Monday, January 15, 2007

In Nigeria, a Bill to Punish Gays Divides a Family
By Mark Schoofs, for the Wall Street Journal

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Augustus Olakunle Macaulay founded the Bible university that trained his son in theology. He founded the evangelical ministry that ordained his son as a minister. And he is president of Nigeria's Association of Christian Theologians, which counts his son as a member.

But now Prof. Macaulay supports a proposed law that could criminalize his son's new Christian church and put him behind bars. That's because his son, the Rev. Rowland Jide Macaulay, has founded House of Rainbow, a church that caters to Nigeria's gay men and lesbians -- a first for Africa's most populous country.

The relationship between Prof. Macaulay and his son mirrors some of the conflicting forces buffeting homosexuals in Nigeria. Gay men and lesbians are becoming more visible, even as their society, which is hostile to homosexuality, threatens to become still less tolerant of them.

In his New Year's Eve sermon, Rev. Jide, as he is called by his small but growing flock, declared himself a "happy, holy homosexual." He said, "We are all God's children, no matter what some people tell us." The more than 100 attendees, all male, clapped and sang out their approval.

After the service, the church sponsored a party. In keeping with a church function, no alcohol was served. But the event featured exuberant drag queens lip-synching disco hits. The party's highlight: a "Mr. Bloke" beauty contest with contenders strutting their stuff in traditional African garb, corporate wear and swimwear.

House of Rainbow -- a member of a gay-affirming U.S. umbrella church organization -- would almost certainly run afoul of Nigeria's proposed law. Homosexual sex is already punishable by up to 14 years in prison -- or death by stoning in the Muslim north, though that Shariah sentence is rarely meted out.

The sweeping new bill would punish by up to five years in prison anyone who enters into a gay marriage, "performs, witnesses, aids or abets the ceremony of same-sex marriage" or is "involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings." The U.S. State Department has denounced the bill, proposed in January last year, as a violation of basic freedoms.

But the bill is widely expected to pass. It is supported by most mainstream Christian and Muslim clergy in Nigeria, including Peter Akinola, the Anglican archbishop who is leading an international revolt of conservative Episcopalians angry about the ordination of gay priests and the consecration of gay unions.

Archbishop Akinola, who also opposes the ordination of women priests, has become the spiritual leader of more than 20 American conservative churches that have broken away from the world-wide Anglican Communion.

Anglican Christianity was brought to Nigeria in 1842 by a particularly conservative group of British missionaries, and "there has been a hardening of attitudes as the West has liberalized," says Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of "The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South."

Prof. Jenkins notes that many African societies still derive their norms from agrarian life and that animal sacrifice and polygamy are common in many parts of Africa. "The Bible carries a lot more weight among ordinary Africans, partly because people can identify with the society it describes," he says. "They recognize it as their world." This leads Africans to a more literal interpretation of Scripture, he believes. The rise of fundamentalist Islam also puts pressure on African Christians to draw a hard line against homosexuals, he says.

Advance of Rights

But urban Nigerians are increasingly aware of the advance of gay rights not only in the U.S. but also in South Africa, which enshrines equal rights for homosexuals in its constitution and recently legalized marriage for same-sex couples. The fact that Nigeria's legislature is considering the new bill testifies to the growing visibility of gay men and lesbians in Nigeria.

As for the Macaulays, the father and son are both polite, well-educated and well-traveled. The elder Macaulay is 69 but looks so young that he and his 41-year-old son are sometimes mistaken for brothers. And they were close even as the younger Macaulay was struggling in secret.

Born in London, Rev. Jide says he had his first homosexual experience in Nigeria, where he spent his teenage years. Ashamed of his attraction to men, he married a Nigerian woman in London in 1991 and had a son with her. About three years later, increasingly depressed, he told his wife the truth. They divorced and he was expelled from their church. He says he and his wife now speak only to discuss their son, with whom Rev. Jide remains close.

Rev. Jide says that for many years he wanted to tell his father, but, he says, "I couldn't find the courage." Then, during a visit Prof. Macaulay made to his son's London home in 2003, he noticed some books on homosexuality. He confronted his son, admonishing him that homosexuality was against God's will and urging him to change.

Rev. Jide remained silent, both men recall. "In truth, I felt for him, because I am a father too," the younger man says. "I have two generations on either side of me bearing the brunt of my being gay."

Indeed, last September after Rev. Jide discussed his sexuality on a BBC television show, his 14-year-old son sent him a cellphone text message that read in part "i HATE u" and "ur not my dad nemore." The two reconciled a few days later, but Rev. Jide believes his son's emotional turmoil is stoked in part by relatives telling him the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Many Nigerians say they would disown a gay child. But Prof. Macaulay, who comes from a family so prominent that a street in Lagos is named after one of his uncles, tries to take a love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin approach. In a letter to his son shortly after discovering his son's homosexuality, he wrote, "People in Nigeria here love you and rate you high in their lives." But in that same letter he warned that his son's homosexuality "is not only ABOMINABLE but a great DISGRACE to our family."

To the extent that his son's church affirms homosexuality, it is "of Satan," the father says.

So, despite protests from his wife, Prof. Macaulay supports the anti-gay legislation. He says he "won't feel very bad" if his son winds up in prison, which he even sees as a possible means of turning his son straight.

Family Struggle

At House of Rainbow, Rev. Jide repeatedly encounters his own family struggle in members of his flock. "The biggest issue," he says, "is people have been wounded in their family by being rejected, by being totally unloved."

Another key issue, he says, is nurturing healthy relationships in "a society that is very, very brutal" toward gay people. Gay men tend to meet in the relative safety of the Internet, but relationships often founder because the men can't build a life together, says Adebisi Alimi, a member of House of Rainbow and one of Nigeria's very few openly gay activists.

Fearing gay bashers -- always a threat in Nigeria, where homosexuals can't count on police to protect them -- Rev. Jide arranged for the New Year's Eve service and party to be held on the far outskirts of Lagos. The event was held under the moon in an open-air courtyard with a dirt floor. Electricity, always sporadic in Lagos, kept cutting out as the backup generator sputtered. But as midnight approached, the congregation counted down the seconds with gusto, then hugged and danced before resuming the service to take communion.

When Rev Jide announced he would offer a blessing for gay singles, dozens rushed to him, some kneeling. "May you find a fine boyfriend," Rev. Jide prayed.

[Editor: Prayers for +Jide's safety. And prayers that if so much as a hair on his head is harmed, that his assailants will be held accountable.

Incidentally, this being MLK day in the US, Coretta Scott King has publicly said that she believes that MLK would have supported gay rights, possibly including marriage. His daughter, Bernice, has publicly said the opposite.]

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