Two days after I graduated from college, I got on a plane—three planes, actually, and a few buses—with eight fellow students and made my way to Fort Portal, Uganda for a two-week service trip. While there, I had a two-part experience: one part spent in a local orphanage, cleaning windows and doors, playing with children and helping the staff; the other part, a full-on immersion into the Catholic tradition.
My group was hosted by a group of Catholic nuns, the Daughters of Saint Teresa, who were absolutely lovely, kind and welcoming. That said, being hosted by nuns meant spending hours upon hours in Catholic mass.
While two weeks is not nearly enough time to formulate a well-researched opinion, here are my two big takeaways from my time on the other side of the globe. (Fair warning, I’m about to speak in sweeping generalization):
1. Africa is a beautiful place full of beautiful people.
2. When it comes to a lot of things—LGBT issues specifically—Africa is lightyears behind. In many countries in Africa, being gay is criminalized.
“Men are marrying men, women are marrying women. That is absurd.”
It was as simple as that—one line subtly slipped into the greater message of a homily. We were at a seminary graduation, a celebration honoring the hard work of young men ready to serve the Church. That line seemed out of place, unnecessary, even. But there it was.
Uganda is one of the African countries that criminalizes ‘homosexual behavior.’ A person can be put in prison for life if he or she is caught and convicted. This criminalization also applies to companies, media organizations or non-governmental organizations that support LGBT rights.
It took coming back to America and processing my trip to fully understand the implications of what we heard in church that day; to understand why we, as a group, were all made to sleep in individual rooms in twin-sized beds, instead of sharing queens for money’s sake: we were being respectful of the culture, a culture that fears and hates anything that could even hint at ‘homosexual behavior.’
The Silver Lining
It’s incredibly difficult to reconcile the beauty I experienced—from the humbling power of the mountains that greeted us every morning to the pure, unencumbered joy we met in the children at the orphanage—with the confusing tensions by which I was surrounded during my two short weeks in Uganda.
And I’m frustrated by the silver lining, by the context into which I’ve been trying to frame my experience since I made it back to the states. I’ve tried to see it as “Well, even though LGBT Americans are still second-class citizens, at least they’re not put in jail because of their sexual preferences.”
But you know what? That doesn’t cut it. Not at all. Just because some parts of the rest of the world have actually outlawed being gay and have legally permitted—and even encouraged—systemic homophobia does not mean that I should have to accept America’s half-assed equal rights movement. If anything, the hatred that LGBT Africans have to face daily from their people and their governments should be a symbol that we, in America, need to do better, fight harder, set a better global example for equality.