This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
JUBA, South Sudan -- Mrs. Kiden, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, works as an usher at an Episcopal Church in Gudele, a Juba suburb. She has attended the church since 2010 when she returned from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in neighboring Kenya after fleeing Juba in 1994 during the second Sudanese civil war.
Kiden identifies as a transgender woman. In socially conservative South Sudan, she and other LGBT people face discrimination and abuse, their non-traditional sexualities and genders often considered taboo.
“Transgender people in South Sudan suffer daily ridicule from the public,’’ Kiden said. ‘’They ask me why I 'chose' to be a woman when my posture is 'masculine.' Sometimes, they address me locally as ‘acal tik,’ meaning ‘woman in man’,’’ she said.
Kiden had always found comfort at her church until last July when a visiting pastor pronounced it was “against God to cross from one gender to another.”
Pastor Manasseh Maring of Christ Ministries South Sudan had just returned from a trip to London where he had attended an Anglican Church discussion hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Despite Welby’s 2016 public apology to LGBT people for "hurt and pain" caused by the Anglican Church, Maring told Kiden's congregation LGBT people were "spreading a new form of colonization" in Africa.
“It’s against God, those crossing from one gender to another. We told Welby that we are not going to sin against God by blessing same-sex relationships in our churches,’’ Maring said.
More than 60 percent of South Sudanese society identifies as Christian, with another third practicing African traditional religion and about six percent following Islam, according to recent estimates from Pew Research Center.
Religious leaders in the country are highly revered, and many wield their moral authority and influence to suppress discussion of queer issues. Daniel Deng Bul, a prominent South Sudanese Episcopal Church bishop, told a Juba congregation in 2017 that marriage should be strictly between men and women. When the topic of same-sex relationships attracted public discussion two years prior, many Christian leaders denounced it as a “perversion.”
Discrimination and persecution also happen at the government level. South Sudan’s penal code punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “unnatural offences,” with up to ten years in prison and a fine.
South Sudanese authorities regularly use homophobic religious interpretations to prosecute LGBT people. Queer issues are often portrayed as foreign, and people who identify as such are considered aliens brought into the country by globalization.
Salva Kiir Mayardit, now President of South Sudan, said in 2010 that recognition of homosexuality is “not in our character… It is not even something that anybody can talk about here, in southern Sudan in particular. It is not there, and if anybody wants to import or to export it to Sudan, it will not get the support, and it will always be condemned by everybody.”
Condemnation is widespread but not universal.
Atom Anyang, a South Sudanese traditional healer living outside Juba, said she provides counseling and guidance to trans people who suffer bullying and stigmatization.
“Transgender people are there in our communities, in our families – some have brought us into the world as mothers or fathers. Parents have come to me from far-flung areas with transgender children and adults looking for healing, and I always advise them to love, accept, and protect them,’’ Anyang said.
Despite Pastor Maring’s painful visit, Kiden said she and her own pastor have become great friends and have worked together to include her at the church's decision-making level, a position that could allow her to interact with national policymakers in the future.
Asked if her plight might serve as a stepping stone for South Sudan’s broader transgender community, Kiden smiled.
“I’m always committed to serving people in our church. If that is the role people give me, whether in our church or outside, I would be very much ready to serve,’’ she said.
Chol Duang Chan is a South Sudanese TV and radio journalist currently based in Juba.