Uplifting Faith-based LGBTQ Activism and Narratives in East Africa

Faith-based narratives are a consistent driver of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Where religion remains a central influence in cultures and societies, we cannot create sustainable change without shifting religious narratives toward equity, inclusion, and social justice.

In many of the geographic regions where Arcus’ grantee partners work, faith-based organizations and leaders act as the center of their communities, providing or facilitating services like education, economic assistance, and healthcare, or representing people as politicians.

Over the last 15 years, there has been an ever-increasing export of faith-based, anti-LGBTQ organizing from the U.S., especially to some of our Social Justice Program focus countries in East Africa like Kenya and Uganda. This demonstrates the importance of local progressive faith leadership and LGBTQ organizing to counter and expose the true sources of discriminatory narratives.

For over a decade, Arcus has been supporting faith-based LGBTQ organizations globally to build local leadership, advocate at regional and international fora, and provide inclusive resources, messaging, and literature that speak to the needs of local communities and cultures.

To provide better partnership to our grantees and to support movement efforts to lead and choose priorities, it is important for us to periodically re-evaluate the contexts in which we work by engaging in consultations with movement leaders. Arcus recently commissioned a report to evaluate, map, and analyze faith work in East Africa and identify concrete needs and opportunities for change based directly on what organizers on the ground are saying.

The report’s findings showed that most of the work being done is limited to trainings and workshops with faith leaders, while in some cases, with more developed movements, faith leaders have taken action around advocacy, litigation, safety, and public inclusion. For example, LGBTQ-inclusive clergy attended the high-profile 2019 hearing by Kenya’s High Court addressing colonial-era laws criminalizing gay intimacy.

We also learned that due to a general lack of trust between LGBTQ movements and faith-based communities, there is hesitation to collaborate, which is exacerbated by well-resourced and active anti-rights actors promoting anti-LGBTQ faith narratives. Local activists expressed the importance of donor flexibility and long-term funding, as relationship cultivation takes time, and results are not immediately visible.

The report additionally highlights the most effective strategies to-date for building inclusion and acceptance in faith communities. Opportunities have been found working with non-mainstream denominations who have autonomous decision-making power, using peer faith leader outreach, and approaching younger generation faith leaders, who are more open and receptive than their elders.

One important learning from prior work is the necessity of long-term technical skills training where organizations have dedicated staff to work on faith issues. The long-term engagement allows faith leaders to implement learnings more confidently and consistently as they advocate with their peers and communities. Short-term workshops and trainings rarely lead to active advocacy.

A key way to change hearts and minds has been sharing the lived experiences of LGBTQ people and the impact that harmful religious messaging has on their lives. Aside from direct dialogues, activists have used creative mediums like movies, podcasts, and documentaries to tell these stories. Media has also been an important space for narrative change, acting as a platform for public education and dialogue. Progressive religious radio, print, TV, and social media can reach communities that otherwise would not have exposure to inclusive content.

Analysis of the movements in these regions have resulted in the following strategy recommendations to Arcus:

  • Creation of a regional network: An indigenous regional network of East African LGBTQ organizations advancing inclusion within communities of faith would help curb the perception of LGBTQ inclusion as a foreign agenda and help foster cross-regional collaboration and learning exchanges.

  • Cross-movement building: Expand advocacy by proactively reaching out to mainstream movements, such as women’s and children’s movements, who have more leverage with faith communities than does the LGBTQ community. Such movements could be helpful in relationship-building within communities of faith.

  • Political-religious engagement: Some LGBTQ activists are familiar with politicians who are supportive of their campaigns but do not speak out for fear of losing political power. There is an opportunity to bring together such politicians and friendly religious actors in a space of private dialogue to strategize on how to best advance LGBTQ rights at the national level.

  • Media monitoring and documentation: Proactively monitoring the media to document hate speech from religious and/or political circles in East Africa is not happening in a systematic manner, despite tangible evidence demonstrating the relationship between hate speech and violence toward LGBTQ persons. The creation of an online portal to collect data and monitor trends would strengthen such documentation within these countries and could also be used as an online platform for targeted information-sharing.

  • Advocacy with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights: The impact of conversion therapy on mental health could be used as leverage to push dialogue and action from Commissioners at the African regional level. In addition to Resolution 275 (about violence and rights violations against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity), policies formulated at this level may urge governments to take proactive measures to expand protections for LGBTQ persons, given the thin line between religion and politics.

Organizations face many difficulties engaging with this work, especially with regard to limited resources. Despite the immense need to support progressive faith narratives to counter opposition and anti-rights movements, there are very few funders supporting this space. Since this work is long-term in nature, with limited short-term gains, it is often not placed as a priority for grantmaking or human rights organizations.

Also complicating progress, many activists lack the technical skills to engage with faith leaders and do not have the capacity to navigate the time-consuming bureaucracy of religious institutions. In addition, inclusive religious leaders are often not involved in strategy development with the LGBTQ community, which can present a missed opportunity in developing coordinated messaging.

Arcus will continue supporting groups of LGBTQ people of faith to lead advocacy and campaigns for increased safety, protections, and inclusion. We have seen the impact of faith leaders and groups who are positioned to be advocates and messengers for equity and who have the knowledge to develop effective messaging within local cultural frameworks.

Our grantee partners will continue to work to create a more unified voice to bring about systems-level change in East Africa. Their collaboration with faith, social justice, and secular groups with experience in public policy and with access to state, national, and international policy bodies, will seek to influence cultural, political, and religious spheres toward more equity, inclusion, and social justice.

Explore the full report on faith-based work in East Africa in support of LGBTIQ rights and recognition, featuring in-depth interviews with individuals from civil society organizations, faith-based communities, and funding organizations. And follow the work of Arcus Social Justice Program grantee partners via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or our email program.

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