Different corners … common dreams
David Weiss, April 1, 2015
“Hey, tell David I saw him in a video clip about his Uganda work—but that’s all I’m saying until I see him in person.” Leo’s cryptic message, passed to me via Margaret, my wife, left me feeling equal measures of curiosity and pride.
Where? When? Who filmed me? How did I not know about this? But alongside these questions, I felt an undeniable twinge of glee. Someone had noticed … me. And I was at least as pleased as I was curious.
It turns out that I appear in a short clip among the “Special Features” on the latest DVD release of Call Me Kuchu, the award-winning documentary about the challenges faced by those fighting for LGBTI rights in Uganda. I am not “featured” per se; but I do appear in a feature devoted to Bishop Christopher Senyonjo’s 2011 American tour, part of his work as a faith ally to LGBTI Ugandans. Wingspan hosted him at an event here in St. Paul, and I served as emcee for that evening.
So there I am, getting a tiny moment in the spotlight because I happen to be next to the person the spotlight is following. Nonetheless, in this long journey toward justice, I am pleased to be seen.
Then, just seven days later, the frivolity of my quiet pleasure hits me hard in the gut and knocks the wind out of me.
I received an email from Moses, my closest friend in Uganda. Moses kept me company daily—transported me safely and provided me countless bits of education—during my trip to Uganda two years ago. A straight man, like myself, he is tireless and nearly fearless in his work with and for LGBTI Ugandans. On this day his message carried a mix of anguish, anger, and fear—for exactly the same reasons that I had felt such quiet pride: being seen.
The BBC has recently used footage from Call Me Kuchu to produce a 50-minute broadcast-friendly version titled Gay in Uganda. It will eventually be available on television worldwide through the BBC. Moses worked as a multi-tasking production assistant for the film. He was a friend to several of the leading activists featured in the filming, including David Kato. Although Moses’ work on Call Me Kuchu was all behind the scenes, in this new BBC version they’ve incorporated some other footage in which Moses appears rather clearly and prominently alongside David Kato outside a Ugandan courtroom.
Kato was killed soon afterwards—his picture had been emblazoned (next to Bishop Christopher’s) on the cover of one of Uganda’s inflammatory newspapers, under the banner headline “Hang Them” for their work in “promoting” homosexuality. At the time of his death, Kato was Uganda’s most publicly gay man. His murder sparked international outcry and put Uganda’s virulently antigay environment on the world’s radar. There is no more highly respected person (now widely regarded as a martyr) to be seen alongside. Unless—like Moses—the work you do as an ally, the job you hold to earn a living, your own personal security, and the safety and well-being of family (a wife and three children) all HINGE on a large measure of anonymity in the public eye … now potentially cast aside by a major network telling an important story.
His fear is all too real. About four years ago, through his close involvement in the Hate No More campaign, a grassroots Ugandan response to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Moses was filmed at a press conference in a news clip that aired nationally and repeatedly on Ugandan TV. He lost his job. Friends turned on him, charging that either he was gay himself or that he was promoting abominable behavior by others. Dependent on public transportation, fear stood next to him each day at the bus stop. He had to relocate his family out of concern for their safety. At school both of his children (ages 7 and 11) were attacked by classmates taunting them about their dad. His son smiles today with badly chipped front teeth—the price of Moses being seen.
Moses continued to be a tireless (though at times fearful) ally throughout this time. With Wingspan assistance he purchased a car that provides him with safe transportation and allows him to provide non-public transport as often as possible for those in the Rainbow Fellowship. Four years later, Moses has rebuilt his business, now working for himself and finding ways to occasionally employ LGBT persons. He oversees arrangements for the “sanctuary/safe house” we fund for the Rainbow Fellowship. And his family’s life has returned mostly to normal.
But he knows from painful experience that he does his best work—unseen. Which is why, when two friends called Moses to say they’d seen him on a BBC television show he responded not with curious excitement, but anger, anguish, and fear.
Sure, maybe no one in Uganda will notice. But all it takes is for a few people to recognize his face on the screen, connect it to the man they know around town, and suddenly the members of the Rainbow Fellowship, who count on his unnoticed presence to help tend to their well being, will find their lives become more vulnerable. Not to mention what would likely happen to his family, his work, and his personal life.
I’m not blaming the BBC. Stories must be told—with human faces when possible—in order to move hearts, and ultimately to change policies and laws. I just happen to know this one face particularly well. And the stark contrast between Moses’ response and my own reminds me with forceful humility of the vast differences between the corners of the world we inhabit. Emphasis the world, as in “one and the same.” Different corners with different contexts to be sure. But one world, with common dreams.
So I’m exchanging my quiet pleasure and for restless determination that Moses’ dream—and mine—of a world where no one fears being seen is not simply an idle fancy, but the passionate anticipation of the breaking dawn. We’ll meet you there.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl. Learn more at www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.