Editor’s note: In a 2004 article in The Times of London, Archbishop Tutu condemned persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, comparing it to apartheid. “We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about — our very skins,” he wrote. “It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once again set a stellar example for religious leaders and faith communities with his outspoken and unrelenting stand for justice and human dignity.
Hundreds of enthusiastic admirers gathered on April 8, 2008 in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as the archbishop received that year’s OUTSPOKEN Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). He received the award with the same humor, humility and grace that have marked his long and remarkable career as Archbishop of Cape Town in the midst of apartheid, the 1984 recipient of the Nobel Peace Price and chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His remarks, though brief, were poignant, perhaps especially for those in attendance who so rarely hear such a prominent religious leader speak clearly and passionately on behalf of LGBT people. He began by thanking us, and by extension LGBT people everywhere, for our courageous witness to human dignity in the face of both religious and civic oppression. This witness, he said, makes a profound difference to so many, and he cited just two examples of the lives of openly gay clergy with whom he has closely worked over the years in Cape Town.
Even more moving, Archbishop Tutu also asked for our forgiveness on behalf of the church, which has so often made us, he said, a “lesser part” of God’s creation. He compared this sin to the long tradition of excluding women from ordained ministry. We now see, he said, how such exclusion “impoverished” the church and its work for far too long.
This pairing of gratitude and repentance set the tone for the evening’s celebration as Tutu deflected the attention away from himself and toward the ongoing struggles for human rights and dignity throughout the world. He likened himself to the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who could no more stop speaking truth to power than he could stop breathing. Like Jeremiah, he said, God’s word of justice has always “burned within my breast,” from the scourge of racism to the exclusion of women and the persecution of LGBT people.
The archbishop concluded his remarks by referring to his own Anglican Communion and noting how “sad” and how “tragic” it is to see his church distracted by human sexuality at a time when a world marked by poverty and war demands our full attention. Reminding us that the Olympic torch would arrive in San Francisco the very next day, he deftly connected our struggle for justice and dignity to the work of freedom in Tibet.
As an Episcopal priest, I took great pride in this moment of honoring one of my own faith leaders. Even more, the Archbishop’s humble courage made me long for that day when such courage and leadership no longer seems rare or worthy of an elaborate award ceremony. The work of justice and witnessing to the full dignity of every human being belongs to all of us. As Archbishop Tutu’s life and ministry so clearly shows, that work is what religion and faith are all about.
“There is really only one name in the world that immediately conjures up moral leadership in pursuit of dignity for all people on earth, and that is Desmond Tutu,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s Executive Director. “Archbishop Tutu’s vision of a world in which human rights are respected has always explicitly included LGBT people, despite the fierce opposition he has faced from his peers and colleagues. He has challenged political apartheid in South Africa and continues to challenge spiritual apartheid within his religious community.”
“Archbishop Tutu’s decision to address our community while in the United States signals the rise in status that LGBT communities around the world are achieving. This is a historic opportunity for LGBT people in the U.S. to connect with a leader who plays a monumental role in world events,” said Ettelbrick. “And, our community can play a key role in pushing our U.S. leaders to take more responsible and ethical positions when it comes to human rights violations within our own country and around the world.”
The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Religious Leadership Roundtable, is an Episcopal priest and the programming and development director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.