Pope Francis’ recent call to end the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people has been echoed by Guyana’s most senior cleric.
Bishop Francis Alleyne of Georgetown, responding to the pope’s statement that “being homosexual is not a crime,” asserted that Guyana’s laws criminalizing homosexuality have been used to terrorize the queer community. According to News Source Guyana, Alleyne stated:
“‘It is on the books and it has been used against the community, that particular community, as a sort of justification. The law says, therefore, I can treat you with disregard or disrespect or even disdain. And we have seen here in Guyana the violent behaviour against that community…
“‘I have heard the unfortunate accounts of the protective services, even the legal services, acting against and using what is there in the law to come down on members of that community…I have heard unfortunate stories where those services have penalized, used their authority in an irresponsible manner under the cover of the law.'”
The Guyanese Catholic Church has opposed LGBTQ-negative laws, in contrast to a coalition of Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches who for the past five years have lobbied the government to maintain such policies in the South American nation which borders the Caribbean Sea. In November 2020, Alleyne called for the decriminalization of homosexuality across the Caribbean region:
“‘There is no doubt in my mind that these laws in Guyana should be made null and void.'”
Alleyne adopted the framework offered by Pope Francis that homosexuality should be understood as a human reality rather than a moral or political problem, and the bishop emphasized that criminalizing same-gender intimacy is an inappropriate use of sexual morality laws. News Source reported:
“While making it clear that he is not against laws barring against rape and acts of sexual violence, Bishop Alleyne said the Legislature should not label consensual same-sex intimacy as a crime. Like the Pope, he contended that homosexuality is a ‘human condition.”
The bishop’s statements convey the global impact of Pope Francis’ statements to the media regarding the LGBTQ+ community. While it may strike some U.S. observers as an obvious statement, it is good to see that the pope’s call to end the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people globally is empowering church leaders to bring messages of tolerance in contexts where being queer is still a crime. Mirroring Francis’ emphasis on encounter with LGBTQ+ people, Alleyne argued for respectful dialogue between the queer community and Guyanese officials:
“‘Let us walk with people, wherever they are. It doesn’t help to say this is where you should be. This is where you are, let’s meet you there…let us understand, who you are, where you are coming from. How you see the world, and with that, you can also exchange that our faith tradition looks at life this way. You generate a dialogue, a conversation, and you do so with respect.'”
Guyana’s anti-LGBTQ+ criminalization laws were implemented due to British colonization. While issues like marriage equality still lack broad public support in the nation, there are signs that the colonial-era laws are unpopular. As reported by News Source, a study commissioned by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination finds that the decriminalization of intimacy between men is supported by the majority of Guyanese citizens. The news article stated:
“The findings suggested that a large portion of the population not only supported legal protection for LGBT people but thought that it was the government’s responsibility and ought to be prioritized.
“Further, the poll found that a clear majority of 53.9% of the Guyanese population are likely to support the elimination of the law criminalizing sex between men.”
Alleyne noted that LGBTQ-negative attitudes are not a rational worldview, but rather an emotional response to a lack of information, saying, “A lot of the judgments, condemnation that we see surfacing come out of fear.”
Bishop Alleyne’s advocacy against criminalization laws has been ongoing, now given additional weight by Pope Francis’ statements on the issue. While the pope’s leadership is critical, it is ultimately the local bishop who brings the message of the global church to their community. Alleyne’s persistent calls for genuine encounter with LGBTQ+ people are laudable and reflect the gospel call to demand justice for the marginalized. We celebrate this example of a cleric bringing Pope Francis’ call to end LGBTQ+ criminalization to his diocese.
—Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, February 17, 2023