Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is an Anglican priest in Kampala. Ordained in 1964, Senyonjo served in the Church of Uganda, but was dissociated from the church in 2006, largely over his growing role as a voice of tolerance for LGBT Ugandans. Christened the ‘Ugandan Desmond Tutu’ by the Kampala-based tabloid Red Pepper last week when it included him on a list of Uganda’s ‘top 200 homosexuals’ (notwithstanding his wife and six children), Senyonjo runs a center for reconciliation and equality north of the city center. In the aftermath of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s decision to sign into law a harsh anti-gay bill last Monday, which provides for a sentence of life imprisonment in the case of ‘aggravated homosexuality,’ Senyonjo discussed the plight of LGBT Ugandans with me last week.
On education about sexuality in Uganda:
CS: I’ve discovered the reality is you shouldn’t hurt people, you shouldn’t punish people for being what they are sexually. Sexuality is a very important component in a human being’s existence. So if you smother expressions of sexual being, it means you are killing that person. Regulating sexuality, I think, is important, because if people lure young people into something they’re not, it’s wrong….
But where people are consenting adults, and you punish them, it seems to me to be very dehumanizing. You may quote the Bible, you may quote Scripture…. But these things are quoted out of context. God created, and is still creating, so I think understanding people, how they live, why they live as they are, is important. That’s why I feel the most important thing we need to do is education. By education, we learn. We learn where we may be going wrong. That’s different rather than saying, ‘The whole category is condemned.’
On reconciling the church with human sexuality:
CS: My church, unfortunately, generally, doesn’t understand human sexuality…. But the point is for people to listen to each other, not just quote the Bible [at one another]. I’m a Christian also, I’ve taken theology courses, I’ve been in the ministry now for 50 years, but I can see that God is not such a God who is so harsh because of a person’s sexuality. God is loving, and if you love, you have to be compassionate. Try to understand the other person’s view, not say, ‘Don’t talk to me, I know everything about you.’ You should also listen to the other person. Unfortunately, the homosexuals, the general term we use, are usually not listened to. [Opponents] just condemn it. It’s difficult….
[Critics say,] ‘God doesn’t like for me to talk about my sexuality. Adam and Eve were just heterosexuals. Why can’t you talk about something else?’
They don’t think about in Adam, everything was there. Intrinsically in Adam, every possibility was there. When someone talks about Adam and Eve, I say, ‘What color was Adam and Eve? What height? What kind of eyes? So you think we are just copies of Adam and Eve? We weren’t.’ Every single possibility was there, and being manifested in Adam and Eve.
On Museveni’s request for Ugandan scientists to determine whether homosexuality has a genetic basis:
CS: I was impressed when our president said he’d consult scientists about this subject. And they gave him his views, which were generally really balanced. Unfortunately, [the president] just picked a point here and there, not looking at the whole report. I may not agree with everything the scientists said, but I appreciate what they did. When I read it, they were balanced.
But I don’t know how you can really measure love genetically. A human being is complicated. Let a human being tell you his or her story. Listen to the real story. What causes it? Is it real?
….But if you look at the whole report, even the science has a lot of things to discover. There was a time they talked about light traveling in a straight line [long before science discovered] quantum theory. Science is very flexible to discover things. When you’re a scientist, you’re open to new learning.
On counseling young gay Ugandans:
CS: [There’s] a young man — I won’t use his name, but he’s a typical one, I’ve watched him grow, I know him even today. He has lived, and now he’s happy, because he came to understand and accept himself. But he was a miserable young man because his parents, as he was growing up, thought he should get married. The young man did not. His younger brothers were getting married, and they looked around and said, ‘Look, there! Wonderful, beautiful girls, why don’t you get married?’
The young man didn’t care, he said, ‘I don’t feel like those girls!” They couldn’t understand. The mother was very worried, because she was getting old, the father had died, so they wanted to have [grand]children, which is understandable. The young man was worried, and they told him, ‘Go to church, talk to the pastor, he will help you repent, do this…’ So he did for a long time, tried to pray, fast and all that. But he was not changing. One pastor talked to him and [sent] him to me, you can go and talk to him about your ‘condition.’ He came. And we shared a number of conversations talking about how he felt and all that. I realized he was not pretending, he was a gay person. And I told him, ‘Accept yourself as you are.’ This was relieving, because he told me he was contemplating committing suicide. Because people were telling him, ‘Even God doesn’t love you unless you change’….
When I told him, ‘Accept yourself, God loves you as you are,’ that young man is still alive and very happy. It’s one example, but it’s a typical one. The mother continued to say, ‘My son, why don’t you get married?’ The mother was getting sick, and the young man was worried too. So this young man said, ‘Let me gather courage and talk to my mother. ‘Because the mother really cared and loved him. So he said, ‘Mother, I want to tell you something. I don’t love those girls you are talking about, you’ve been bringing around and all that. I’m gay.’
Oh! The mother broke down into tears, cried and cried, and the young man also cried. After crying, the mother said to the young man, ‘You are my son. You are different, but you are my son. I love you as you are.’ This was wonderful for this young man. After a few months, the mother became really sick and died. She is dead now, but the young man said, ‘My mother died happy, and I am happy she died knowing who I was, who I am.’
So when you hear and know people like that, and [Ugandans want] to send them to prison, maybe for life, because [they] have said, ‘genetics or whatever,’… for me, I don’t think you can determine the love of a person by what you call scientific methods. Love is a mystery. There are many mysteries, but they are real. So I feel sorry, because people are going to suffer — innocent people are going to suffer — if you implement this bill.
On whether ‘African values’ can include homosexuality:
CS: [Ugandan scientists] said there is a small number of people with homosexual tendencies in every society. They didn’t say, ‘in only European societies.’ Unfortunately, now, people think it’s [exclusively]European. But it’s in every society, whether you’re European, Asian, or other. I’ve travelled, I’ve met some Hindus, I’ve met some Buddhists – they’re all ‘affected.’ It’s a human phenomenon….
Anyway, the point is, if in every society, there is a small number of people with homosexual tendencies, how do you treat them? You are the leader, the custodian, the one to protect the weak. To these people, you say, ‘You are going to be sent to prison for life?’
On whether Senyonjo could face criminal liability under the new anti-gay law:
CS: Our stress is education. I don’t believe we are ‘promoting.’ We are not ‘recruiting.’ They are using these terms to make things worse. I don’t recommend recruiting! I don’t recommend promoting! But you recognize the reality, what is here. There are real people like this….
But I still want to one day have time to share with the president, just as we are talking now, and share with him my concerns. Because I’ve been in this for a long time, not by being forced into it, but by conviction and calling. I feel unhappy for the suffering of what I call innocent people. The bill may say, ‘Well, you are [recruiting or promoting], you are also going to be imprisoned.’ What to do?
But the point is to make clear what is going on. So for our organization, we are content to do some education if we are allowed. But the truth will never die.
On the role of Western evangelicals and the anti-gay law:
CS: I think change must come. It can take years and years, it has done so in the West itself, but the truth is truth. Unfortunately, when people are being defeated somewhere, they want to plant their seed somewhere else. What we know from 2009, there are people who wanted this to happen in Uganda because it’s now difficult to do this in America. Then they came and played on the emotions of people. When you play on our emotions, and people don’t try to reason out things, it is a big problem.
Emotions are very important, and human beings are very emotional. But when someone is emotional, he loses his real sense of reason. That’s why faith is good, but again faith can be a problem. When people don’t reason, but say, ‘This is my faith, this is what I read in the Bible.’ You may not agree or have your interpretations, but if we don’t use our reasoning capacity, which God has also given us, we’re in trouble.
On why anti-gay sentiment runs so high in Uganda and in Africa:
CS: Sometimes if you have a problem, you want to project it somewhere. Some of these are projections. When you fail here, you want to try somewhere else…. People, because of fear, will run towards religion. People are afraid, they want to hold onto something. God is very important in our lives, but when life is so complicated, people want to know, ‘Where can I find some security?’ They go to the Bible — ‘I just read it, I don’t like to reason about it, that’s the Bible.’ I get security, I’ve got hope. If I die, I go to heaven. So people are doing things which are terrible because they believe if they do this, they’ll go to heaven….
I think our problem has been that people are so insecure. So now, how can we can get some security somewhere? People are talking about how the ‘family’ is good, but if you use ‘family’ without reason to punish homosexuals – I say ‘without reason’ because homosexuals are just one small bit of humanity. There are people who are barren. You can’t punish people for being barren. And propagation is not going to be affected as you fear by what you call homosexuals. Maybe they quote the Bible, ‘It says go, spread, have more children! If you don’t have children, you must punish these people who may not be procreative.’
Now faith should have reason, and that’s why as a theologian I really respect and take as my mentor Anselm. Anselm said, ‘faith seeks understanding.’ We shouldn’t run away from understanding and say, ‘God is annoyed [by homosexuality].’ Why is he annoyed? He gave you a brain to say, ‘Why is he annoyed?’ Loving your brother and sister is the most important thing. If I try to hurt my brother or sister sister because I think the Bible, religion or whatever is telling me so, I wonder. I think in Africa and in many parts of the world, there’s a lot of insecurity, and people are trying to find security somewhere.
On how the US government and other Western human rights activists should respond:
CS: Reacting too quickly may be not right. Considering the people of Uganda as a whole, it is terrible if they suffer because of just a few people… [But] I don’t believe in saying, ‘This is my country, don’t interfere.’ Just like… if I mistreat my children or my wife and you say, ‘That is not [my] business,’ I think it is wrong. I think we are coming out of that…. But I think the world has to change and is changing. If human beings are to survive, we cannot live with this kind of mentality, or saying, ‘You’re interfering. I’m sovereign.’ We are sovereign, of course, but there are some international laws which should be [observed]….
Take the history of the slave trade. Oh, people enjoyed the slave trade! Masters enjoyed having slaves. But God touched the consciences of some people to say, ‘This is wrong.’ They seemed to interfere, but they interfered in the right way.
On whether LGBT Ugandans should seek asylum abroad:
CS: Already they have come, and I say, ‘If you have opportunity to go, go.’ As we work out things, go….
Christ said to his disciples, ‘You should be wise like serpents but innocent like doves.’ Well there are three characteristics about snakes before we get to doves. If there’s a snake behind the chair –there’s not one! — it will be there quiet. But you may not know it is there. So at this time, some people will have to be quiet. But by being quiet, they’re studying the situation and what to do.
The other characteristic of a snake is that a snake is always slipping away. You see it slipping away and you didn’t even know it was there. That’s why I am saying, some people will have to go away, slip away.
The third characteristic is the snake can bite — and it does. Some people will find themselves they can’t do otherwise. But by responding and by so responding, they are going to be hurt. One doesn’t know what the consequences will be, but there will be consequences. So if they can’t leave the country, but they feel they have to speak about these issues, by so doing, they are like snakes biting, and they will be hurt.