Bishop Terry Angel Mason on HIV and Uganda
Openly gay Christian minister, LGBT civil rights activist and National HIV/AIDS Awareness Spokesman Bishop Terry Angel Mason is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, activist and poet. He's ready to save the world, but before he does that, there's just one thing he needs to do: get his fiancé and their adopted children out of Uganda.
"Not only is my fiancé terrified, but literally every same-gender loving person in Uganda is terrified," said Mason. "Many are thrown out of their houses, fired from their jobs, beat, burned right in street; this is common. And Uganda is not the only place this happening: it's in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and spreading to every part of Africa."
Recently, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed a severely anti-gay piece of legislation, originally known as the "Kill the Gays" bill, which places the lives of LGBTs in that country in great peril. Mason penned a letter to the U.S. Consulate to try and get his family a travel visa out of the country, but as more and more Ugandans are jailed, burned and beaten, the stakes are rising.
Mason said that his male partner is somewhat shielded, because he was never a gay activist, whose photos are published with the words "hang them" next to it. But he notes that it doesn't matter; all someone has to do is say you're gay, and you could be killed. No one can publicly speak about gay rights, and even straight people must inform on people who they suspect are gay, under fear of reprisal.
How did this successful author and preacher find himself in this situation? Mason told EDGE that he was invited to speak to a group of LGBT activists led by advocate Frank Mugisha in Uganda several years ago when he met the man. The two fell for each other, and were soon betrothed.
Mason was busy training African ministers through his Global Outreach Ministries, trying to combat the rampant corruption in Uganda, in which even ministers pocked funds meant to help orphaned children.
His partner had exposed what these men were doing and disassembled the organization he had created, but many of these orphaned children were left without means. The man took six of the children to his mother's house, and eventually found homes for four. He adopted the other two, aged 4 and 16, whose parents had died of AIDS. Now, he is trying to move his family to safety.
But even this is difficult in Uganda, said Mason. You must bribe everyone to get anything done, and although they had legal papers and birth certificates and had greased the right palms, officials demanded the death certificates of the childrens' mothers before they would act.
Even then, the first round of documents came back incorrect, and Mason had to dole out another round of bribes just to get the documents reprinted correctly. He will now have to pay for travel visas, and of course, round trip airfare for a country they have no intention of returning to.
"Once he gets to the U.S. and we get married, we're okay," said Mason. "We'll have to go to immigration, and go through the U.S. rigamarole. If not for the recent change in legislation, DOMA would have stood in my way."
Withdrawing Aid to HIV Programs
In Uganda, HIV is rampant, with most of those who have it identifying as straight rather than LGBT. But these new anti-gay laws have made everyone wary of seeking treatment, said Mason. Many countries have withdrawn financial support to Uganda because of these human rights abuses, and although some say that this punishes those who it is trying to help, Mason said he has firsthand experience that shows it doesn’t make a bit of difference either way.
"A lot of people say we shouldn’t punish these people, because the country’s poor. But I think totally differently," said Mason. "I would take back every bit of funding. I know it sounds heartless, but I would remove it completely like every other country but the U.S. has. Because all of the billions of dollars that the U.S. gives isn’t helping anyone. Uganda’s Parliament has admitted that because of rampant corruption, this money doesn’t ever get where it’s going anyway."
Mason also bemoans the continuing practice of people with HIV raping young children, in the false belief that it will cure them of HIV. He notes that although the Uganda Parliament created laws to prevent this, the laws were aimed at the LGBT community, when the perpetrators were heterosexual.
Mason said that the U.S. should instead find activists in Uganda who have connections to the U.N. and fund their mission, to help young people who are thrown out of their houses, to get them to a European country or at least to South Africa. He suggests Mugisha’s group Sexual Minorities Uganda.
"I try to write to the State Department and and President Obama, to put pressure on them," said Mason. "I wish I was a rich Harriet Tubman, so I could get them out by creating an underground railroad."
Rich or not, Mason continues to reach deep into his pockets to help these people who call him every day from Uganda with tales of horror. He calls the situation there "a genocide in the making," and notes that there is no amount of fighting in-country that will change things.
"The gay community in America is a powerful force to reckon with," said Mason. "But in America, we have the constitution. Even though conservatives have twisted and undermined voting rights, we have these rights. In Africa, you couldn’t even pen this article, they would take you to jail. They can’t confront LGBT rights like they were in America, they need to find asylum, because this is not changing. And it is better to flee then end up burned in the streets."
Uganda makes threats that if the U.S. pulls funding, they will turn to Russia, China and Korea for help. But Mason says that’s fine; the U.S. has done enough already.
Anti-Gay Laws From U.S. Pastors
Uganda’s anti-gay sentiment is written into law, but it didn’t just happen. It’s part of the backlash from the gains that LGBT activists have made in the U.S.
Mason said that after evangelical Christians in the States realized that they were losing ground on their anti-gay tactics here, they turned their gaze to Africa. In a series of meetings with Ugandan religious leaders, they stoked the fire of anti-gay sentiment to encode it into law.
"There are prominent renowned men, some of whom are being sued by Ugandan activists for this law, and it looks like they will win," said Mason. "We did influence them; this law came about because of these evangelicals, including one pastor who delivered a speech at Obama’s inauguration. Also because of Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. MSNBC took him to task for influencing the laws of other nations, and several nation groups and countries removed all funding from Uganda."
Mason said that this hatred cannot remained unchallenged. It may be too dangerous for LGBT activists in Uganda to take on this battle alone, but by supporting the work of groups like the Lavender Legal Fund and others like it can help. He urges advocates in the U.S. and around the world to step to the plate and speak for those whose voices are silenced.
"When the rights of one group of people are threatened, they can come back to threaten the rights of the rest of us," said Mason. "What the human mind doesn’t understand is when you marginalize or discriminate, suppress and oppress a people, they are going to knock on your door the next day."
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