“Unmute Yourself” – An open letter to SA church leaders on LGBTIQ+ pain

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A group of Christian church members have written a powerful open letter to South Africa’s archbishops, bishops and pastors admonishing them for their shameful silence amid ongoing LGBTIQ+ suffering.

The letter – signed by Rev. Teboho G. Klaas (AME Church), Fr. Thabang Nkadimeng (Catholic Church), Thabisile Msezane, (Methodist Church) and Rev. Ecclesia de Lange (IAM) – was published on Monday.

“Churches are violent against LGBTIQ+ people, manifesting in the discriminatory and damning language and practices towards LGBTIQ+ people,” they write.

“Not only are church members, through Christian education and related programmes, not taught to affirm the humanity, equality, and freedom of LGBTIQ+ people by their churches, but the citadels of clergy formation and training also continue old fashioned, dehumanising, and excluding sexuality and gender identity curriculum.”

The signatories go on to state: “It is inexcusable and irresponsible that you have remained invisible, inactive, muted and deaf to the lamentations of LGBTIQ South Africans.”

The letter fellows a recent demand by more than 30 LGBTIQ+ and allied organisations that religious leaders – along with the government, the media and all South Africans – take a stand against LGBTIQ+ hate and violence. In just the last three months, at least eight LGBTIQ+ people have been murdered across the country.

Below is the letter in full.


Dear Archbishops, Bishops and Pastors

It is a silent genocide! People whose sexuality is diverse and whose gender identities do not conform to heteronormativity – namely, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-diverse, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) people – are on the receiving end of barbarism in South Africa. We are stirred by this horrifying development to pen down this open letter to you, gravely disturbed that you are invisible, inactive and muted as this evil unfolds.

We write to you as Christians, clergy, and lay alike, who are members of some of the South African denominations. We do not officially represent our denomination but we are inextricably linked to them not to disclose our membership in them. Our consciences, compelled by a deep conviction in the Gospel of justice, solidarity, and compassion with the marginalized, refuse us to sit by and follow your example of silence in the face of the reality LGBTIQ people have had to endure.

Similarly, we are parents, siblings, friends, and neighbours to LGBTIQ people, whose bodies, whose sexuality and gender identities are weaponized, raped, and murdered. Ubuntu/Botho guides our relationship and solidarity with them and their humanity. We do not doubt their humanity, nor do we doubt the imago Dei inherent in them, too. We are inextricably related to them and their struggles. Their pains are ours. We share them.

We resolved to approach because we assumed that, like us, you claim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who declared his preferential option (Luke 4:18-21), in your vocation. Together, we believe, it is the least, the leftover and the looked over in society, including LGBTIQ+ people epitomises in our contemporary communities, that you, just like us, must preferentially serve. Divine anger in you must be stirred by them being brutalised, dehumanised, and debased simply on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity in our communities.

It is inexcusable and irresponsible that you have remained invisible, inactive, muted and deaf to the lamentations of LGBTIQ South Africans. They poured themselves out to you, naming things that you ought to have been the concern of ministry, in the first place. We bring to you an excerpt from their statement on the eve of the South African Freedom Day, this year;

“We also demand that Religious, Spiritual and Traditional Leaders and Organisations:

  • Speak out and condemn the violence perpetrated against the LGBTIQ+ community as unacceptable and immoral.
  • Stop using so-called religious, cultural, or traditional values as excuses to exclude or discriminate against members of the LGBTIQ+ community.
  • Live the values of our Constitution and actively work to promote the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people in congregations and communities across the country.”

It is a call that came as a result of a spate of rapes and murders of LGBTIQ+ people since February, this year. This hellish experience in a country whose constitutional democracy promises to safeguard their humanity, dignity, and equality, has been their reality for years, now. Regrettably, the promises of our social, political, and economic constructs have not been realised, especially for black African LGBTIQ+ people living in black African townships.

As intimated before, LGBTIQ+ people are human and not mere numbers. Perhaps, naming them will challenge you to rethink your silence. These are some who are known to have, recently, been beaten raped, and killed;

  • Bonang Gaelae, 29, in Sebokeng, whose throat slit, died in February, which is a month of love.
  • Nonhlanhla Kunene, 37, whose body was found half-naked and dead, in Edendale, and Sphamandla Khoza, 34, who was beaten, stabbed and his throat slit, in Kwa-Mashu. These sordid acts happened in March, a month South African celebrated human rights.
  • Nathaniel Mbele was stabbed and killed in Tshirela (i.e., Boipatong) and Andile Nthuthela, 41, was found with his body having been mutilated and burnt. While the lifeless body of Lonwabo Jack, 22, was also found in Nyanga, and a naked, lifeless body of Lucky Motshabi, 30, was found in a field in Dennilton. All these lives were lost in a month South Africans celebrated freedom.
  • Phelokazi Mqathana, 24, was stabbed to death for rejecting a man’s advances, in Khayelitsha. This just as we celebrate the Afrika month and will be commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT).

The violence directed against LGBTIQ+ people is endemic in our country. Among its perpetrators are South Africans as young as 14 and 17-year-olds. Our ire must be invoked by this because it reflects on the extent of the moral decadence that becomes so endemic that our children see nothing wrong perpetuating it.

For this reason, we put it to you that you have no reason to and cannot be silent and unmoved, in this regard, nor can you be neutral about it because neutrality is virtuous. It takes a side with perpetrators of evil. It is intrinsically evil to be silent while all this unfolds.

Life is sacred. It is a gift to all human beings and must be respected, defended, and advanced. Its sacredness is indivisible. You cannot and must not choose which life can be snuffed out, say or do nothing about it when you can. If you agree, why is it that you have been in this regard? Has it anything to do with the non-heterosexuality of the LGBTIQ+ people? Are you nodding to the idea that LGBTIQ+ people are worse than animals, unAfrican, unChristian, as we had it in church pulpits in South Africa, and, therefore, they ought to be brutally dealt with? We wonder as to your stand in relation to the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill now landed in the Constitutional Court due to objection by some Christians?

The lives of LGBTIQ people are sacred, deserving of your protection and advancement. We expect your voice to be loudly condemning their desecration as we have seen it done, recently, in our country. The least we expect from you is being indiscriminately pastoral to them and prophetic to those who debase them, not being disdainfully muted.

It will be remiss of us not to take this opportunity to raise what we are persuaded to believe is the genesis of the violence LGBTIQ+ people are subjected to. Because it is left unattended, it spills over and manifests in what happens in broader society. Churches, which ought to be places of refuge, themselves, are unwelcoming to and discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people.

Churches are violent against LGBTIQ+ people, manifesting in the discriminatory and damning language and practices towards LGBTIQ+ people. There is an abundance of evidence that points to them being significant contributors to or behind the cause of mental health and psychological problems for LGBTIQ+ people. And, they result in suicides, abuse of drugs, destitution, and other ills we do not wish for anyone.

It ought not to surprise you, therefore, that the LGBTIQ+ activists have called you to stop the violence against them, including stop using religious values to exclude and discriminate against their members. There is a structural problem that adversely affects them, emanating from churches. Not only are church members, through Christian education and related programmes, not taught to affirm the humanity, equality, and freedom of LGBTIQ+ people by their churches, but the citadels of clergy training and formation and training also teach continue old fashioned, dehumanising, and excluding sexuality and gender identity curriculum. That is why, instead of churches being welcoming spaces, they are violent and death-dealing spaces for LGBTIQ+ people.

Therefore, transforming theological training for the clergy that shepherd congregations to open up to and embrace all people, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, is an urgent task to make a meaningful investment in. That all other institutions of training have transformed or transforming should be embarrassing for our churches. Decolonised these citadels of clergy training and formation so that those emerging from them can serve all God’s people without prejudice.

When you unmute, be kind to ensure that your voice and actions affirm LGBTIQ+ people in these difficult times, helping society rebuild itself and forge solidarity with LGBTIQ+ people. Appropriately employed, we are confident that your voice will give effect to a social change and significantly give meaning, not only to the central values of scripture – viz., justice, peace, love, and compassion, among others – but also to the constitution of our country. We believe, this is your calling for times such as this.

Unmuting yourselves is akin to repentance – a breakaway with the past and holding on to a future different from the past betraying your erstwhile position in the eyes of many in society. It is not a momentary activity but one sustained by a vision in which all humanity is embraced and loved, including homosexual, bisexual and trans women, and men, as well as the gender non-conforming people.

We acknowledge and appreciate dialogical efforts underway in some of the churches to include and embrace LGBTIQ+ people in their membership and leadership. Such efforts have great potential for eliminating social prejudices. It will surely impact family relations which have left families schizophrenic, seeking to be loyal to church association and loving to its members who are gender non-conforming. Other families have been totally left destructed, disowning their members simply because of their sexuality and gender identities, under the pressure of being accepted with their churches.

We are concerned, however, by the slow pace, the dialogues are conducted. Similarly, we are gravely concerned that the number of churches in such dialogical journeys represents a small number in a sea of churches that continue to be silent. As a result of their silence, discriminatory practices are permitted to thrive and their LGBTIQ+ members left to hang.

Responding positively to our plea will be conclusive that you care for humanity, especially the psychosocial wellbeing of the victims, survivors, parents, and the nation, at large. We are all affected by these atrocious deeds because it is violence to humanity. Be reminded, doing and saying something, now, is not just conforming to the social milieu of the time but it is also an active representation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Equally, condemning the violence meted against LGBTIQ+ people must not be viewed as a mere addendum to a crowded mission agenda of the church. It is, rather, the very essence of doing creative missions, central to the ethos of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the church must be in pursuit of.

We remain,

Yours sincerely

Rev. Teboho G. Klaas, AME Church
Fr. Thabang Nkadimeng, Catholic Church
Mrs. Thabisile Msezane, Methodist Church
Rev. Ecclesia de Lange, IAM

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