Lessons from Zambia in Light of a Shooting Massacre of Queer People of Color
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Last night I sobbed. A tremendous weight settled itself onto my shoulders, which already carry the majority of the stress of my body. It was difficult to breathe. Everything felt heavy.
50 people dead in another mass shooting in the USA.
Queer people of color once again targeted—at least 49 murdered, 53 more wounded.
A gunMAN driven by the ideology of the fundamentalist wing of his religion.
A gunMAN so warped by the power of gay hate that he may have even internalized it against himself and externalized it against those he found attractive.
A sacred, brave, and safe space invaded, assaulted, raped, made no longer safe.
Families’ lives shattered—some that were whole, some that were heartbreakingly estranged, some that were about to start in exciting and creative ways.
The logical result of the hate proclaimed in fundamentalist churches, fundamentalist mosques, and fundamentalist temples.
The logical result of the hate proclaimed in city halls, state houses, Capitol Hill, and campaign trails controlled by extremist ideology.
The logical result of the hate proclaimed by a nation that refuses to restrict the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (all guns, especially assault weapons).
The logical result of the hate proclaimed by a society that persistently equates masculinity with power and power with violence.
The logical result of the hate proclaimed by systems at all levels of our existence that enforce the oppression of people of color, people of queer sexualities, people of queer gender identities, people of marginalized religions, and especially people who embody intersections thereof.
When I woke up I found myself in a state of paralysis. A significant part of me wanted to do nothing besides my duties of the day, to teach our lessons, eat, and then get back in bed until a new sunrise. A significant part of me wanted to do something, anything. I wanted to engage in some more spirited battles on social media. I wanted to disengage entirely because of how inexplicably draining that is. I wanted to sit alone in silence. I wanted to speak, shout, and scream. Then I realized that I have this blog with a very specific purpose and platform: to detail my experiences in Zambia and lift up from those experiences that which can be instructive for the U.S. American context. So, I have decided to do just that—to detail some experiences here that are directly related to the issues at hand in this massacre via assault weapon of queer people of color.
I use the term “gay hate” because “homophobia” linguistically relieves the person and the society of blame. We usually think of a phobia as something that is not chosen. The hateful attitudes held and acts done by dominant people and dominant society, however, are chosen. I use “gay hate” to describe those attitudes and acts.
To begin with, it should be made clear that homosexuality is categorically illegal in Zambia. That being said, since independence there have been very few if any prosecutions of people for homosexual “acts.” Unsurprisingly, the law is a vestige of colonial law, maintaining the same language as codified by the colonizing British empire. Further, the Zambian constitution has an anti-discrimination clause that seems to protect people from the still existing British colonial law.
Knowing about this law and having heard about other people’s experiences in different parts of Central and East Africa, I fully expected to hear regular gay-hating rhetoric from the government, from pulpits, and in everyday conversation. In short, I expected to hear what so many people in certain parts of the U.S. regularly hear. On the whole, though, I have been pleasantly surprised. I have encountered gay hate on only four occasions over the past nine and a half months. The first was a statement made by a white United Methodist missionary. The second was a statement made by a white PC(USA) mission co-worker. The third was a statement made by a white American Baptist missionary. Are you seeing the trend here? The final was a Zambian preacher at a wedding railing against “Adam and Steve”…a clear import from U.S. American rhetoric.
I will not minimize the struggles of the LGBTQI community here. They have to be largely silent in a largely conservative country. There is very little “coming out” because to do so risks not only expulsion from the family and the church but also the possibility of longterm imprisonment under the British colonial law (a real fear even if not an actualized reality). They survive in whatever ways they can, which all too often means living fully into their identities only behind closed doors and in very secret places. What I mean to do is point out that the gay hate I have encountered here is of a distinctively Western flavor. I am sure that there has been a lot of gay hate in Zambia throughout history, as such is the case in all societies. Overall, though, it seems that the homophobia of today (yes, for this one I actually do mean fear of homosexuality) has largely been thrust upon the country by the gay hate of Western governments and Western missionaries. The same rhetoric that leads to systemic oppression in the U.S. and that laid the groundwork for this shooting massacre is continually being exported to other places and contexts, laying the groundwork for unknown horrors to come.
What can I lift up as instructive to the U.S. American context? Our actions as a society, the systems of oppression we create, do not remain isolated to the U.S.A. They have real impacts in other contexts, deeply affecting whole societies, marginalized communities, and vulnerable individuals. These impacts are especially profound when carried by representatives of faith to deeply religious societies. The impacts we have, though, don’t have to replicate oppression. We can export radical inclusivity, openness, and affirmation of identity. We can export the hope of survivors and victors over systemic oppression.
I regularly field questions here about why guns are so readily available in the U.S.A. and why we are not doing anything to make them less available. It is “regularly” because there have regularly been mass shootings in the U.S.A. during my time here, and once again what happens in the U.S.A. does not remain isolated to the U.S.A. People are shocked by the callousness of a national belief that a right to carry guns is more valuable than a right to live. They shake their heads. They say, “Shame.” They ask, “Why?” Even as I sit here writing this, my colleague Rev. Changwe is saying it is quite obvious that these things won’t stop happening until we change our laws on guns. In Zambia only military personnel, police, and security guards carry guns. I have never seen a gun elsewhere. There have not been shooting massacres in Zambia since the British left.
What can I lift up as instructive to the U.S. American context? I think it is pretty self explanatory. People in Zambia see the U.S.A.’s gun love as ridiculous and evil. The absence of guns in the general populace in Zambia means no shooting massacres and very few shooting deaths. We have a lot to learn.
Racism and Disproportionate Impacts of Violence on People of Color
Every time there is a shooting reported from the U.S., Esther, my dear mother in the TEEZ office, wants to know why people of color are always being killed…by police, by gunmen, by guns. Not just, “Why does your society allow this continued violence,” but clearly, “Why does your society allow this continued violence against Black and Brown people?”
Every time Donald Trump says something blatantly racist or xenophobic, everybody I see asks me how it is possible that this man is so popular. When a national figure describes Africans as “lazy fools,” people hear it and are appalled. They want to know why so many people accept this and celebrate it. I frequently find myself attempting to explain systemic racism in the U.S. I frequently find myself learning about how this racism, once again, is not isolated to the U.S.
What can I lift up as instructive to the U.S. American context? To Americans of color, people across the world are aware of your plight and are deeply affected by and concerned about your suffering. To white colleagues, people across the world are taking note of whether or not we are fighting against systemic racism and are wondering if we will continue to accept the overt racism now being embodied by a major presidential candidate.
Amidst all this hate, violence, and pain, I am regularly reminded through my experiences here in Zambia that there is hope in humanity. I have dear friends who are victors over systems of death. I see communities that band together in times of physical need, grief, and celebration. I worship in congregations that provide sanctuary for people who are marginalized and service for communities plagued by the massive injustices of this world. I live in a compound where people struggle together, depend on one another, and challenge each other. I even engage in conversations initiated by clergy and lay leaders in the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa about gay rights, including ordination and marriage. And in these conversations I don’t hear hate. I hear genuine concern and curiosity. I hear faithful wrestling with something that is usually not discussed. I share my beliefs. I share resources from the PC(USA). It is not hateful. It is beautiful.
I will continue to sob. I will continue to feel heaviness. I will continue to shake my head. But I won’t do so in despair. I will learn what I can learn here and lift up what needs to be heard in the U.S.A. I will carry inclusivity, openness, and affirmation of identity. I will share the stories of survivors and victors. I pray that you will join.