For queer Christians, the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs” carries a tragic double meaning. In Catholic hagiography, it refers to the execution / martyrdom in 1886 of a band of young men, pages in the Royal court of the Bugandan King Mwanga II, who had converted to Christianity and thereafter resisted his sexual advances. June 6th, is the anniversary of their joint beatification by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Their feast day, known as the Feast of Charles Lwanga and companions, is celebrated annually on June 3rd.
From a modern LGBT point of view, there is a quite different significance, almost it’s polar opposite. This perspective recalls that in the cultural context of the time, King Mwanga’s expectation of sexual service from his pages did not make him a perverted monster, as seen by the missionaries. Before the arrival of European colonials, different forms of homosexual practice and non-conformist gender expression were commonplace across Africa. Seen in this light, the execution of the pages was a legal penalty for resisting customary law – and the introduction by foreign missionaries of what has since become deeply entrenched cultural homophobia.
In recent years, the flames of homophobia have been further fanned by missionaries, this time especially by American evangelicals, who have promoted draconian legislation to criminalize homosexuality, carrying harsh penalties for those convicted of transgressions. Along with the legal penalties, the popular mood in Uganda has become so hostile, that life for ordinary gay and lesbian people in the country has become exceedingly difficult. Even to be suspected of being gay, frequently frequently leads not only to simple social ostracism, but also to outright exclusion from homes and families, to discrimination in employment and social services, to police harassment, to violence, and even to murder, such as that of David Kato. For many LGBT people, the only viable response is to leave the country entirely as refugees seeking asylum abroad.
So, the double meaning of the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs”: from the traditional Catholic perspective, the martyrs are those who were executed in 1886 for sticking by their Christian faith, in the face of Royal commands to renounce it. For modern gays and lesbians, the words refer to all those who are persecuted or even murdered, often in the name of the Christian religion, for their sexuality.
For a more extended analysis and reflection on the martyrs, and what this commemoration means for queer people of faith, see Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, who introduced her post on the feast day, by observing (accurately) that
Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is today (June 3).