In Uganda, where most queers are too afraid to come out of the closet, straight allies are essential to the gay rights movement — but none are as cute, charming or controversial as 78-year-old Anglican Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo.
Just call him Christopher, though. Everyone else does.
The Desmond Tutu lookalike works on the outskirts of Kampala, in a tiny storefront across from a row of shanties. By necessity, Christopher never toils past dark. His office, with a dusty desk and used couch, has no light.
By day, though, this is where the retired bishop persists in doing what first got him into trouble almost 10 years ago — counselling queers.
“The attitude of my church is that I should condemn them,” he says. “But I refuse.”
Bishop Christopher established his one-man counselling service in 1998 and soon after, got his first gay client.
“I listened to him,” says Christopher, who never stops smiling. “That was strange for the man. Most people just told homosexuals they should change.”
One gay client led to another, until all hell broke loose. In 2001, Uganda’s two dozen other bishops — including the Archbishop — found out that Christopher was comforting homosexuals.
While Christopher was on a trip overseas, he was thrown out of the bishop’s circle, kicked out of his parish and denied his pension.
“I lost a lot of privileges,” he says. He was also pilloried in the press. “I stayed in the US for six months, for fear to come back.”
When he did, strangers called him names and his Anglican colleagues shunned him — even the ones who told him they secretly agreed with his views.
Still, Christopher has no regrets. “God wants me to help oppressed peoples,” he insists. “Homosexuals should enjoy all the rights and benefits that heterosexuals enjoy.”
For Christopher, that includes marriage — a particularly blasphemous point of view in conservative Uganda.
“Sex is not just about making children,” he says.
In the fight against Uganda’s draconian anti-gay bill, Christopher is a key leader. He speaks out forcefully and articulately at human rights conferences and press conferences, urging people to open their minds and educate themselves about the complexity of human sexuality.
Gay and lesbian Ugandans — most of whom are also devout Christians — consider Christopher a hero for preaching that God loves them, too.
But Christopher continues to pay a price for his advocacy. His credentials are constantly mocked by those who claim he can no longer call himself a bishop. (“A bishop is a bishop until death,” he responds.) His counselling practice has taken a huge financial hit. Whereas he used to see up to 10 clients a day — for $2.50 a session — he now sees only two or three.
“My counselling has suffered a setback because of fear,” he says, pointing to the hand-painted sign out front. “Even my signpost doesn’t say the word ‘gay’.”
Christopher’s constant smile suggests that if he’s ever discouraged, it never lasts long. “The truth is the truth,” he says. “It will take time for people to understand. It might not be in my time, but it will come.”
In the meantime, Christopher keeps spreading his religious views — views that could turn even the most cynical atheist into a believer.
“God is sometimes portrayed as someone who hates and kills,” he says. “I’ve reached another stage of what God is. God is love.”