By Bishop Joseph W. Tolton
Bishop Tolton is the Founder and President of Interconnected Justice. The strategic intent of the organization is to be a force uniting global racial justice movements in which the continent of Africa and its diaspora build an ecosystem of self-defined and determined advocacy. As an LGBT Global faith leader Bishop Tolton continues to serve as the Bishop of Global Ministries for The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries.
This essay is adapted from an interview with Bishop Tolton by Imani Countess on September 21, 2021. The full transcript of the interview, which is available here, was condensed into this essay by Zeb Larson in collaboration with Bishop Tolton.
My name is Joseph W. Tolton and I was raised in the cradle of the Pentecostal Church. I would put the Bible on my windowsill as a young kid. We lived in a building where two buildings faced each other in an alleyway. My room was at the corner of the alleyway and my neighbors would tell my mother and grandmother, “Do you hear him in there preaching?” and they would say, “Yes, we do.” The windowsill was my first pulpit.
Being raised Pentecostal is also very relevant to my sense of transnational curiosity. The whole idea of being Pentecostal is that we believe in what happened in the early church where people from every background came together to find the Disciples of Christ after the Christ had died.
My mom was also very committed to making sure that I got the best possible education, and I went to predominantly Jewish schools. I lift that up because one of the points that really led me to transnational work was being raised among the Jewish Community. That informed my sensibilities by being in a community who were so very intentional about being a community.
I am also gay. Growing up as a closeted being created a certain sense of restlessness around reconciliation and a sense of restlessness around finding my place in the world. This journey for acceptance and establishing a sense of belonging was definitely the result of growing up in this closeted way. This influences my transnational sensibilities because I was in a church that did not fully accept me and my journey became about finding a place where I fully belonged.
There was an exodus out of the black church in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of HIV and AIDS. I graduated from high school in 1985 and was asking all of the questions that an eighteen-year-old asks, knowing secretly that I am attracted to men and that men like me are coming down with this terrible disease. I thought that this was God’s curse. My peers were dying, and I got a whiff of the church’s response. It was ugly, it was nasty, it was vindictive, it was full of betrayal, and they were violently embarrassed by our presence.
That led to the growth of other services for Black people who were LGBTQ. I ultimately became a part of that movement of Black Pentecostals, Baptists, and Methodists who realized that we actually could start a new Reformation that married the chemistry of that worship with the theology that was much more open and inquisitive. I started a church in Harlem in 2006 called Rehoboth Temple for everyone but targeted to the LGBTQ community. We began to embrace the term “Queer” as an umbrella term that covers all that is not hetero-normative.
In 2009 when the anti-gay bill was tabled in Uganda, we all learned about it watching Rachel Maddow, a host on MSNBC in the U.S. In Uganda before the bill, LGBTQ people had a social zone carved out for themselves. LGBTQ people were crafty about creating an underground social culture so they could breathe without society having to deal with them. But forces elsewhere in the world had been undermining that for some time.
U.S. Christian Right Targets Africa
My personal reality was not just the result of domestic factors, but was very much the result of what was happening on a global scale. What I learned through investigation was that there was this deep relationship between the white conservative evangelical community in America and their global outposts. Conservative Christians went into these countries under the idea that they were going to help plant churches, dig wells, and build orphanages. But that was not their real agenda.
In the 1970s, the Christian Right understood that the world was globalizing. Domestically, they were losing a culture war, and they decided to change the playing field. Instead of domestic culture wars, they could do it globally. Newly-independent African states were very pliable in many ways. Conservative Christians understood that if they were pumped full of money and supported by ecclesiastical structures in the West, they would not pivot toward democracy. The impact is that the church at large in Africa is now conscripted into this very conservative scheme to make the continent the base of conservative Christian thought. By the early 2000s, they had infrastructure and human capital that African Americans or the progressive left was unaware of. That is what led to the shock of the anti-gay bill.
When the issue broke out in Uganda, there was an Episcopal priest, Bishop Dr. Christopher Senyonjo. He began to meet young LGBTQ people who were coming to him because they were homeless. His center became a place where young LGBTQ people in Uganda knew they could go for counseling. Once the bill was passed he was the only priest, the only person of faith, and he was 80 at the time, who stood up and said, “No, this is wrong. No, I cannot accept this and I will stand with this community.”
Eventually, he was brought to the United States, where I met Dr. Senyonjo. He said “We have to not only have a message that is transformative, but we have to build the infrastructure for institutions that can hold that transformation.” Not missing a beat, he then said “I find it interesting that you’re a preacher who has an MBA and that, that’s the way your head thinks. I think you would do well in Uganda. I think you should come to Uganda.”
I went to Uganda in September of 2010 and my life has completely changed ever since that trip. When I met my Queer brothers and sisters, I was not only connecting with them around our Queer reality but also as people of African descent who had been separated. We found ourselves having an incredible conversation about not just the future for Queer people, but the ways in which this relationship between the religious right and ecclesiastical leaders on the continent and relationships between America’s aid and the ways in which that propped up autocratic regimes.
Most of the white, Evangelical leaders who came to Uganda had no relationship with Black people in their backyard. These were pastors and leaders for whom the only Black people you would see in their church were somebody singing or directing the choir or playing the organ. In fact, these were conservative Christians who opposed policies that protect the health and well-being of African Americans and supported the brutal policing of black bodies.
Violence in Uganda
Things were very hot on the ground in Uganda and so SMUG, or Sexual Minorities Uganda began to get a lot more notice. David Kato had been one of the founders of SMUG and the Queer movement in East Africa. What David understood was that somebody in Uganda was going to die. He understood that the climate of vitriol was turning very violent as it fed a moral panic.
Unfortunately, he was the person who became a victim of that violence. He was killed in January of 2011 by an anti-gay person in his community who learned what he was doing. That was a Kairos moment (a moment of perfect opportunity) for Queer organizing throughout the continent. Working with Frank Mugisha, the Executive Director of SMUG, we were able to mobilize African American clergy and African American civil rights community to focus on this issue.
This changed things in the Black Church in America. You’ve got people like Reverend Al Sharpton who are coming around, you have the NAACP that are beginning to come out in support of marriage equality. When David was murdered in the context of the anti-gay bill, that changed the dynamic among African Americans. Now it wasn’t just condemning homosexuality from a faith-based perspective, it was about unleashing murderous possibilities. Among many blacks, it conjured up the thoughts of a lynching. Calvin Butts opened up the Abyssinian Baptist Church to the LGBTQ community to have a memorial for David. That changed organizing here in the United States too.
In Maryland in 2012 we invested as a Queer community a lot of money and attention and focus because we knew that the Maryland ballot initiative for marriage equality could win and be the first state to win if African Americans supported it at a rate of 45% and above. We only had about 29 to 30 percent of African Americans in support of marriage equality so we had a gap that we had to make up. Young preachers turned out for us. Everything changed. 47.5% percent of Blacks in Maryland voted for marriage equality. It signaled that the religious right had lost its stranglehold on the Black Church and could no longer manipulate the Black Church to fracture the progressive base.
In turn, we continue our work building solidarity in Africa. We have been able to build five churches in East Africa that are for LGBTQ people that are a part of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. You have this Pan-African transnational faith built by Queer people of African descent where we are united in our work together.
These churches were built to provide spiritual nourishment, but they were also to be advocacy-based ministries. We leverage the church’s systems and structures and human capital for justice work. They have a task force to approach civil society, academia, government, the media, and engage sectors driving cultural influence. Our media presence in East Africa is incredibly strong. It’s out and proud and on the television and in the newspaper. In Rwanda, we produced a national pride attended by government officials. In the DRC Congo, we invite in traditional organizations, even those a part of the AME church, but in Goma DRC, they’re welcoming.
Pan-Africanist and Queer
Africa is experiencing a tremendous youth bulge and surge. By 2100 one out of every three people on the planet may be of African descent because of the demographic shifts that are happening. We have got to mobilize these young people on the continent and elsewhere to change their lived reality. I believe that this path is the unpaved road of Pan-Africanism. And that we must connect the movements that young people are building on the ground in Africa with movements in Brazil, Colombia, throughout the Caribbean, and certainly here in the United States. That is the work of interconnected justice, bringing together and building a unified web between nationally based Pan-African movements powered by young people.
The thing that has held us together has been our realization that I am you and you are me. That is the substance that binds us together. I am them and they are me. And I think that that’s an incredible gift. That’s a gift that we have to offer to the more mainstream Pan-African movement.
I’m incredibly excited to be venturing out in this way. I believe that we will continue to do the work of influencing the Christian church in Africa through indigenous spirituality and curiosity about the divine feminine. Healing will come when we do that. That fusion allows us to have more ownership of the faith and customize the faith as opposed to importing the faith that has come from the west. Work has got to turn to Pan-Africanist movements inspired by work over the continent. There is a cry for democracy and participatory government that can only be ushered in by a revival of Pan-Africanism. Lastly, partnerships with feminist and female-identifying groups must happen in concert with a full redefinition of what African masculinity is all about.
About Defining Identities
Excerpted from interview with Bishop Tolton by Imani Countess, September 21, 2021
IC: I really want to ask a question about definitions, because within some sectors, Queer is a frequently used word to describe non-heteronormative sexualities, right? I ‘m not really clear to what extent Queer is sort of an overarching term in Africa or even to what extent here in the US. Is it viewed as an inclusive term? You’ve given me permission to use the term, right, in previous conversations. I really would like for everyone else, to sort of be able to hear your thoughts on this as well.
JT: It’s such an interesting term, it can be explosive and very incendiary. And it’s generational. If you were to ask somebody 53 or possibly 10 years older or more, you know, there’s a lot of, “No no, no, I am not Queer” because certainly in the 60s and 70s Queer was a derogatory term. It was almost like calling somebody, a bull dagger or a faggot and the LGBTIQQ community fought very hard for nomenclature that we felt was was sanctified and empowering. We wanted to be gay and lesbian, you know, bisexual or person of trans experience.
It is really the generation that comes under me. The older millennials who are in their late 30s now who really began to embrace, and I think many of the intellectuals, began to push back and embrace this term of Queer. Interestingly, I think that embracing the term Queer as kind of an umbrella term that covers as you said, all that is not a hetero-normative. I think that on many levels that was a bit in rebuke to the marriage equality movement, because of course, the marriage equality movement suggested that we as gay people were on many levels nothing more than a reflection of straight people. The difference, of course, is that our call for love was to the same sex as opposed to someone of the opposite sex. And that is what distinguished us.
And that kind of created the road to marriage equality. We are acceptable. We are normalized. We pick up our children, just like you do. We take care of our aging parents just like you do. We fuss and fight about, you know, you left the cap off the toothpaste, just like you do. And such a drive and push to be accepted, kind of like the politics of respectability for Black people.
In response to that and I think in rebuke to that, younger Queer activists really pushed to have this term, Queer mean, no, we are different. We are not just the reflection of straight people who are called to same-sex love but that we are a great variety. There are some that are going to have the 2.5 kids and the white picket fence, but then there are others who are going to be polyamorous and some are going to have all sorts of other situations, whereby which they express their love and their affection.
So I think now we’ve come full circle. Queer does cover the full spectrum of our garden of those of us that are not hetero-normative and then you’ll have some who will default and use LGBTIQ or prefer gay or lesbian, because they think it just imposes a bit more dignity on the community.
General Background References
Globalizing The Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, And Homophobia
Kapya Kaoma, Political Research Associates, December 1, 2009
A groundbreaking investigation by Political Research Associates discovered that sexual minorities in Africa have become collateral damage to our domestic conflicts and culture wars. U.S. conservative evangelicals are promoting an agenda in Africa that aims to criminalize homosexuality and otherwise infringe upon the human rights of LGBT people while also mobilizing African clerics in U.S. culture war battles.
Adriaan van Klinken, Leeds African Studies Bulletin, January 31, 2020
This article maps the emergence of an LGBT-affirming, or queer, pan-Africanist discourse which counter-balances popular, conservative pan-Africanist narratives that advocate against LGBT and queer identities and rights
Ghana Gets Its Wake-up Call: Will it Be Answered?
Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International, October 15, 2021
In March 2021, the “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill” was introduced in the Ghanaian parliament. In addition to criminalizing and imposing jail sentences of up to five years for being a member of the LGBTIQ+ community, supporting a member of the community, or discussing issues related to the community, the proposed bill also supports “conversion therapy,” a practice that has been condemned globally, including by the UN Committee Against Torture. If passed, the proposed legislation would violate regional and international human rights obligations that Ghana has signed.
I don’t recognize my own country anymore in Ghana’s new anti-gay bill
Arthur Musah, Quartz, October 18, 2021
I am a gay Ghanaian. I make this statement publicly because an emergency in Ghana has made it necessary for me to come out as loudly as possible. That emergency also requires everyone to come out as an ally of LGBTQ+ Ghanaians. I don’t want to paint a false picture of a childhood Ghana that was fully accepting of my sexuality, but I want to talk about the drastic rise in homophobia that has gotten us to this place and the forces behind it.
African indigenous religions and queer dignity
David Tonghou Ngong, November 9, 2021
Ghana has become just the latest African country to confirm the fact that there are widespread anti-queer attitudes on the continent. Crucial to debates about this widespread anti-queer attitude is the question, what could be the source? In other words, why does the continent appear to be so anti-queer?
Colonialism should take a lot of blame for anti-queer attitudes in Africa. But missing is a frank engagement with how African indigenous cultures also fuel anti-queer attitudes.