July 17, 2013

I first met Saidi W., a 20-year-old gay Tanzanian university student, in a cramped, humid room in Dar es Salaam. I sat on a mattress on the floor, cross-legged, while four young men slouched against the wall, telling me stories of the brutal treatment they endure for being gay.

In 2010, Saidi, who sometimes does sex work to make ends meet, was on the street looking for clients when a police officer posing as a client took him to a guest house and then arrested him. The officer forced him at gunpoint to call five gay friends and tell them to meet him at a bar. When they arrived, the police arrested all of them. They proceeded to undress and beat the five friends before taking them into custody. Saidi recalled, “They said, ‘We’re arresting you because you’re gays and you’re shaming us. Our country does not allow homosexuals. Our law and our religion and customs don’t allow this.’”

At the police station, Saidi and his friends were repeatedly raped by fellow detainees. When they called out to the police for help, the police said, “This is good, this is what you want.”

In order to bribe her son and his friends out of custody, Saidi’s mother had to take out a loan from a local money lender. Head held between cupped hands, Saidi said, “When I remember that situation, I want to cry.”

Hearing the story, I too wanted to cry. Tanzania doesn’t make headlines for its brutal repression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. That kind of attention goes to countries like Uganda, where a draft law would make some homosexual acts punishable by death. And Tanzania is not Cameroon, where at least 30 people have been prosecuted for consensual same-sex conduct since 2010. Arrests of LGBTI people in Tanzania rarely lead to prosecution; usually they’re simply a pretext for police to collect bribes or coerce sex from vulnerable people.

But despite Tanzania’s lack of notoriety, what happened to Saidi occurs with disturbing frequency there. The same goes for many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where my colleagues at Human Rights Watch and I have conducted research.

Consensual same-sex conduct is criminalized in at least 76 countries, 37 of them in Africa. Most laws date to the colonial era. Britain, for instance, adopted a cookie-cutter approach to “sodomy laws,” leaving a legacy of dozens of former countries with identical texts punishing “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” (in other words, anal sex).

But the colonizers aren’t the only ones to blame for homophobia and transphobia in Africa. Several Francophone countries had no colonial legacy of sodomy laws, but banned homosexual conduct post-independence, like Cameroon in 1972, or Burundi as recently as 2009.

Apart from sodomy laws, Africa lags well behind most other regions in its near-absence of anti-discrimination provisions protecting sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender people are among the most vulnerable to discrimination, in housing, employment, education and access to health care. Even in South Africa, with a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and full marriage equality, lesbians and trans men are frequently raped and murdered.

Foreign influences also play a role, and a number of U.S.-based fundamentalist Christian groups have found an outlet in Africa. Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice has opened affiliates in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and their stated objectives include the “protection of families” (but not the gay and lesbian kind). Other American evangelists have delivered homophobic rants in Uganda, energizing proponents of the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Opponents of LGBTI rights are working aggressively to shut down voices defending equality. Nigeria’s “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill,” passed in May and sent to the president for his signature, imposes a 10-year prison sentence for anyone who participates in a “gay organization” or supports the activities of such groups. Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apart from its scandalous death penalty provisions, includes a less-discussed but ill-defined and insidious clause that would criminalize the work of human rights organizations on the pretext that they “promote homosexuality.” In Zambia, an HIV activist is on trial for supporting LGBTI equality during a television interview.

Recent progress

In this context, it’s not easy for activists to maintain hope. But such backlash is to be expected. Why? Because there’s been progress. Ten years ago, many African countries had no LGBTI organization engaged in public advocacy. Now, some have dozens. In Burundi, the first time a gay activist came out publicly was in 2007. Now, only six years later, LGBTI Burundians have a thriving community center, submit shadow reports at the U.N. Human Rights Council and publish incisive legal analyses of discriminatory laws and policies.

A trans woman in Kenya is suing to have her name and gender changed on her education certificates. The Kenyan media have handled the case objectively and respectfully. In Uganda, LGBTI activists won a lawsuit against a tabloid newspaper that had violated their rights by publishing pictures of alleged gays under the headline, “Hang Them.” Malawian activists successfully lobbied President Joyce Banda to impose a moratorium on arrests under that country’s sodomy law.

Botswana and Mauritius, despite retaining colonial-era sodomy laws, have in recent years prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, demonstrating their will to tackle homophobia. The policies have placed them ahead of a number of U.S. states, which still lack such legislation.

Recently, a number of reactionary government officials and politicians throughout Africa, from Senegal to Tanzania to Zambia, have attempted to radicalize public opinion against LGBTI people by claiming these groups are seeking “same-sex marriage.” This is “against African values,” they thunder. But they are arguing against a straw man. At the moment, none of the dozens of African LGBTI organizations I have worked with are pushing for marriage equality. They’re looking for something much more basic: that governments take steps to ensure that LGBTI people are no longer beaten, raped and tortured for being who they are.

So as a Human Rights Watch researcher and advocate for LGBTI rights in Africa, when I meet with government officials, I start with the basics. Whatever your personal feelings about sexual orientation and gender identity, when someone like Saidi W. is gang-raped by his fellow detainees while in police custody, should the police protect him? Should he be able to file a complaint against his aggressors? Or should he be turned away? Fundamentally: does Saidi deserve to live?

Confronted with this question, most government officials say yes. And that’s a start. But it’s only the first step toward equality.