Today marks Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s last official day as someone publicly engaged in human rights work. The good bishop, who has been pushing for equality among races, genders and sexual orientations for decades, is set to retire today, capping off a legendary career that has made him a worldwide icon for peace and justice.
Though Archbishop Desmond Tutu may be most closely associated with ending apartheid and championing racial justice and reconciliation in South Africa, the Archbishop has become a leading supporter of full LGBT equality in recent years. Commenting on his Tutu’s retirement, even U.S. President Barack Obama noted the work that the Archbishop has done to benefit LGBT rights worldwide.
“He has … been an outspoken voice for freedom and justice in countries across the globe; a staunch defender of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons; and an advocate for treatment and prevention programs to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS,” President Obama said in an official statement. “We will miss his insight and his activism, but will continue to learn from his example.”
Here’s hoping. We need a lot more people learning from the example of Desmond Tutu than, say, the example of Mormon leader Boyd Packer, who blasted gays and lesbians in a recent sermon, calling LGBT people “impure and unnatural.” Thoughts like that would never even cross the mind of someone like Desmond Tutu. Which is why the world is celebrating his spirit today.
In that regard, here are five quotes from Desmond Tutu that speak volumes about his commitment to LGBT equality. Eloquent? Indeed they are. Inspiring? Absolutely.
1. “I am deeply, deeply distressed that in the face of the most horrendous problems — we’ve got poverty, we’ve got conflict and war, we’ve got HIV/AIDS — and what do we concentrate on? We concentrate on what you are doing in bed.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave this quote at a conference in Kenya in 2008. The reason it’s so good? Because all too often, religious leaders (hello, Minnesota Catholic Bishops) focus on who people choose to love, rather than critical social problems like poverty, health, or war.
2. “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. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote this in 2007, in the wake of the launch of a book by Amnesty International UK, “Sex, Love and Homophobia.” The point? That people are born who they are, and to discriminate against them on the basis of a natural characteristic is both flawed and immoral.
3. “When will we learn that human beings are of infinite value because they have been created in the image of God, and that it is a blasphemy to treat them as if they were less than this and to do so ultimately recoils on those who do this? In dehumanizing others, they are themselves dehumanized. Perhaps oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human.” - This was part of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize address in 1984, when he was honored for his work to end apartheid. Doesn’t tie specifically in to LGBT rights, of course, but the theme there is pretty clear: those who would oppress others violate one of the central tenets of humanity.
4. “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu said this nugget in an interview with the BBC in 2007. At the time, it was direct and very blunt criticism at the Anglican Church for its seemingly endless focus on questions of sexuality, instead of actual social problems in the world. Pretty powerful stuff to have someone like an Archbishop say that he’d abandon his own religion if he ever believed God was homophobic.
5. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote this in March 2010, addressing directly efforts in Uganda (and other parts of Africa) to criminalize homosexuality with harsh penalties, including even the death penalty. It was both a call to remember that we’re all a part of the same human existence, but also a call that homosexuality is indeed part and parcel of Africa’s identity.
Archbishop Tutu: you are seriously going to be missed. Enjoy your retirement. You’ve more than earned it.