By Meron Tekleberhan
Addis Ababa, March 20, 2011 (Ezega.com) -- I got a lot of response from people who read my article on the book “Yesedom Nefsat.” This book explored the little mentioned homosexual subculture in Ethiopia. The comments I got revealed that Ethiopians remain completely unaware of the existence or extent of this community. Most fervently deny that there is such a thing as an Ethiopian homosexual, asserting that it’s a completely foreign phenomenon that is alien to our culture and identity. Any further discussion on this subject is met with acute suspicion and even aggressive behavior.
‘Yesedom Nefsat’ however is not the sole proof of the reality of a homosexual community in Ethiopia. There are an increasing number of websites that claim to address the needs of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Ethiopians. These websites hope to offer forums where homosexual Ethiopians can express themselves freely and organize to make demands.
On their website, EthiopiaLGBT.com (Selam Seeker) writes “Many Ethiopians truly doubt our very existence and among others, this site should be where we the LGBT community of Ethiopia whether home or abroad come together and say our say, tell our stories and reason our arguments. I’m a proud Gay Ethiopian and this website is for all who might feel the same way, or want to achieve the degree off peace and understanding of ourselves despite all the difficulties.”
Another website featuring the Rainbow-Ethiopia LGBT/MSM Sexual Health Education and Promotion Initiative approximated that “there are at least 50,000 Sex Workers on the street in Addis; out of them 5000 are young male sex workers. They claim these people are found in places like secret bars, streets and broker meditation places. While these numbers seem almost incredible, it’s hard to verify them either way because of the secretive nature of this community due to the social consequences of ‘coming out’.
While these voices may seem to lead credence to the existence of a Homosexual community in Ethiopia, they by no means indicate an inroad in the attitudes and faith of the Ethiopian community. In 2008 ‘United for Life Ethiopia’ a home grown Non-Governmental Organization grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak. In December of that year clerics of different religious organization and government officials gathered together under the auspices of this organization to discuss the prevalence of Homosexuality in Ethiopia. All participants were united in denouncing same sex unions as the “pinnacle of immorality’ and urged the government to adopt more stringent laws to deal with such practices.
In a nation defined by religion, the stance taken by the clerics represents the attitudes of a great percentage of Ethiopians. These sentiments extend to the internet where there is almost unanimous disdain for ‘habesha’ homosexuals. A prime example of this is the reaction received by a post on the Ethiopian Forum, on www.topix.com, that had the provoking and sensational headline “Ethiopian Government is Torturing and Executing Gays”.
This article makes the sensational claim that Gays and lesbians in Ethiopia are particularly targeted by the government and are suffering from institutionalized ‘discrimination, hatred, disrespect intimidation, abuse harassment, negative attitude and social injustice.” According to this post the Ethiopian LGBT committee was established in 2007 with the objective of demanding and safeguarding sexual freedom in Ethiopia and had 604 members at the time. There is however no evidence cited in this article to prove that the Ethiopian government has employed systematic persecution of the gay community. The maximum penalty for homosexuals is three to four years of imprisonment but this sentence has rarely been put into effect.
What was clearly established in this article was that there exists an organized effort to change the antipathy to homosexuality of the Ethiopian public and to influence the decriminalization of the act in the nation.
They write “We are working day and night for the license and acknowledgment from the Ethiopian Government but their response was discouraging… As a steering committee we are responsible for generating a storm of publicity… But, there is no way to accomplish this… Recently we have started some grassroots activities for the acknowledgment, understanding and legalization of sexual freedom of gays and lesbians in Ethiopia.”
A great majority of the upwards of 200 comments on this post reflected the great sensitivity to this issue for most Ethiopians. Many resorted to outright insults and threats while others expressed their disgust and shame at the idea of such goings on in the Ethiopian community with various degrees of anger.
One comment made by “Legesse from South Africa’ summarizes the sentiments behind the virulence in relatively polite language.
“I don’t think it is right to see gays and lesbians in my country. It is completely wrong; I don’t support those gay people. They must be free from their bad behavior if they want to live in our country. Otherwise they must be punished for their bad acting.”
A DVD produced by ‘United for Life Ethiopia’, ‘Homosexuality Natural Phenomenon or Psychological Imbalance’ following in depth research into the issue reveals that homosexuality is a concerning issue in our society. Various media reports indicate the increase in gay sexual assault on children and young people, with approximately 300 such rapes annually. Most of these cases are rarely brought to court and those that do get away with the minimum sentence.
In an interview for the DVD, Ato Seifu Hagos summarized his findings which is featured in a publication of the Ethiopian Public Health Association. His research discovered that homosexuals in Addis Ababa congregate in gay owned bars and cafes as well as designated streets. He says that homosexuals are not an external entity to our society but very much a part of it. According to Ato Seifu foreign travelers to Ethiopia exacerbate the issue. The sex tourism that is increasingly besetting our nation has also extended to gay sex. Young people are enticed by the foreign currency that is offered for their services and easily join the ranks of male sex workers.
One website Ethiopiangay.com caters to gay dating in Ethiopia. The personals type ads on this website make the wishes of the members clear, and utilize email as contact information. Here are a few of the least offensive ads I found: “Coming to Addis Ababa will stay at the Sheraton”, “Coming to Addis: Need young slim man.” “Daddy cool: Can be cool daddy for cute boy in Addis”
‘United for life Ethiopia’ and the clerics from the various faiths in Ethiopia made a clear call for the Ethiopian government to actively protect the culture and traditions of the Ethiopian people. Although the Ethiopian constitution accepts international human rights it acknowledges that these can be limited by national peace and security, public health, education and societal mores and traditions. This clear recognition of social moral identity means that the Ethiopian government is constitutionally obligated to protect and serve the cultural, religious and traditional character of the nation.
In closing, I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. Seyoum, United for Life Ethiopia, for providing some information on this topic.
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.