HIV Activists/Gay Men Sentenced in Senegal: The Other Side of Rick Warren’s “Humanitarian Issue”

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HIV Activists/Gay Men Sentenced in Senegal: The Other Side of Rick Warren’s “Humanitarian Issue”

Scott Swenson

The distance between Pastor Rick Warren and the sentencing of nine gay HIV activists in Senegal can be measured in inches, not miles. This is a real humanitarian issue Pastor Warren, not a fight to protect the privilege of heterosexual marriage.

Pastor Rick Warren is right about one thing, gay rights is a humanitarian issue and a human rights issue.  The problem is he offered those comments in defense of retaining the privilege of heterosexual marriage, not as a result of the sentencing of nine men in Senegal to eight years in prison.

The Associated Press reports:

Nine men, including a prominent activist, have been convicted of
homosexual acts and sentenced to eight years in prison, a gay rights
group said Thursday.

Diadji Diouf, who heads an organization that
provides HIV prevention services to gay men in Senegal, and the others
were arrested Dec. 19 in a raid on Diouf’s apartment.

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The men
were sentenced Wednesday for unnatural acts and criminal conspiracy,
said Joel Nana, Africa research and policy coordinator with the
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Cape Town,
South Africa.

"This is the first case that we’ve heard of in
Senegal where people actually got sentenced," Nana said. He called the
sentences long and harsh. Diouf’s organization, AIDES Senegal, provides condoms and HIV treatment out of his home.

arrests came just weeks after Senegal hosted an international AIDS
conference that included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender

"It is a strong message of hatred, a strong message
of division when we know it is critical at this point to address HIV in
these communities," Nana said.

Senegal, a primarily Muslim nation
in West Africa, is one of 38 countries on the continent that
criminalize homosexual acts, Nana said. South Africa prompted
continent-wide controversy in 2006 when it became the first African
country to legalize gay marriage.


By contrast Pastor Warren, often lauded for his work with HIV/AIDS and in particular in Africa, essentially said that because gay people were such a small percentage of the population, they should not be allowed to marry, adding, "This is not even just a Christian issue. It’s a humanitarian and human issue." 

Warren also said, “Some people feel today that if you disagree with them then that’s
hate speech. Either if you disagree with them you either hate them or
you’re afraid of them. I’m neither afraid of gays nor do I hate gays.
In fact I love gays but I do disagree with some of their beliefs.”

Christianity is a belief, a choice. Sexuality is gift from God, for believers. I am gay, I don’t "believe" I’m gay, and I never had a choice, for which I thank God everyday. And in spite of many reasons to turn my back on faith as many have, I continue to believe Jesus has a bigger vision than Rick Warren of how we should treat our fellow humans. 

The distance between Rick Warren and the law in Senegal that has sentenced these nine gay HIV activists is measured in inches, not miles. I have defended President-elect Obama’s decision to reach out to Warren, from a position of strength that Obama has in his own beliefs and to attempt to model civility. 

It is up to Warren to move toward Obama, and he can start by denouncing this sentencing — as a humanitarian and human rights issue — and working to see that laws in the nations his missions work in are changed so that all God’s children are treated equally. Perhaps in all his work on AIDS Pastor Warren has yet to realize that it is the shame and stigma put on sex and sexuality by people like him that is at the core of the rampant spread of the disease, and that gay children who are loved, embraced and celebrated with an option of loving committed relationships — as opposed to growing up living in fear and shame — would make wise decisions about their sexual health. We see where thousands of years of stigma has gotten us. Could it be we are supposed to learn something from all the disease, like how to treat each other better?

Behind the Mask is a group that monitors human rights abuses of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people throughout the continent of Africa.  You can learn more about Senegal’s discrimination here. Will someone please forward that link to Pastor Warren and urge him to make a real humanitarian response, not use Christianity to fight to protect privilege. Historically that hasn’t worked so well.