David Spurrett, Kwok Pui Lan, Charlene van der Walt,
Lilian Siwila, and Federico Settler
In May, I attended a conference on Religion, Gender,
and Sexuality in Africa sponsored by the School of Religion, Philosophy, and
Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
I was invited to deliver the opening keynote address on theology, gender, and
sexuality from a postcolonial perspective.
This was the first time that I had the opportunity
to discuss gender and sexuality outside the North Atlantic context and I have
gained a lot of insights from the experience. I am very grateful to the organizing
team Professors Lilian Siwila and Charlene van der Walt and Dr. Federico
Settler for their hospitality during the conference. I hope to continue to
learn from my African colleagues.
South Africa is close to my heart. The first rally I
participated in the US during the time when I was a graduate student in the
1980s was to protest against the apartheid government in South Africa. In a
travel seminar to South Africa several years ago, I had the opportunities to
visit churches, seminaries, and social agencies working for women’s rights and
Professor Cheryl Anderson of Garrett-Evangelical
Theological Seminary was also a speaker and she delivered a stimulating keynote
address on “Intersecting Identities: Exploring Race/Gender/Sexuality Constructs
in the United States Today and Their Theological Implications.” Other keynote
presenters addressed the issues of “disabled sexuality,” gender and sexuality in
the Philippines, and African women’s biblical hermenetics today. In addition,
more than 50 papers were presented in the concurrent sessions, with presenters
from South Africa and other African countries.
Although I have participated in discussion on gender
and sexuality in denominational gatherings, academic institutions, and
professional guilds in Asia and the US, the scope of the South African
conference was most comprehensive! The papers touched on biblical
interpretation, masculinity, public health, queer theology and practice,
language and liturgy, ethnography, HIV/AIDS, mass media, and digital
It was delightful to meet Professor Sylvia Tamale
from Uganda at the conference. She was the first female Dean of Law in Uganda
and the editor of African Sexualities: A Reader. When I asked her why she took on the massive job and editing a
volume of 670 pages, she said that she was tired of hearing what Westerners and
outsiders have to say about sexualities in Africa. The media tends to portray
African sexualities in sensational and biased ways to reinforce the colonial
construct that Africa is a “dark continent.” For example, the media widely
reported that Uganda passed an Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2013. But the
Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the Act invalid in 2014.
As an Anglican, I am particularly interested in the
debates on human sexuality in the African churches and societies. The Episcopal
Church in the US took a progressive stance on LGBTQ issues. In 2003 the first
openly gay bishop Gene Robinson was consecrated in New Hampshire. Later, the
Church resolved that the call to ministry is open to all, including
transgendered persons. In 2015, the Church decided that the rite of marriage is
available to all people, regardless of gender. These practices have been looked
at with scorn by some African bishops, who even declared that there are no
LGBTQ people in Africa!
At the conference in Pietermaritzburg, LGBTQ issues
were fully included in the discussion. A particular highlight was the
discussion of the politics of race, sexuality, and nation-building.
Participants discussed whether the labels LGBTQ were suitable in African
societies and whether there are indigenous terms. Others discussed alternative
forms of sexual practices in Africa and queer Christian voices in charismatic
churches. Professor Melanie Judge has published Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race. She examines the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and
class identities and the politics of violence in a postcolonial context.
Since I was so stimulated by the conference, I hope
a similar conference can be organized for academics, activists, and NGO
partners in Asia. Questions of sex tourism, prostitution, LGBTQ rights, gender-based
violence, HIV/AIDS have long been important issues in Asian feminist theology.