We were told to carry tissue and that “if you are the emotional type, you might need it.” This was an admonition from Dean Miriam Gelfer which I refused to take seriously. If you know me well enough you may have noticed that it takes me a while to thaw. If I were ice, I would melt at 40 degrees Fahrenheit plus. I had completely underestimated the emotions of the day.
With commencement ceremony starting at 2 o’clock , I encountered a nervous breakdown and completely lost appetite for anything.The night before, I had failed to attend commencement prayers at chapel. When my roommate asked why I missed in action I said, “I am not feeling well today.” A picture text message with a bouquet of flowers and these words from my significant other: “I love you. Congrats…God is never a liar…you made it…I’m so proud of you” pummeled me out of bed.
Then it dawned on me that I was supposed to feel the way I felt. I realized that for the first time, I was about to wear a graduation gown having graduated from Makerere University in absentia. When I graduated from Makerere for my undergrad, my guardian was busy not wanting anything to do with “an unrepentant self-confessed lesbian rebel” who had wasted his hard-earned resources by “joining homosexual degenerates.” My story is, briefly, that during my second year at Makerere I met a group of lesbians at a local bar after which I became a founding member of the first lesbian organization in Uganda which is also arguably the first organization of the LGBT movement in the country. At 21, any parent/guardian would be terrified for their daughter pronouncing herself a lesbian activist.
May 17, 2012 felt special because I knew I had dismantled the negative expectations of my family and guardian. Above all else, I know I wouldn’t have made it if I had not done my masters at an institution that has brought the best out of me. I tell people that Episcopal Divinity School is a special place. Not only because the school has a rich tradition on radical social justice activism including anti-racism work, women’s rights, and LGBT rights but also because it’s an institution where voices get unleashed. This aspect of the school’s pedagogy is so grounded that we have a course that specifically helps students develop their voice.
A place like EDS gives you space within which to make that happen because you don’t only come here for academic rigor; you are constantly prepared to become a leader who witnesses inclusiveness, love and justice in the world. At this institution, my long-harbored conservative views on particular issues have been nudged. As an activist, I have been surprised to learn that I had not embraced the ethos of inclusive activism as my assumption held. In fact, I have learned that I have been oppressive to myself and others in extremely shocking ways. Learning to question my own privilege has been, and is, part of my journey to wholeness.
As I leave EDS, I remember the words of my mentor, Kapya Kaoma, a few days before I considered applying to the masters in theological studies program. “The LGBT movement in Africa needs professionals,” he said. ” You need to be able to speak out for yourselves instead of relying on allies to do it for you,” he continued.” The women’s movement in Africa did not begin to create change until women went back to school and got themselves educated to become professors, doctors, lawyers, feminist theologians….” As Kapya rumbled about the importance of education, I wondered how a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in Africa who is homeless, hungry, unemployed, abused, HIV positive can prioritize education let alone find opportunities for education when his/her own existence is threatened on a daily basis.
It was then that I learned that the cycle of oppression cannot be broken until people know what the oppressor does not want them to know. For all the oppression of LGBT persons in Africa, the objective of the oppressor is to stop them from getting the privilege of knowledge. The number one rule of oppression is: Keep everything people need to know about their liberation secret so they will continue seeing their oppression as their own fault. Rule number two: Keep people busy living for survival so they will not think of living for anything else but daily survival. Rule number three: Keep them destructed, busy being “freedom fighters” such that they will not see themselves as human beings who have a life larger than that.
Kapya intimated to me on graduation day that he sat in a meeting recently where he advocated for the importance of empowering African LGBTs with education and someone responded, “That is not our priority for LGBT rights in Africa.” Whoever made this statement said exactly what the homophobe politicians and clergy in Africa want to hear. As an alumni of EDS, Kapya knew that this institution would give me a similar experience it had given him before moving on to do his doctorate at Boston University. More else, he helped me understand the interdisciplinary study of theology and how it perfectly fits into my activism. He still teases, “How many Bibles have you read?” What he implies is, “You didn’t come to divinity school to “read bibles.” You came here to understand the politics, motivations, and language of the Religious Right so you are empowered to counter their negative theology on LGBT rights.” That is exactly what my two-year non-ordination program at EDS has been.
My research has specifically focused on studying the Christian Right and its influence on sexual rights in Africa. From the prison system to environmental justice and international conflict resolution, I selected classes that would provide me a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness and intersectionality of human rights issues. The interdisciplinary nature of my program has earned me the Alison Cheek Prize in Feminist Liberation Theologies “presented to a graduating student for activism and scholarship that reflect commitment to ending racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and all forms of oppression in the Church and the wider society.” In compliment to the Masters of Arts in Theological Studies I have earned the Certificate in Religion and Conflict Resolution that is awarded by the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of ten university divinity schools and schools of theology in the Greater Boston area.
Endings and beginnings…
The next one year will be time to make preparation for further graduate study, continue my work with the movement, and to begin writing my first book which I like to describe as less of a book and more of a storytelling project.