The gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has received a standing ovation at the Greenbelt Christian festival.
Speaking about “the struggle for queer freedom in Africa”, he attacked church leaders who condone homophobic abuse, but praised the “brave, heroic Christians who refuse to go along with the persecution of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual”.
Greenbelt, one of Britain's largest Christian festivals, has drawn over 21,000 visitors over the weekend. Tatchell was speaking on Saturday evening (28 August).
Prior to the weekend, Tatchell had told Ekklesia that he was “looking forward” to the weekend and that, while not a Christian himself, “we have more in common than divides us”. The turnout suggests that few had heeded a call by the socially conservative group Anglican Mainstream, to boycott Greenbelt because of Tatchell's presence on the programme.
Tatchell drew enthusiastic applause from parts of the audience, and uncomfortable expressions from others, when he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, of “colluding” with the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Africa.
“The Anglican Church and Archbishop Rowan Williams have a lot to answer for, because they have put church unity before human rights,” he said.
Tatchell outlined the contrasting legal situations facing sexual minorities in various parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. These range from South Africa, which was the first country in the world to outlaw homophobic discrimination in its constitution, to Uganda, which plans to introduce the death penalty for a repeat 'offence' of same-sex relations.
Pointing out that most homophobic laws in Africa date from the colonial era, Tatchell said, “They're not genuinely African laws”. He added, “They're laws that were inspired by a conquering imperial power”.
In response to questions, he emphasised that it is necessary for Western advocates of human rights to support African LGBT people in their campaigns, rather to open themselves to accusations of colonialism by seeming to impose their values from outside.
Tatchell gave emotional descriptions of the abuse of LGBT people in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, where he accused Christian and Muslim leaders of whipping up mob violence. He also attacked conservative evangelical groups from the USA who have travelled to Uganda to argue that the country's biggest problem is “not poverty, not corruption, not human rights abuses, not rigged elections” but homosexuality.
He was keen to make a distinction between Christians who oppose homosexuality and those who encourage persecution. “It's one thing to say that homosexuality is wrong, and people are entitled to that belief,” he said, “What they're not entitled to do is to say that the law of the land should discriminate”.
But Tatchell was quick to praise Christians who have stood up against such attitudes. He singled out South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ugandan Bishop Christoper Senjyonjo, who has “paid a very, very heavy price” and been denied his pension.
He also spoke passionately of LGBT African Christians, including Davis Mac-Iyalla and Jide Macauley, who have risked their lives by being open about their sexuality.
“For all of those, gay and straight, who do take a stand, I salute you, I thank you,” he concluded.
Tatchell was questioned on a number of points during in the question-and-answer session that lasted for a long as his talk. One questioner suggested that he had underestimated the importance of church unity in working against persecution in the long term.
Tatchell drew laughter early on in his talk, when he began by “paying tribute to Anglican Mainstream, who by their attacks on me and on Greenbelt, have boosted ticket sales and ensured a successful Greenbelt”.
He didn't refer to the issue again until it was raised by a questioner, who asked about the possibility of legal action against Anglican Mainstream, whose spokesperson Lisa Nolland had suggested that Greenbelt had put children at risk by including Tatchell on the programme.
But Tatchell insisted that, “I'm a great believer in free speech; that includes people criticising me”. He said Anglican Mainstream had quoted him selectively and out of context. He accused them of bearing false witness. There was enthusiastic applause as he added, “I would urge Anglican Mainstream to re-read their ten commandments”.