In this RGOD2 column, which first appeared in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle discusses:
- The challenges of learning the French language,
- The murder of French-speaking journalist / activist Eric Lembembe a year ago, and
- Strategies for defending the human rights of French-speaking LGBT people in Africa, including this blog’s new French-language counterpart, 76 Crimes en français (currently in beta).
French was my least favorite subject in school. From ages 11 to 16, as an English speaker, I struggled to master another world and culture. I also stammered. It was challenging enough to speak coherent English. In the 1970s, French was taught with experimental audio tapes and slide shows as well as students reading aloud in the classroom — my greatest dread!
It was painful enough to read aloud in my own language, never mind in another’s. I dreaded and hated those times in the week when I had to attend French class. Miss McGuggan was possibly the worst teacher God could have sent to us. Why do educational authorities allow people who clearly are uncomfortable around children, to enter the teaching profession? She disliked children, except for her few favorites who went on skiing holidays from Belfast to the French Alps. Alain was her favorite, and Albert (Albear) was her cross.
McGuggan would often begin her 35-minute class by opening all the windows in her classroom and telling us how badly we smelled! This was not about creating a respectful learning environment — it was control by humiliation and it damaged one’s soul. She was a piece of work! Of all my teachers, she was the ultimate challenge. I wonder, if she has seen into the future herself, if she might have been a little more understanding and graceful, seeing how some of her most challenging students had actually applied to the real world, what she was teaching to them. Yet, being in her presence was traumatic enough that I failed “O Level” French at 16 years old.
In the British educational system back then, not to pass a foreign language at a rudimentary stage, would impede my ability to go to university and make something of my life. If I could go to university, I would be the first in my family to be able to do so. McGuggan was my Bête noir and learning French became a kind of spiritual stretch, upon which my future and that of others would depend. I did not want or know this back then.
So, simply passing the O Level French examination became a life-changing and huge challenge for 16-year-old Albert. If I could not demonstrate proficiency in another language, it would be difficult to be considered for a university. My solution was to immerse myself in French culture, so a friend from Grosvenor High School and I took off for a two-month adventure in Troyes, near Paris. Ian found a job in a fruit and wine shop while I ended up in a chain factory. Ian’s boss was a very large and happy French chef called Yves and he was also as gay as a goose! We were too young to know, but I knew.
While Ian was surrounded by the best cooking in the region, I cut metal chains all day. We spent evenings in a French Ecumenical community called Copainville (Friends Town). I met my first Muslim there. We celebrated the Eucharist (Holy Communion) around a table and I met my first worker-priest (another Yves) who made his living working in Paris by the week and returned weekends to his spiritually vibrant youth community. They sent missionaries of peace and reconciliation “two by two” to all the trouble spots of the world…..even to Northern Ireland.
My first real introduction to the reforms within Catholicism through Vatican II was at Copainville and it was KEWL! I met two of the Copainville missionaries in my local community that was being torn asunder by sectarian violence. I needed to improve my French and get to university, and they introduced me to this other amazing world. I would never have ended up in France if I had not failed O Level French. What often begins in our greatest weakness and issue or subject we dread can often become our strength and the door to another world. By the end of the summer, Ian and I had an amazing multicultural and ecumenical experience and we returned a week late to school, suntanned. I also passed O Level French, to my own amazement. We all grew up that summer abroad, but I still did not realize how formative this would be.
Finding one’s strength through weakness
My greatest weakness (learning a different language and culture) was to become my greatest blessing, and it took many years for me to come to this conclusion. As an Irishman, I found myself returning to France many times over my lifetime, and even my closest cousin ended up living in Paris working for Louis Vuitton! So I discovered a more personal reason why I had to suffer French teacher Miss McGuggan and she had to suffer kids like me.
In my lifetime, we witnessed the creation of the European Union, and the Irish and the French discovered we had more in common than we had been taught in school. So for years, visiting France and practicing French became a big part of my life. I love France, I have visited many areas, from Jewish cycling tours of Provence to the battlefields and Peace Museums of Normandy. I visited the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and one year, ended up as an Expert Consultant to application to UNESCO for World Heritage Status . . . something my 16-year-old imagination and my weird French teacher would never have imagined! Yet, I was not to fully realize what this was all about, until recently.
The lost Francophone LGBT community
Monday marks the first anniversary of the tragic assassination of Eric Lembembe of the Cameroon AIDS Project. He was one of the leading French speakers in the international LGBT movement, and fate brought us together in 2012 when he was selected by the St. Paul’s Foundation Advisory Committee to represent Cameroon at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC.
The U.S. Embassy in Cameroon did not grant him a visa and so he was not able to attend. Instead, he and my good friend Colin Stewart collaborated on 34 articles and as a fellow journalist, exposed a lot of corruption and injustice in his country. His professional expertise also cost him his life. Journalists remain one of the most dangerous professions on the planet.
The Cameroonian government’s response has been underwhelming. Eric’s murder has gone unsolved and there is no political will in Cameroon or in Africa to spend much more time and resources on solving this mystery. The former Catholic Archbishop was also allowed to accuse the gay community of crimes against humanity in his 2013 Christmas sermon without any recourse from the Vatican. Despite our written formal complaints lodged with the Pontifical Council on the Family at the Vatican and the Papal Nuncio in Cameroon, there has been no response, no comment on Eric’s death or the Church’s complicity in the propaganda against the community he served in the name of Christ.
Eric was a practicing Catholic and his assassination is as important as any El Salvadorian Archbishop or missionary nun. This kind of sacrifice never leaves the collective memory of the faithful, even if the victim is gay. The Vatican and Cameroonian government are silent partners in a cover-up that will one day, be made known. In the meantime, as a religious leader, my advice to all who love and respect Eric is for us to try to love the questions. There are no answers, even a year later.
Another difficult learning curve
Over the past year, Colin, another journalist friend Andy Kopsa, and others have all been drawn into this international tragedy and we have learned so much as a result of Eric’s work and ultimate sacrifice. We were asked by CAMFAIDS to raise money for his funeral. I was amazed that organizations that are part of the human-rights network around the world did not respond to our appeal.
The door opened into a world I knew little about — Francophone Africa and an even smaller world –French-speaking LGBT Africans. With other partners, we raised money for a delegation from Cameroon to come to the African Union’s Commission on People’s and Human Rights to hold the Cameroonian Government accountable for its negligence on investigating Eric’s murder. Later on, the Cameroonian community invited us to join the dots at an International Conference on Sexual Rights between LGBT oppression and the subjugation of women by religious conservatives.
Translation issues remain a severe impediment for French-speaking activists and organizations to be totally up to speed on issues that may affect HIV policies and strategies.
I have learned so much this past year, as a result of this encounter with LGBT martyrdom. I was very close to the Ugandan assassination story of David Kato and was one of the first westerners to report via SDGLN on the events surrounding his funeral, yet Eric’s assassination has never reached the international outcry when David was killed. We might take this moment to ask why this is so?
What About Francophone Africa?
We are committed to ensuring Francophone Africa has as much exposure and resources for LGBT and health issues, as say East African organizations do. We welcome partnerships with organizations like REDHAC (defending human-rights defenders in nine Central African countries) and CAMFAIDS, now embarked on a vital prison ministry to LGBT people incarcerated by Cameroon’s abusive criminal justice system. We are working with activists on the ground and listening to unmet needs. We are discussing a new initiative with Qualcomm, one of San Diego’s major companies, about creating a web-based resource center named after Eric, to partner with organizations in this region to help the Francophone community get on with their very difficult work. I never thought French would be this important to my work and values, until now.
So if you are finding yourself in school or at work struggling with a subject or person or issue you totally hate, please be very careful about writing off what this might mean for your future life and work. This is certainly true in my experience. I thought French was largely irrelevant to my life and values, but at 16 or even 21, I had no idea how important another language would be. I never thought I would be an important bridge between the emerging movement for justice and access to healthcare and poverty reduction and the global Francophone community.
Two months ago, our blog, Erasing 76 Crimes, without grants or funding, decided to go bi-lingual French . . . thanks to Denis LeBlanc of Ottawa, Canada and Colin Stewart’s ongoing commitment to the Francophone neglected community. There are many organizations out there with more resources than ours, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, this has not been a priority. On the anniversary of Eric’s death, we can quietly contemplate, why? We might also ask how we can take the next step? If everyone did that, how might your organization and materials be available in another language like French? How might the most neglected and vulnerable Africans who speak a different language from ours, catch up on say, HIV information? How might some of the larger and more resourceful organizations with connections to the Francophone community do more?
Integrating the totality of our life journey
I hated having to learn French as a student in school and if I had an opportunity to hug that 16-year-old kid who was courageously struggling to be a better human being, what might I say to him from my perspective and experience today as a 60-year-old man? We have no idea how our strengths and even our weaknesses are built into the great economy of God. It may take a lifetime to figure it out, but I know that Miss McGuggan and I were destined to a lifetime of learning to love what we hated or feared most. You never know when something you hate or fear, might come in useful. So watch who and what you fear. You may simply be preparing for a future you cannot even imagine. This global struggle for LGBT equality and dignity demands we all step outside of our comfort zones and see life as an ongoing learning process.
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RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.