Shekeshe Mokgosi from the other foundfation Picture:Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Johannesburg - At their wits' end, gays and lesbians are knocking on the door of religion to find acceptance - they believe there is no better port of call than the church to help end homophobia.

Next month, the Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg is to host a meeting of minds between faith-based organisations and The Other Foundation.

The Other Foundation is described as “an African trust dedicated to advancing human rights in southern Africa, with a particular focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people”. It has been in operation since mid-2014.

Its public engagement manager, Shekeshe Mokgosi, says the foundation has a footprint in 13 SADC countries, from which delegates to the meeting will come.

With religious leaders gathered together in one room, it will be an opportune time to ask whether there's homophobia in the church, Mokgosi says.

He adds that people quote the Bible and the Qur'an to propagate their homophobic views, but his foundation hopes “to use church leaders to chart the way forward”.

There's hope on the horizon for the LGBTI movement on the continent, which is largely homophobic.

According to advocate Pansy Tlakula, head of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, about 75 percent of the countries in Africa are intolerant towards people of a minority sexual orientation.

There is good news, according to The Other Foundation, such as the once-conservative Dutch Reformed Church relaxing its stance on gay unions among its congregants and the progressive views of such eminent church leaders as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba.

South Africa is a convenient launchpad for changing African stereotypes as it was among the first four countries in the world to allow gay marriages.

People in the church are beginning to talk, says Mokgosi, and this dialogue augurs well for gays and lesbians.

The Other Foundation believes everyone should have the right to lead a dignified life, and everyone deserves a family and the chance to contribute meaningfully to society, Mokgosi says.

He hastens to add, “I'm mentioning no race (and) no sexual orientation” because gay rights are basic human rights.

“They are not special rights.”

Gay rights should be approached with the same open mind as tackling xenophobia - not as a special right.

Bankrolled to the tune of R33 million on its establishment in August 2013, the foundation is also able to raise funds in South Africa - dispelling the notion that it is a front for foreign Western agenda. It assists individuals and organisations big and small.

Those who have benefited include the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, for example, which Mokgosi says works tirelessly “to deal with homophobia in rural areas”.

It also funds the work of the Ujamaa Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the School of Theology at the University of Zimbabwe.

“The laws are not favourable there, but we fund organisations like (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe),” says Mokgosi.

President Robert Mugabe's pernicious views on homosexual relationships have been well documented.

In the south, Zimbabwe has become as intolerant of homosexuality as Uganda is in the east.

“We're LGBTI, but the issues we raise could be poverty and HIV,” says Mokgosi, adding that the foundation wants to do much of the spadework itself on the continent.

It has found that working with church groups and the family unit - not just the conventional one man-one woman family - has been beneficial to its cause.

While the laws in South Africa have changed, attitudes will take a bit of time to follow.

Churches are a great help when people come out. Since religious leaders are highly influential, they can make churches inclusive.

Once a church does this, it becomes easier for individuals to work around their issues of sexuality, Mokgosi says.

The foundation hopes that working with churches can help achieve the bigger picture, that of religious doctrines developing a different outlook on same-sex relationships and speeding up the advocacy agenda.

Mokgosi says when there's enough information and research, individuals and allies like churches start to look at gay rights as a human rights issue.

Sunday Independent