A Letter to the Archbishop of York - January 2012
31 January 2012
The Most Reverend & Right Honourable Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
My Lord Archbishop,
I am writing after reading your recent comments about gay marriage. I suppose you would call me a retired gay activist: I was the founder of the campaign to lift the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the British Armed Forces and author of a book, We Can't Even March Straight, about the experience of gay people serving in the military. I was sacked from the Royal Navy in 1988 after I 'came out' myself.
That campaign was successful, and the law was changed, allowing lesbians and gay men to serve honourably alongside their heterosexual colleagues, and to do so under the same rules and to the same high standards as their fellow servicemen. I am proud of what that campaign achieved and after many years of campaigning have moved on to the next chapter in my life. I am also a Confirmed member of the Church of England and think back with great love and affection to the day that the future Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie conducted my Confirmation at St Thomas a Becket in Northaw. It is both as an Anglican and as an activist who stood up against the horrors of homophobia in action that I write to you.
I hope that you will take the time to read and consider the points I wish to make. I am profoundly concerned that a senior churchman for whom I have had enormous respect has made a terrible mistake. I believe that the comments you made, reported whilst you were in Jamaica will give succour to those who wish to do violent harm to lesbians and gay men in their communities. I find that deeply distressing, and that has led me to write to you.
The scale of anger and homophobic violence conducted in Jamaica with the implicit consent of the police and the authorities defies belief. Two gay activists, men who stood up for others in their community, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, were murdered a few years ago. First to be killed was Brian Williamson, the founder of Jamaican help and support group J-FLAG. He was stabbed in the face and throat until he was dead. A delighted mob of locals actually danced and celebrated over his mutilated body. A year later his friend, AIDS activist Steve Harvey, was taken from his home by an armed mob and shot dead.
In 2004, a teenager was almost killed when his father learned his son was gay and invited a group to lynch the boy at his school. A gay man in Kingston, Nokia Cowan, drowned after a crowd shouting 'batty boy' chased him off a pier.
You could list the successful police investigations into these horrific crimes on the fingers of Captain Hook's left hand.
In the week that you made your comments about gay marriage, you were visiting a country that seems to accept that the violent murder of gay men is acceptable, and impossible to police. Whilst you were there, Jamaica's current leading gay voice Maurice Tomlinson was told that the police would be unable to protect him and advised him never to return to his home country. His marriage to a Canadian citizen took place in the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto earlier this year. Maurice is a Christian, he is a gay activist, and many of his fellow Jamaican citizens and political leaders believe he should be in prison because of his sexual orientation. The Jamaican police would clearly do little to investigate the crime if he was violently attacked. In the greatest of ironies, his Canadian husband is a police officer and church pastor. Which community is more 'Christian'? In which do you see the reflection of God? The land of gay marriage, or the land of gay-bashing?
I cannot accept that the Jesus I know would be making comments that give legitimacy and theological credibility to thugs and murderers. Despite the fact that your comments in whole were much wider and more considered, the reality is that in churches and communities throughout Jamaica your words will be quoted and used to justify the condemnation and sometimes the torture and murder of fellow human beings. I feel physically sick at the thought of a senior member of the Church of England giving help and assistance to those who would, given the chance, happily see me bloodied and tortured, pulled through the streets of Kingston and thrown into the sea to die.
Young gay men in Iran have been hanged in recent years (the graphic video is on YouTube and should be watched by anyone who calls for 'different' rights for gay people), couples in Africa have been imprisoned for expressing their love for each other, and schoolchildren in America have been hanged, shot, tortured until they commit suicide, and even tied to a fence, whipped with a pistol and left to die. The cyclist who found 21-year old Matthew Shephard's wrecked but still breathing body initially thought he was a scarecrow: the only part of his young face that wasn't covered in blood was where the tears had fallen. He died in hospital without ever regaining consciousness. All this violence seeks justification in the words of God, and in the words of churchmen. That has to change, surely these crimes are not a reflection of the Will of God?
You must read the Scriptures far more often and deeply than I, and I have to ask if you can really find words in the New Testament that justify any of this? Gay men are dying all over the world simply because they are gay. Confused children are killing themselves in fear of the consequences of telling parents or friends, or community and religious leaders that they are gay. How can you possibly add your voice to that side of the argument? Read the Nigerian newspapers if you think otherwise: you are now a hero to those who might wish us harm.
When Matthew Shephard was tied to that fence, alone, terrified and I imagine with the dreadful realisation that he would probably die there, where would Jesus have been? The Jesus I know would have untied him from the fence, held him closely and told him that he was loved. He would not have stood in a pulpit and preached a message that gives those that think he deserved to die a crutch for their hatred and their twisted interpretation of Christian love.
Where was Jesus last week in Jamaica? Where is your love and respect for the brave men and women who stand up against discrimination and hatred in their communities under the very real daily threat of violence and even death. Who did you hold close in Jamaica to help soothe their pain as they struggle with the torment that acknowledging their innate difference could result in violence and murder?
If Maurice Tomlinson has the strength and will to return to Jamaica will you be holding his hand when he steps off a plane at Kingston airport to return to his community and support lesbians and gay men living in fear? Will a Christian Minister sit with him in his home at night wondering if the peace will be disturbed by bullets tearing through his bedroom, or a mob armed with knives arriving to slice off his face? Who will stand up alongside him and tell Jamaica's gay community that God loves them too? Will it be you?
I don't understand how a Man of God can allow such hatred to exist unchallenged and to appear to offer warmth to those who peddle it. When and where will I hear the keynote speech from a Church leader condemning any of this? Let me know and I will be there to offer my personal support and prayers for the Bishop with the Christian heart to care, and the bravery to act.