How Relationships Can Turn Faith Leaders Into LGBT Allies

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06/24/2021

A grassroots group in Kenya has found a slow-but-effective formula for converting anti-LGBT faith leaders into LGBT advocates. Penda* did not feel worthy of a seat at the table with the 15 religious leaders she found herself nervously sitting across from, seven of them Christian, eight of them Muslim. “Before I attended that forum, I knew that I was a sinner,” she recalls. “I didn’t think it was possible for me to go near a church. I didn’t even think that I could have a conversation with a religious leader.” Yet in 2014, Penda, a masculine-presenting lesbian, found herself in conversation with these faith leaders, all of whom believed—and in many cases preached—that homosexuality is evil. But this was no ordinary conversation. At Penda’s side were three other people: a Kenyan gay man, a sex worker and someone living with HIV. None of the faith leaders knew these details. That information was held back—until just the right moment presented itself. The forum was part of a strategic faith engagement session organized by Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved in Kenya (PEMA Kenya), a sexual and gender minority group in the coastal city of Mombasa. In Kenya, where the LGBTQ community is a frequent target of conservative religious leaders, who preach discrimination and sometimes even violence against them, PEMA Kenya takes an unusual approach: it works to “convert” faith leaders to the gay rights cause by introducing them to LGBTQ people, face to face, to build empathy, compassion, and understanding.

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