A lesbian Catholic issued a strong call for church leaders to stand against anti-LGBT discrimination at an event for International Women’s Day earlier this month. (We reported on the entire conference previously; today’s post will be on just this one talk.)
Ssenfuka Joanita Warry spoke during Voices of Faith’s “Why Women Matter” event held in Rome. Warry, who is executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda which advocates for sexual minorities, said that “before I am a lesbian, I am a woman.” She faces discrimination for being a woman, which is then compounded because she is a lesbian. Sharing her story, Warry said:
“Being a lesbian in Uganda poses many difficulties. I started having same-sex feelings as early as 7 years old and I had no one available to me for advice. It wasn’t until I turned 14 that I heard that people like me were called lesbians. I found this out from a book called Delivered from the Powers of the Devil… let that sink in for a minute. This was also the time when I started fighting with myself about my feelings for women. . .
“In Uganda religious and cultural beliefs affect women in a very big way. For instance, it’s expected to be married by age 25. Families are made to feel shamed if this hasn’t happened. For most lesbians they are forced into marriage by their parents just to save face in society. Sometimes, women are subjected to so-called ‘corrective rape’ or other forms of violence, if their families suspect their daughter may be different.”
Warry, who also serves on the Board of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, shared further about how violently anti-LGBT the situation in Uganda is. Homosexuality is criticized there and mob violence has caused suffering death to lesbian and gay people, and in at least one instance, death. As painful as this context is for the human rights activist, she explained further:
“But what hurts most is the role religious leaders play – or choose NOT to play – in the face of such discrimination. By standing by and saying nothing, makes them complicit. They all openly supported the anti-homosexuality law of 2009, but only advised against the death penalty.
“So I ask – why did Pope Francis stop there too? Last October Pope Francis declared: ‘that the death penalty goes against the gospel’. He said: “However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person”. And what about our dignity? Why is homosexuality still being criminalized in parts of the Catholic world? How can two consenting adults who love one another over a long period of time be looked upon as criminals? Why does church leadership choose to stay quiet and not stand in defense of life!
“Our religious leaders hold the key to saving lives of many LGBT people – and not only in Africa. If the Vatican calls out against the criminalization of homosexuality and defends gay people who are ultimately being violated just for who they are, then we could have some hope.”
Finally, Warry explained why she remains Catholic despite the failings of church leaders, and concluded with a challenge to the Church:
“You’re probably wondering why I’m still a faithful Catholic. I wonder that too sometimes as do many others who haven’t turned away. But, I believe that it is my duty, my mission and responsibility to effect change in this mentality that surrounds me. I believe I am on a mission from God. . .
“There is much more that I wish to do in the Church but I am stopped, always being limited by my sexual orientation and my gender, which is ultimately what God has created. I believe that things could be different. I want to serve God, as a woman – and as a lesbian woman! Women can take on so many roles. Let no one stand in the way of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, it says ‘No one lights a light to put it under a bed but on a lamp stand, so all who enter may see the light’. My question to the Church is: Must I stay hidden when the Gospel invites me to shine out?”
Warry’s strong words both about her commitment to and her challenge for the Church are most welcome. Opposing the criminalization of homosexuality is a simple way church leaders can practice solidarity with LGBT people around the world. Furthermore, the space created by Voices of Faith has proven the goodness which emerges when silenced voices like Warry’s are finally allowed to shine out. It is this type of courageous sharing practiced by Warry and other women at the event that will help lead our Church forward to equality for all people.
The “Why Women Matter” event also featured LGBT advocate and former Irish President Mary McAleese, who said a homophobic Church is “not the Church of the future.” You can read about her remarks and the overall event here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 20, 2018