying queer people religious freedom? Yes. I would. Would I win? Would the voice of truth be heard in the ruling? Or would Christian supremacy resound once again?

Who knows?

Challenging Christian supremacy, Onofrio says, involves taking on the big things in our society: our politics, social norms, economic beliefs.

Only when we see Christian supremacy for what it really is can we call out the socially normalised action of disinviting queer people from society and their right to religious freedom.

In the meantime, my struggle will help someone. Some young queer person coming out on social media, putting the rainbow flag or the trans flag on Facebook. When they are disinvited from their family, from society, from church – because they will be – I hope they hear the voice of truth, out of all the voices confusing their lives.

I hope they find family in community groups like Queerhive. I hope they will find an affirming church like Pastor Ochar’s or some spirituality like Ray Lately’s Buddhism or Onofrio’s queer feminist theology. I hope they read this article. I hope they find a God who reflects back their gender, race, sexuality and love. I hope they see God in their humanity.

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