You Gotta Have Faith: Bruce Knotts stands up for gays at the UN
Unitarian Delegate to the United Nations Bruce Knotts on patience, persistence, and religious responses to the global homophobia epidemic. His Compass for Compassion coalition of faith leaders and diplomats are trying to fight the homophobic fire with a fire for justice at the international level.
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As the head delegate for the Unitarian Church at the United Nations, Bruce Knotts is the bearer of a socially radical message that has made a reputation for Unitarians as ultra-liberal and seriously pro-gay.
Unitarian Universalism is a minority religion, stemming from Protestantism, but which embraces all compassionate theologies, primarily from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions. They still call themselves an assocuation, and colloquially a “church”, but their practitioners don’t have to ascribe to any single view of god or the afterlife, and they have been known for their intense activism for women’s suffrage (and even had stealth members on the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948). Bruce Knotts and his “Compass for Compassion” coalition work with religious groups and diplomats to exert pressure on heavily homophobic nations – such as the 40 Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is still criminalized – to alleviate the plight of our LGBT brethren abroad.
Bruce visited from New York City with his fabulous husband Isaac in November of 2011 to speak at a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Montréal on the topic of faith and social justice. We were all too happy to sit down with this forthright defender of LGBT rights, because, like all innate activists, one of Bruce’s many great traits is that when it comes to gay rights, he just won’t shut up!
Unlike the irksome Catholic Church, which he calls “the largest single employer of LGBT people in the world,” the Unitarians do not have a seat in the General Assembly or an embassy, but are rather faith community delegates. With entrée into the Byzantine world of UN diplomacy and religious delegations, Knotts regularly confers with a special élite whose goal is to represent their trans-national communities’ beliefs, while his is to keep LGBT people alive in countries where we are being threatened.
“In the spring of 2009, we got a call from Human Rights Watch (HRW) about the situation in Uganda. What’s happening in Uganda is largely provoked by Christian ministers there and in America, along with some Islamic folks as well. HRW was working to combat homophobia in Uganda and elsewhere, but because this was a faith-based provocation, we needed a faith-based response.” HRW asked if the Unitarians would be willing to lead such a response, and they formed a coalition called the Compass for Compassion with dozens of other gay-friendly churches, like Lutherans, Anglicans, and the très gay United Church. His coalition for faith-based responses to state and societal homophobia has been able to bring together over 60 faith-based groups to form a response to homophobic discrimination worldwide.
It’s kind of like a Gay Straight Alliance, but on a massive international scale, and with clerics and theologians from nearly 100 different faiths.
“Some of these people are from the LGBT ‘branch’ of a given religion, such as Lutherans Concerned, and a very active LGBT Mormon group,” Knotts explains, to my disbelief. “Salt Lake City is a very gay-friendly place!” he says with a wink.
Knotts describes the much-maligned Utah-based Church of Mormon as a prime example of an institutionally homophobic faith which has “gay people like everybody else” in spite of a hierarchy that may be quite vociferous against gay and lesbian rights, particularly same-sex marriage. “Every church has basically a gay cadre, and we’ve been tapping into these cadres to lobby for a faith-based response: you can believe in whatever you want to believe, but it doesn’t have to include hating gay people, or doing violence to gay people, or having these laws which imprison and execute gay people.”
Faith and Genocide
But this coalition isn’t just about quoting scripture and politely asking Evangelicals and other fundamentalists to stop the hating. He and his coalition members are using all the channels available to them as UN delegates to play hard-ball, and that includes appealing to international law. “The way I define genocide, when you take certain characteristics like someone’s colour or religion or sexual orientation, and you decide to eliminate an entire group of people on one of those bases, to me that’s genocide. And that’s exactly what the Ugandan law threatened to do.” In the bill proposed in Uganda in 2010 and 2011, the crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ includes having sex with someone of the same gender more than once, or for HIV positive people, having sex at all. The bill made international headlines for its capital punishment provisions and harsh prison terms for “abetting” homosexuality.
Faced with the threat of massive arrests and executions, the coalition of faith-based groups sought the advice of a human rights lawyer to draft a brief that demonstrated how the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill would qualify as genocidal under the Rome Declaration, which would potentially compel the international community to intervene and prevent its implementation. “If you have a class of people and you want to eliminate them, that’s genocide,” he affirms, adding that the argument has yet to be brought to the General Assembly since luckily, the Ugandan bill never passed. In the wake of certain frightening laws passed recently in Russia, Nigeria, and Hungary, the argument is one the coalition would seem to be keeping in its proverbial back pocket.
When the UN General Assembly passed its annual resolution against summary executions and left out explicit protections for sexual orientation in Dec. 2010, the coalition was swift to react. “It was primarily Islamic and Eastern European countries that got together and removed the mention of sexual orientation from the list of forbidden reasons to execute people without trial,” Knotts explained, giving the back-story to how 23 countries wound up changing their vote by the end of that year. His coalition and its hundreds of supporters, who happened to be in NYC for a conference at the time, convinced US Ambassador Susan Rice to propose reinstating the mention, and with the support of South Africa, were finally successful in amending the resolution. The diplomatic flub and rare amendment (no thanks to Canada) were an intriguing example of how non-voting religious delegations can work within the UN behemoth to further human rights. What’s his strategy?
“Patience and persistence and coalitions. When I first got to the UN at the beginning of 2008, I was on a planning committee for a human rights conference in Paris and people were talking about every possible group of people, except LGBT people. I submitted a proposal for a workshop at the conference, but little did I know that my workshop had to be approved by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, UNESCO, and the Government of France! What was very exciting to me was that at that conference, the French Vice Foreign Minister Rama Yade stood up and proposed a draft resolution to end the criminalization of homosexuality worldwide.” The resolution that came out of that conference was approved by 66 countries and wound up condemning both discrimination and criminalization, in spite of some reservations from southern Mediterranean countries,” and again, no help from Harperian Canada. Right now, Bruce Knotts and his coalition are continuing to work with both Christian and Muslim delegates and faith leaders to get them to at least help curb the epidemic of state and religious sanctioned homophobic violence.
“I am unwilling to cede the entire world of faith communities as homophobes; a lot of us gay folks took a long time to come out ourselves, so it could take a long time to convince hard-liners,” he admits.
While it may not be possible to convince an orthodox Catholic or Muslim to get on board with same-sex marriage, Knotts is sticking to the tenets of basic human rights: the right to a fair trial, the right to safety, the right to a home and education are where he is hoping to gain the most agreement. Education is key.
“When we asked Ugandan LGBT people what they needed most, their answer was LITERACY,” says the gentle man whose words can pack a preacher’s punch. There is a huge illiteracy problem in Uganda and many parts of central Africa because “when a youth is found to be gay, they are kicked out of school, even as TEENAGERS!” Bruce Knotts won’t be letting up the struggle for gay rights any time soon. In spite of the tremendous risks involved, the Compass for Compassion coalition is planning a conference in Kampala, Uganda for September of 2012, with the goal of presenting a more “compassionate, tolerant Christianity,” in a place where faith is too often used as a weapon.
We will be there is spirit, brother Knotts.