By Kim Harrisberg
JOHANNESBURG, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It's hard to pull up a chair and talk sex or fly imams over closed borders for gender training in a pandemic.
But Imam Muhsin Hendricks wasn't about to let COVID-19 destroy his carefully crafted Islamic training programme - he'd faced down too much else in his 53 years.
One of the first imams to come out as gay, Hendricks is a pioneer, known continent-wide for pursuing dialogue with fellow Muslim leaders about a topic many don't want to discuss.
Same-sex relations remain a taboo across much of Africa and in much of the Muslim world.
Seeking to smash those taboos, pre-pandemic Hendricks held workshops, hosted talking circles for select imams and comforted Muslims anguished by their sexuality or gender identity.
Once the virus struck, he refashioned his programme for the times: virtual workshops for those who could not travel, and safe, socially distant meet-ups for those who could.
"It is such a challenge to give hope when people are experiencing loneliness, financial loss and low self-esteem in the time of COVID," said Hendricks from his mosque in Cape Town.
"But we had to pull it off," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, given the influence these religious leaders could have in their thousands-strong congregations.
Across Africa, 32 nations out of 54 criminalise same-sex relations, according to the 2020 State-Sponsored Homophobia report released by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World).
The continent has some of the world's most prohibitive laws against homosexuality, with punishments ranging from life imprisonment to death.
South Africa is the only country on the continent to allow same-sex marriage and its 1996 constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Hendricks started his own mosque in 2011 - called Masjidul Ghurbaah, meaning ‘The Mosque of the Strangers’ in Arabic, also called Our Spiritual Safe Space by attendees - so gay Muslims had a place to pray, free from discrimination.
"We needed an inclusive space, where everybody felt welcome," said Hendricks, who ran a meet-up from his garage when he first came out.
This week, Hendricks was one of nearly 400 faith leaders to sign a declaration, organised by the Ozanne Foundation charity, calling for countries to overturn bans on same-sex relations and end LGBT+ conversion therapy.
Hendricks believes progress has been made since he first came out as gay in 1998.
"I was fearful for my life at the time...but the need to be authentic was greater than the fear to lose my life," he said.
For the last six years, imams from across the continent - including Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Ghana - have attended his workshops. He keeps them intimate, with about six leaders selected for a month of training each year.
Calls for application are shared through the LGBT+ and human rights networks Hendricks has fostered across the continent. The travel and training costs are sponsored by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an organisation affiliated with the German Green Party.
"Imams know imams, and we ask those who completed training to recommend others," said Hendricks, adding that most imams he has trained are heterosexual men wanting to continue their religious and personal learning.
"It involves a re-examining of what it means to be Muslim...I focus on compassion, values, faith more than the rituals and sects that divide us," Hendricks said.
"A lot of unlearning needs to be done (but) it is amazing what the imams come up with. They bring in research and context and match it with the religious text, and there are these "aha!" moments."
When a nationwide lockdown was announced in March, Hendricks rushed to get online, buying laptops, webcams and becoming tech-savvy enough to run a month-long course digitally.
"It opened our eyes," said Hendricks, who said some imams live in rural outposts, lacked internet or the money for data.
In November, four imams, from Zambia, Liberia and Zimbabwe, flew in once borders re-opened, while fellow religious leaders from Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana signed in online.
"We printed colourful posters to remind people to sanitise and bought a thermometer to check temperatures," said Hendricks.
Old-world training had happened in a close-knit circle so people felt comfortable enough to share stories.
"Now we had to have 1.5 metres between chairs. "You do lose a sense of togetherness, but we managed to pull it off."
This weekend, the attendees graduate from their month-long course, as South Africa fights a second wave of infections with some 10,000 new cases a day, according to government figures.
The ceremony will be smaller than hoped due to coronavirus restrictions - the master of ceremonies has even called in sick.
Now, Hendricks is thinking about post-workshop support, urging his group to log onto his website, Compassion Centre Imam (CCI), so they feel less alone.
"But if imams don't even have a laptop then what are we going to? I also worry about their safety," he said.
Yet Hendricks remains full of hope. If the pandemic has taught him anything, he said, it is that talking conquers all.
"Lets be safe, wash hands, wear masks, but let's not stop engaging. If we continue to do what we need to do, we will make it."
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.