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Well Being

The group turning religious leaders into LGBTQ rights crusaders in Kenya

The group turning religious leaders into LGBTQ rights crusaders in Kenya

This piece was first published on Reasons to Be Cheerful and is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.


Penda* did not feel worthy of a seat at the table with the 15 religious leaders she found herself nervously sitting across from, seven of them Christian, eight of them Muslim.

"Before I attended that forum, I knew that I was a sinner," she recalls. "I didn't think it was possible for me to go near a church. I didn't even think that I could have a conversation with a religious leader."

Yet in 2014, Penda, a masculine-presenting lesbian, found herself in conversation with these faith leaders, all of whom believed — and in many cases preached — that homosexuality is evil. But this was no ordinary conversation. At Penda's side were three other people: a Kenyan gay man, a sex worker and someone living with HIV. None of the faith leaders knew these details. That information was held back — until just the right moment presented itself.

The forum was part of a strategic faith engagement session organized by Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved in Kenya (PEMA Kenya), a sexual and gender minority group in the coastal city of Mombasa. In Kenya, where the LGBTQ community is a frequent target of conservative religious leaders, who preach discrimination and sometimes even violence against them, PEMA Kenya takes an unusual approach: it works to "convert" faith leaders to the gay rights cause by introducing them to LGBTQ people, face to face, to build empathy, compassion and understanding.


The carefully orchestrated encounters require the utmost care — for all involved. "We don't aim to 'sensitize' religious leaders," says Lydia Atemba, a member of the faith engagement team. "We also prepare and equip our community to participate in dialogue with them. We try to bridge the gap on both sides."

The most unlikely allies

The five-day event attended by Penda and the 15 religious leaders was ostensibly to discuss barriers to health care faced by marginalized people who have HIV. For the first three days of the forum, no explicit mention of homosexuality was uttered.

"We [then] brought other queer members into the sessions and they spoke with the religious leaders," says Pastor McOveh, a queer pastor who helps to facilitate the program. (He requested his first name not be used.)

Penda was one of them. Now 44, she calmly shared her experience as a lesbian living in Mombasa. She had moved there in 2010, leaving behind the ruins of Kitale, a cosmopolitan town in Kenya that was struggling to recover from the 2007 election crisis. She described to them how she was verbally abused, and how she had been forced to sever ties with her spirituality because of faith leaders preaching anti-gay violence and discrimination.

"I have had troubles reconciling my sexuality and faith," she told the group.

She says sharing her personal story was surprisingly effective. The faith leaders' beliefs weren't instantly transformed, but, she says, "I think I saw a lot of compassion in some of them."

She was right. One of the conservative religious leaders in attendance that day was Pastor John Kambo. A pastor at the Independent Pentecostal Church of Kenya, Kambo was well known for his public attacks on the LGBTQ community. He once declared that "the gender and sexual minorities, especially in worship places, are cursed sinners and will go to hell."

This wasn't Kambo's first PEMA session. The organization had been holding discussions with him for four years, gradually drawing him onto their side. "It was just follow-up meetings — continuous engagement overtime [to] change the way [he] sees things," recalls Ishmael Bahati, PEMA Kenya's executive director and co-founder. During this period, Kambo began reflecting on what the Bible says about love. According to transcripts from PEMA Kenya, he ultimately said that "continuous participation in these trainings opened my mind and I realized that we are all human beings." The meeting with Penda was his last as an outsider — afterwards, he joined PEMA Kenya as an active, dedicated member, and remained one until his death last month.

In the end, Kambo became an unlikely friend to the queer community. He underwent PEMA's Training of Trainers, which taught him how to carefully discuss LGBTQ concerns with his fellow faith leaders. But his conversion came at a price. He was excommunicated from the church for three years, and his marriage hit the skids. He continued to be an ally, however, and in 2018 he became the first religious leader to be nominated as a "Human Rights Defender" by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders — Kenya.

That same year, Kambo invited Pastor Benhadad Mutua Kithome to a PEMA discussion. "PEMA Kenya produced good notes, and they were helping us very much," Kithome says of that meeting. "Some pastors were not agreeing with them — they were just agreeing with what the scriptures say. The way Sodom and Gomorrah was. The way, because of homosexuality, people were punished. But because of this training, some pastors, especially me, came to understand."

Athumani Abdullah Mohammed, an Ustaz (Islamic teacher) whose view of queer people changed gradually after partaking in a PEMA session in 2018, had a similar experience.

"When I got a chance to engage, it was not easy because… I work with conservative organizations," he says. "The whole gospel I was hearing was against 'this people,' as they called them. I thank my brother Ishmael because he was so persistent. He brought me on board. The funny thing is, the first meeting we held was not a good meeting. I was so against everything they were saying, but he saw something in me which I couldn't see by myself. And he kept on engaging me. Now, I learned to listen and I opened myself to listen. I listen to what I want to hear — and what I don't want to hear."

Converting a culture

The coastal city of Mombasa is a conservative place. Religion is at its core, and local faith leaders wield outsized influence, often preaching violence against the queer community.

"Rhetoric vilifying LGBT people, much of it by religious leaders, is particularly pronounced on [Kenya's] coast, and shapes public perceptions," according to a Human Rights Watch report.

This was the environment into which PEMA Kenya launched in 2008. Started as a health and social wellbeing community for gay and bisexual men following the tragic death of a gay man in Mombasa — he became sick and was abandoned by his family — the group later expanded to accommodate other gender and sexual minority groups. Then, in 2010, a call to "flush out gays" by two major religious groups — the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) — led to a spate of attacks on queer people.

The violence became a catalyzing moment for PEMA Kenya. "We thought that it is a good time to have a dialogue with the religious leaders," recalls Bahati, "to see if we can have a lasting solution for the attacks."

The organization appears to be making progress toward that goal. Until five years ago, Bahati says, Ramadan, which concluded this month, was a particularly dangerous time for queer people in Kenya's coastal region. A U.S. government report supports this observation, concluding that "the highest incidences of violence in the Kenyan Coast, which has a largely Muslim population, are reported during Ramadan."

For this reason, organizations like PEMA used to focus on simply keeping LGBTQ people safe from harm during these weeks. "Most organizations were looking for funds to relocate people, to support people" during this period, says Bahati.

But this year's Ramadan has been different. Attacks on queer folks are down, Bahati reports. "Things have really changed." He believes PEMA's years of meticulous relationship building are beginning to bear fruit. To date, PEMA has trained 619 religious leaders, 246 of which are still active members in the network. These members are crucial to spreading the acceptance of queerness in their congregations and communities in Mombasa and across Kenya. They also facilitate events alongside queer pastors and Ustaz, and review the group's strategic faith engagement manual, Facing Our Fears.

According to Jide Macaulay, an openly gay British-Nigerian priest, the influence religious leaders hold over public perception makes them invaluable allies. In his experience, building radical queer institutions in a place like Mombasa just isn't effective. This is something he learned first-hand — in 2006, Macaulay founded House of Rainbow, the first queer church in Nigeria. It was considered an affront to the societal and religious norm, and met with hostility. It lasted only two years.

"My largest focus was on the [queer] community, not necessarily on the rest of the society," he says. "We didn't take time to educate the society. House of Rainbow would have benefitted if we had allies within the community. [It] would have benefitted if we started maybe as a support group rather than a full-blown church."

Now, like PEMA Kenya, House of Rainbow has evolved to make engagement with Christian and Islamic faith leaders the core of its mission, holding forums in Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

What the scriptures say

Bahati's expertise as an Islamic scholar comes in handy. For instance, he notes that the role of language is key to winning converts to an inclusive community.

During PEMA's strategic meetings, faith leaders are introduced, carefully and tactfully, to humanizing language. "You see, the word homosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer are not bad words," says Macaulay. "Society has made them scary." PEMA's facilitators explain appropriate usage, context and meanings, and the harmful implications of using such language as slurs.

"What we say is that language is not innocent," says McOveh, the gay pastor. "Most of the time we realize that faith leaders use language unknowingly."

Of course, simply teaching more sensitive language is only the first step. In the Bible and Quran, certain verses and stories are still used to justify homophobic slurs and attacks.

"You realize that scriptures have different interpretations," says McOveh, "so we try to find common ground to tell them that, see, there is this which is provided by the religion and this which is given as perception." Macaulay echoes this point. "Looking at the Bible, there's a history of bad theology, mistranslation, and that mistranslation has caused many churches not to understand that homosexuality is not a sin. Homosexuality is not like robbery or theft. Homosexuality is like being Black. Homosexuality is like being albino. There are things that you just cannot change…Homosexuality is not a crime and it should never be criminalized."

While groups like PEMA Kenya and House of Rainbow have battled systemic homophobia in society, their efforts are still "a drop of water in the ocean," says Macaulay.

Homosexuality remains illegal in Kenya. The Penal Code explicitly criminalizes it, and a conviction can carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Petitions filed in Nairobi and Mombasa high courts in 2019 to rule these laws unconstitutional were both dismissed this year. Appeals have been filed, but according to Michael Kioko, a lawyer and LGBTQ advocate, it would take a long time to get a ruling.

"We'll have to wait for years to see whether the court of appeal will declare those provisions unconstitutional, and they may not," he says.

32 out of 52 African countries criminalize same-sex relations, with punishment ranging from death to lengthy prison terms. In some ways, these laws lend legitimacy to perpetrators of homophobic violence and discrimination.

The pandemic has presented PEMA Kenya with yet another challenge. The delicate work of working with new religious leaders can be risky, and the discussions can only take place in a secure location, says Mohammed.

"You cannot talk to people about these things in their area," he says. "You need to be very particular when it comes to safety because it's a lot of voices which are talking against this and people are willing to kill." Holding discussions with participants in an undisclosed location is safer, but it requires funding which PEMA has spent on taking care of needy community members during the lockdown.

Still, the efforts of PEMA Kenya's faith leaders continue to foster a safer city for a lot of queer people in Mombasa — in the streets, in the churches and mosques, and in their own homes. "[Now] someone can walk for a kilometer without being attacked," says Penda with relief. "Those were things that were not very much happening back then."

*Name has been changed to protect the person's identity.


Image from Pixabay.

Under the sea...

True
The Wilderness Society


You're probably familiar with the literary classic "Moby-Dick."

But in case you're not, here's the gist: Moby Dick is the name of a huge albino sperm whale.

(Get your mind outta the gutter.)


There's this dude named Captain Ahab who really really hates the whale, and he goes absolutely bonkers in his quest to hunt and kill it, and then everything is awful and we all die unsatisfied with our shared sad existence and — oops, spoilers!


OK, technically, the narrator Ishmael survives. So it's actually a happy ending (kind of)!

whales, Moby Dick, poaching endangered species

Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Basically, it's a famous book about revenge and obsession that was published back in 1851, and it's really, really long.

It's chock-full of beautiful passages and dense symbolism and deep thematic resonance and all those good things that earned it a top spot in the musty canon of important literature.

There's also a lot of mundane descriptions about the whaling trade as well (like, a lot). That's because it came out back when commercial whaling was still a thing we did.

conservation, ocean water conservation

A non-albino mother and baby sperm whale.

Photo by Gabriel Barathieu/Wikipedia.

In fact, humans used to hunt more than 50,000 whales each year to use for oil, meat, baleen, and oil. (Yes, I wrote oil twice.) Then, in 1946, the International Whaling Commission stepped in and said "Hey, wait a minute, guys. There's only a few handful of these majestic creatures left in the entire world, so maybe we should try to not kill them anymore?"

And even then, commercial whaling was still legal in some parts of the world until as recently as 1986.

International Whaling Commission, harpoons

Tail in the water.

Whale's tail pale ale GIF via GoPro/YouTube

And yet by some miracle, there are whales who were born before "Moby-Dick" was published that are still alive today.

What are the odds of that? Honestly it's hard to calculate since we can't exactly swim up to a bowhead and say, "Hey, how old are you?" and expect a response. (Also that's a rude question — jeez.)

Thanks to some thoughtful collaboration between researchers and traditional Inupiat whalers (who are still allowed to hunt for survival), scientists have used amino acids in the eyes of whales and harpoon fragments lodged in their carcasses to determine the age of these enormous animals — and they found at least three bowhead whales who were living prior to 1850.

Granted those are bowheads, not sperm whales like the fictional Moby Dick, (and none of them are albino, I think), but still. Pretty amazing, huh?

whale blubber, blue whales, extinction

This bowhead is presumably in adolescence, given its apparent underwater moping.

GIF via National Geographic.

This is a particularly remarkable feat considering that the entire species was dwindling near extinction.

Barring these few centenarian leviathans, most of the whales still kickin' it today are between 20 and 70 years old. That's because most whale populations were reduced to 10% or less of their numbers between the 18th and 20th centuries, thanks to a few over-eager hunters (and by a few, I mean all of them).

Today, sperm whales are considered one of the most populous species of massive marine mammals; bowheads, on the other hand, are still in trouble, despite a 20% increase in population since the mid-1980s. Makes those few elderly bowheads that much more impressive, huh?

population, Arctic, Great Australian Blight

Southern Right Whales hangin' with a paddleboarder in the Great Australian Bight.

GIF via Jaimen Hudson.

Unfortunately, just as things are looking up, these wonderful whales are in trouble once again.

We might not need to worry our real-life Captain Ahabs anymore, but our big aquatic buddies are still being threatened by industrialization — namely, from oil drilling in the Arctic and the Great Australian Bight.

In the off-chance that companies like Shell and BP manage not to spill millions of gallons of harmful crude oil into the water, the act of drilling alone is likely to maim or kill millions of animals, and the supposedly-safer sonic blasting will blow out their eardrums or worse.

This influx of industrialization also affects their migratory patterns — threatening not only the humans who depend on them, but also the entire marine ecosystem.

And I mean, c'mon — who would want to hurt this adorable face?

social responsibility, nature, extinction

BOOP.

Image from Pixabay.

Whales might be large and long-living. But they still need our help to survive.

If you want another whale to make it to his two-hundred-and-eleventy-first birthday (which you should because I hear they throw great parties), then sign this petition to protect the waters from Big Oil and other industrial threats.

I guarantee Moby Dick will appreciate it.


This article originally appeared on 11.04.15

Identity

Do you have a 'gay voice'? Here's how to tell.

Have you ever wondered if you have a “gay voice”?

Photo pulled from YouTube trailer "Do I sound gay?"

For anyone who's wondering if they have a gay voice and what that actually means.

This article originally appeared on June 5, 2015


Have you ever wondered if you have a “gay voice”?

If you're anything like me, the answer is yes. Many times.

For anyone who’s laid awake wondering if your voice is just as gay as you are, I've created a rigorous test for you to finally get some answers. Follow the chart below to see if you, in fact, sound like a homosexual. ***(Image needs to pulled from Robbie Couch who wrote the article.)


Temporary pic pulled as a place holder

Temporary pic pulled as a place holder******

Yes, that's correct: You do not have a "gay voice" — because a "gay voice" is not really a thing.

Unlike humans, voices do not identify as certain genders or sexual orientations. They're just ... sounds. (Crazy, I know!)

Stereotypes about what LGBTQ people sound like lead some to think their gay-dar can accurately sniff out queer folks in a crowd based on voices alone. However, research shows we actually do a pretty poor job at guessing another person's sexual orientation solely using our ears.

Even if we do wear our queerness on the tips of our tongues, though, why should it matter?

Some LGBTQ people fret over their voice, fearful their queerness is on display every time they speak. And that concern is understandable. Sometimes, it's not a matter of accepting yourself, but a matter of survival: When your voice outs you as an "other" in an environment that's hostile toward gay, transgender, or otherwise queer people, personal safety becomes a priority.

“A lot of gay men are self-conscious about sounding gay because we were persecuted for that when we were young," LGBTQ activist and media personality Dan Savage said in the 2014 documentary "Do I Sound Gay?"

CNN's Don Lemon, who is openly gay, also chimed in on the topic. Has he ever felt insecure about "sounding gay"? “I’d have to say, if I told you ‘no,’ I’d be lying," Lemon admitted in the documentary.

But we should never let a bully's bigotry convince us our voices should be silenced. You sound perfect the way you are, honey — and don't you forget it.

Checking out the documentary "Do I Sound Gay?", available on multiple streaming platforms. Here's a look at the trailer:

This article was written by Robbie Couch and originally appeared on 11.5.15

@geaux75/TikTok

Molly was found tied to a tree by the new owners of the house.

Molly, an adorable, affectionate 10-year-old pit bull, found herself tied to a tree after her owners had abandoned her.

According to The Dodo, Molly had “always been a loyal dog, but, unfortunately, her first family couldn’t reciprocate that same love back,” and so when the house was sold, neither Molly nor the family’s cat was chosen to move with them. While the cat was allowed to free roam outside, all Molly could do was sit and wait. Alone.

Luckily, the young couple that bought the house agreed to take the animals in as part of their closing agreement, and as soon as the papers were signed, they rushed over to check in.

In a TikTok video, April Parker, the new homeowner, walks up to Molly, who is visibly crestfallen with teary eyes. But as soon as Parker begins cooing, “Baby girl…you’re gonna get a new home,” the pitty instantly perks up—all smiles and tail wagging.

“We are going to make her life so good,” Parker wrote in the video’s caption. “She will never be left all alone tied to a tree.”

@geaux75 The people that sold our house to us left behind their 10yr old dog they had since it was a puppy. I was so stressed we wouldnt get the house and something bad would happeb to her. We are going to maje her life so good. She will never be left all alone tied to a tree. 😭😢@roodytoots ♬ Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) [2018 Remaster] - Kate Bush

The video has been seen upwards of 4 million times. Countless people commented on how enraging it was to see a dog treated so carelessly.

“I’ve had my dog since she was 7 weeks old. She just turned 10 a few days ago. I literally cannot imagine doing this,” one person wrote.”

Another added: “The tears in her eyes…she doesn’t understand why they could just leave her, it breaks my heart. People like that shouldn’t be allowed to be pet owners.”

Subsequent videos show Parker freeing Molly from her leash and introducing the sweet pup to her husband, with whom she was instantly smitten. It’s clear that this doggo was both relieved and elated to be taken in by her new family.

Since being rescued, Molly has accompanied her new mom and dad everywhere.

@geaux75 Replying to @ohitscourtney ♬ Lucky Girl - Carlina


“She’s sticking to our side,” Parker wrote. “She won’t stop following us around. It’s so sweet.”

Parker has created an entire TikTok channel documenting her newfound pet’s journey, aptly named “Molly’s New Life,” showing Molly enjoying warm baths, plenty of treats, cuddles…all the finer things in life.

But what Molly seems to enjoy most of all is car rides:

@geaux75 Taking Molly to get a treat! Stay tuned!! #mollysnewlife #goodgollymissmolly ♬ original sound - Mollysnewlife 🐾🐕💗

And in case you’re wondering, the kitty is doing well, too, though it still prefers to stay outdoors.

Molly also has two indoor cat siblings who instantly welcomed her into the family. The video below shows one of them, Joofus, comforting a trembling Molly with kisses during a thunderstorm.

@geaux75 We had a big storm this morning and Molly was having a hard time. Joofus got on the bed and started comforting her. It was the sweetest thing. They got snuggled up and Molly went to sleep. Animals are amazing. #mollysnewlife #petsarefamily ♬ I Won't Let Go - Rascal Flatts

It seems that Molly has gotten the safe, loving home she’s deserved all along.

We know that animal abandonment is fairly common. According to The Zebra, almost 4 million dogs are either given up to shelters or abandoned each year. And still, it’s really hard to fathom how humans can treat such innocent creatures with such blatant disregard when they provide so much pure joy.

Thankfully, there are folks out there like the Parkers who know that taking care of animals like Molly is one of life’s most precious offerings.

Stay up-to-date with the rest of Molly’s journey by following her on TikTok.


This article originally appeared on 5.31.23

Identity

High school girl’s response to ‘Ugly Girls’ poll inspires positive reaction

This brave high school student stood up to her school’s cyberbullies.

Lynelle Cantwell/Facebook.

Lynelle Cantwell had a response on her own Facebook page.

Lynelle Cantwell is in 12th grade at Holy Trinity High School in Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador (that's Canada).

On Monday, she found out that she had been featured on another student's anonymous online poll entitled "Ugly Girls in Grade 12," along with several other classmates.


Cantwell responded via Facebook with her own message, which has already been shared more than 2,000 times and counting.

cyber bullying, bullies, kindness

The unkind poll.

Lynelle Cantwell/Facebook.

Take a look:

bullying, brave response, community support

“Just because we don’t look perfect on the outside does not mean we are ugly.” - Lynelle Cantwell.

Lynelle Cantwell/Facebook.

Since posting her brave response on Facebook, more people have come out to show support than people who voted in the first place.

Check out some of the responses:

appreciation, confidence, self esteem, love and support

Some responses to her post.

Lynelle Cantwell/Facebook.

The School District of Newfoundland and Labrador has announced that it will be looking into the incident further. For Cantwell, the positive outpouring of love and support vastly outweighs the initial cyberbullying and is raising her confidence in new ways.


This article originally appeared on 08.20.17

Health

Artists got fed up with these 'anti-homeless spikes.' So they made them a bit more ... comfy.

"Our moral compass is skewed if we think things like this are acceptable."

Photo courtesy of CC BY-ND, Immo Klink and Marco Godoy

Spikes line the concrete to prevent sleeping.


These are called "anti-homeless spikes." They're about as friendly as they sound.

As you may have guessed, they're intended to deter people who are homeless from sitting or sleeping on that concrete step. And yeah, they're pretty awful.

The spikes are a prime example of how cities design spaces to keep homeless people away.


Not all concrete steps have spikes on them, but outdoor seating in cities like Montreal and Tokyo have been sneakily designed to prevent people from resting too comfortably for too long.

This guy sawing through a bench was part of a 2006 protest in Toulouse, France, where public seating intentionally included armrests to prevent people from lying down.

Of course, these designs do nothing to fight the cause or problem of homelessness. They're just a way of saying to homeless people, "Go somewhere else. We don't want to look at you,"basically.

One particular set of spikes was outside a former night club in London. And a local group got sick of staring at them.

Leah Borromeo is part of the art collective "Space, Not Spikes" — a group that's fed up with what she describes as "hostile architecture."

"Spikes do nothing more than shoo the realities of poverty and inequality away from your backyard — so you don't have to see it or confront what you can do to make things more equal," Borromeo told Upworthy. "And that is really selfish."

"Our moral compass is skewed if we think things like this are acceptable."

charity, social consciousness, artist

A bed covers up spikes on the concrete.

assets.rebelmouse.io

The move by Space, Not Spikes has caused quite a stir in London and around the world. The simple but impactful idea even garnered support from music artist Ellie Goulding.

"That was amazing, wasn't it?" Borromeo said of Goulding's shout-out on Instagram.

books, philanthropy, capitalism

Artist's puppy books and home comforts.

assets.rebelmouse.io

"[The project has] definitely touched a nerve and I think it is because, as a whole, humans will still look out for each other," Borromeo told Upworthy. "Capitalism and greed conditions us to look out for ourselves and negate the welfare of others, but ultimately, I think we're actually really kind."

"We need to call out injustice and hypocrisy when we see it."
anti-homeless laws, legislation, panhandling

A message to offer support in contrast with current anti-homeless laws.

assets.rebelmouse.io

These spikes may be in London, but the U.S. definitely has its fair share of anti-homeless sentiment, too.

Spikes are pretty obvious — they're a visual reminder of a problem many cities are trying to ignore. But what we can't see on the street is the rise of anti-homeless laws that have cropped up from sea to shining sea.

Legislation that targets homeless people — like bans on panhandling and prohibiting people from sleeping in cars — has increased significantly in recent years.

For instance, a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty that analyzed 187 American cities found that there's been a 43% hike in citywide bans on sitting or lying down in certain spaces since 2011.

Thankfully, groups like "Space, Not Spikes" are out there changing hearts and minds. But they need our help.

The group created a video to complement its work and Borromeo's hoping its positive underlying message will motivate people to do better.

"[The world] won't always be happy-clappy because positive social change needs constructive conflict and debate," she explained. "But we need to call out injustice and hypocrisy when we see it."

Check out their video below:

This article originally appeared on 07.24.15