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Hope in Uganda and Harlem

PASTOR JOSEPH TOLTON | 5/25/2011, 9:24 a.m.

My 94-year-old straight African-American grandmother did not expect her grandson to be gay, but she knew God was good--all the time! So when I was inspired to found a spiritual home for gay and lesbian worshippers in Harlem, she was bold enough to co-found Rehoboth Temple Christ Conscious Church with me as the first openly gay pastor in Harlem. She stood by me and was our church mother until her death. She lived long enough to see the doors open.

She saw Black congregations share their sanctuaries with Rehoboth. She welcomed our local councilwoman who graced us with her presence. She hugged my former pastor, a Pentecostal Bishop in Brooklyn who embraced me as his son in the Gospel. My grandmother, these leaders and so many others like them represent a positive change happening among Black people throughout Harlem--and the world--but much work remains.

We were shocked with the rest of the world when proposed legislation in Uganda included the death penalty for gay people. With international pressure from President Barack Obama and millions of others, the bill was shelved without being debated in Uganda's current session of parliament, which ends on May 12. Through the process, I learned that gay and transgender people could still be imprisoned for life based on current laws.

As stories of rejection and persecution emerged from Uganda, I decided to travel there to better understand how we might help. I met with Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the largest LGBT human rights organization in Uganda, and Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, along with other community members. What I discovered was surprisingly familiar.

I encountered straight Ugandans who respect their gay countrymen. Some are dismayed by the headlines urging them to hang gay people. Others view sexual orientation and gender identity as distractions from economic issues. And I encountered some people whose lives are defined by being anti-gay. What they have in common is that everyone is talking.

Similarly, Black Americans are talking about gay and transgender family and community members and friends. In our homes, at work and in our churches, this conversation is dynamic, passionate, contentious, urgent and hopeful. It is an organic conversation coming from within our communities among people who know how the vestiges of slavery and colonialism haunt us with destructive beliefs about our sexuality.

When I meet leaders like Ugandan Bishop Senyonjo, who risks his life to claim God's love for all people, including our gay and transgender sons and daughters, I am reminded of all the African-American leaders who are stepping up.

Leaders like the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Cecil "Chip" Murray and Dr. Calvin Butts and Bishop Yvette Flunder all preach love and respect for gay and transgender neighbors.

Leaders in the United States Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and the president of Howard Divinity School all speak out for human rights for gay and transgender people.

The movement to accept people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is growing among people of African descent around the world. I am not talking about isolated pockets of acceptance but a deep understanding that gay and transgender people are woven into the fabric of Black cultures throughout the continent and the Diaspora.

I have been to Uganda, and as a pastor of a church in Harlem, I can tell you: I have hope. I, like my grandmother, stand in faith with all God's children and say God is good! All the time!

Joseph Tolton is a pastor in Harlem at Rehoboth Temple and the managing director of Blur Advertising. His agency provides consulting services to Sexual Minorities Uganda and St. Paul's Reconciliation & Equality Center in Uganda.