STONE TOWN, Tanzania — When a story circulated in August 2017 of male lions attempting to copulate with each other in Kenya’s Masai Mara national park, headlines and Twitter feeds went wild with speculation, ridicule and accusation. Despite Kenya being one of the more progressive countries in East Africa regarding LGBTQ awareness and rights, the nation still prohibits homosexuality and legally sanctions anal probes to investigate homosexuality cases.
A government official lashed out against the lions’ behavior, claiming they were “demonic” and should be separated and studied for their “bizarre” behavior.
While these remarks read like satire and were ridiculed by a certain social media front, his reaction tapped into East Africa’s deeply rooted homophobia and once again called LGBTQ rights into question. The region’s antigay laws have targeted men more than women, who are exempted in some cases from antigay laws. Yet recent spikes in state-sanctioned anti-homosexuality rhetoric and policies have targeted men and women with increased contempt.
Activists for such rights abound throughout the East African region. A Nairobi artist, Kawira Mwirichia, has focused her work in the last few years on condemning homophobia through art, aiming to humanize and visualize the lives and stories of queer activists not just in Kenya but in East Africa and around the world.
Nevertheless, from 2010 to 2014, Kenya prosecuted 595 people for their sexuality, and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights nongovernmental organization, based in Nairobi, the capital, has been working to reverse strict laws prohibiting gay relationships. Some urban areas in Kenya may be progressive on LGBTQ rights, but they remain at odds with government norms and approaches to the matter.
Indeed, while Mwirichia had the support of AFRA Kenya (Artists for Recognition and Acceptance) among many others, the climate in Kenya around LGBTQ rights remains as tenuous in some parts as its East African neighbors.
Uganda’s LGBTQ community, for example, has long fought against American-backed evangelical forces stoking a steady rise in homophobia. To the outrage of many Ugandan activists, President Yoweri Moseveni signed an anti-homosexuality bill in 2013 seeking the death penalty or life in prison for gay people, asserting that homosexuality is an immoral choice, not a biological imperative.
For the first time, this bill included lesbians, who were previously exempted from antigay laws in Uganda. When the bill was annulled in 2014 on technical grounds after a Ugandan journalist actively petitioned the bill alongside LGBTQ rights activists, it sparked a deluge of illegal arrests, abuse, mob violence, home fires and torture of detainees as well as a spike in homophobic hate speech in the media.
Many Anglican churches opposed the bill and spoke against it, but evangelicals, such as the antigay extremist Scott Lively, were implicated in inspiring the bill by comparing homosexuality with pedophilia and influencing Ugandan public policy through large donations from evangelical churches based in America.
Opposing homophobia in Uganda can come at the price of one’s life. The brutal fate of David Kato, a renowned activist, haunts activists like Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a nongovernmental LGBTQ human-rights network in Uganda. He struggles to maintain the right to hold Pride in Uganda parades after the government recently banned all forms of public displays of gay celebration.
Nearly six years ago, Kato was bludgeoned to death at home in Kampala, the capital, after attempting to secure an injunction against Rolling Stone, the local tabloid paper that in 2010 outed Ugandan gay activists on the front page, including himself, and called for their hangings.
The paper was later shut down by a High Court judge for invasion of privacy, signaling SMUG’s success in fighting the paper’s actions. Yet SMUG continues to fight Lively for inciting violence and hatred against gays in Uganda in a United States federal court case, SMUG vs. Lively, filed in 2012.
In 2016, Mugisha said the political climate had slightly improved since Kato’s murder, but Pride Uganda 2017 was recently squashed after Mugisha and organizers received threats of physical violence and arrest.
Mozambican LGBTQ activists face similar challenges, although one Mozambican journalist, Dercio Tsandzana, said in an interview, “Lusophone countries in Africa are typically more tolerant of homosexuality.” (Lusophone countries are Portuguese-speaking.) Tsandzana recently reported on the landmark decision to grant legal status to Lambda, Mozambique’s only LGBTQ rights organization, after a 10-year battle to secure legitimacy.
“Mozambique has lacked public debate on LGBTQ issues,” Tsandzana said. “Homosexuality has technically been decriminalized, but it’s still considered a moral debate.” Because of online campaigns and on-the-ground activism, Mozambique scrapped its antigay laws in 2015, making it one of just a few countries in the entire continent where same-sex relationships are legal.
Tsandzana is hopeful that Lambda’s court win will “open up the conversation and give Mozambicans something to talk about, to set the story straight through debate. We still have to fight.”
After remaining comparatively quiet on LGBTQ repression, Tanzania’s LGBTQ community faced similar crackdowns in February 2017, when its health minister announced the closing of at least 40 drop-in centers providing HIV/AIDS services, claiming they were “clandestinely promoting homosexuality.”
By July 2017, a former deputy minister for health, community development, gender, elderly and children, made inflammatory remarks against homosexuals in Parliament during a discussion on prostitution, leading other representatives to question Parliament’s plan to “control homosexuality” in Tanzania.
The next day, 20 people were arrested while attending a nongovernmental organization training on HIV/AIDS, held on the semiautonomous island of Zanzibar, where homosexuality is punishable by law with up to 30 years in prison. A month after the mass arrest, the Zanzibar Imams Association held a press conference calling for more severe punishments for people practicing homosexuality, citing concerns that it threatened the lives of youth.
Targeting homosexuality may be just one of many ways that Tanzania’s president, John Pombe Magufuli, is aiming to prove his seriousness in transforming Tanzania into a law-abiding, corrupt-free nation, a key feature of his political platform when he won the election in 2015. By June 2017, Magufuli declared his readiness to crack down on homosexuality even if it meant forgoing foreign aid, blaming the West for importing the behavior along with drugs.
In July 2016, lubricants were banned for fear that they promoted anal sex and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, police use legally acceptable anal probes to investigate suspected homosexuality, despite outcries by human-rights and health groups. In September 2017, the state-owned Daily Nation newspaper published a scathing editorial that read as a call to action against gay people.
Another round of arrests in October 2017 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s cultural capital, included a South African human-rights lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe, the executive director of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa, who was accused of promoting homosexuality while working in Tanzania on a case that could potentially limit health services at drop-in centers for those at high risk of contracting HIV.
Ndashe and two colleagues, one from Uganda and one from South Africa, were arrested without charges, wrongfully detained for a week without representation and then deported, which the Strategic Litigation group views as an admission of no real charges against it but more harassment and intimidation.
According to the leader of a prominent Danish LGBTQ rights organization who kept watch of the arrests, “[those arrested] are all quite traumatized and still have to report to the police. The case is still not properly closed. Chesa [a partner organization] is still suspended, as far as I know.”
In Pretoria, South Africa, Ndashe’s wrongful detention sparked protests outside the Tanzanian High Commission, where hundreds gathered to express outrage over the arrests. South Africa, the only country in Africa to have legalized same-sex marriage, has a long and complex history of LGBTQ rights, and the South African consulate in Dar es Salaam was reportedly responsive to Ndashe and her colleagues’ concerns throughout the ordeal.
Known as Africa’s most tolerant nation in accepting LGBTQ self-identifications, LGBTQ South Africans have more freedom and autonomy than their neighbors in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. While there has been collaboration and camaraderie between South African and East African LGBTQ activists, the political and religious will to support the rights of LGBTQ people remains weak.
Ilga, which stands for the International Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans Association, has tracked laws pertaining to sexual orientation in East Africa, and although not all countries mention lesbians, “women face the same social stigma and discrimination and are driven even more underground due to the traditional role of women: they hide more, which just causes other sorts of pain such as internal homophobia, self-stigmatization,” according to the Danish LGBTQ leader, who asked to remain anonymous, given the extreme sensitivity of the subject.
In the last few years, countries such as Uganda and Tanzania have received numerous recommendations for decriminalization, nondiscrimination and health measures through the United Nations’ universal periodic review, a voluntary process led by the Human Rights Council to assess a country’s human-rights situation. Most of the recommendations were respectfully declined, proving that strong cultural values often overshadow international pressure to consider LGBTQ rights.
In Tanzania, President Magufuli made waves when he expelled the head of the UN Development Program in April 2017 for alleged “deteriorating performance.” Magufuli also did not attend the annual opening of the UN General Assembly in September, citing the need to keep costs down.
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Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a writer and editor from Chicago, who currently splits her time between East Africa and the United States. She has a master’s in arts education from Harvard and a B.A. in English literature from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @travelfarnow.