Dialogue on Consensual Homosexuality in Ethiopia
By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, December 7, 2011 (Ezega.com) - The illegality of homosexuality under Ethiopian law is no surprise. According to the 2007 Global Attitude Research conducted by a Pew Research Center Project, 97% of Ethiopians strongly condemns homosexuality and consider it a serious violation of morality. A recent poll also showed that 85% of Ethiopians prefer not to discuss the issue of homosexuality at all. This came from the fact that all religions have dogmas about homosexuality being the greatest sin any human being can commit. Since the majority in Ethiopia belongs to the main religions and lead their life based on religious thoughts, it does not need any proof or analysis to consider the act as something that is sin in the eyes of the almighty god and contrary to human nature.
Therefore making homosexuality illegal is only natural for lawmakers. In the Ethiopian criminal code, homosexuality is dealt under the title of ‘sexual deviation’ in articles 629-632. These articles proclaim the illegality of homosexuality in the country and provide the appropriate punishment. The first article 629 says that ‘whosoever performs with another person of the same sex a homosexual act or any other indecent act, is punishable with simple imprisonment’. The article in short provides that regardless of the consent by the partners to perform homosexual act, it is punishable under the law. Even if the parties are adults and engaged in the act willingly, it does not change the criminality of the act and cannot be used as a defense before the court of law. In this case, even if there is no individual victim because of the act committed, the law assumes the society in general is wounded since its moral values are violated by the act.
The reason for the criminality of homosexual acts is expressed in the same article without going any further. The article includes sentences like ‘’…homosexual act or any other indecent act…’’ which simply means that homosexuality is an ‘indecent’ act.
However, the complexity of homosexuality in Ethiopia (as in many other countries) is there since the public and the media seem to be unable to differentiate homosexual act between consenting adults and statutory rape committed by homosexual people. Whenever the issue is raised, the first thing everyone tends to remember and associate it with is rape committed by gay people on children and others who did not give their consent to the act but were coerced into it, taken advantage of or intimidated. This might be one of the reasons, along with the culture and religion, that makes the public disgusted to even give it the slightest chance for the issue to be discussed in a refined manner.
Indeed, the lawmakers did recognize the difference between consensual homosexual act between adults and rape. The first act is punishable with simple imprisonment, while anything that includes coercion, intimidation or any other force or when performed on minors is treated with greater punishment. For example taking unfair advantage of another whether by material or mental distress or by the authority one exercise like through office position or guardianship, the punishment is rigorous imprisonment that can go up to 10 years. When there is violence, intimidation or coercion, and the like are used, the punishment goes up to 15 years. The same punishment is provided when the criminal subjects the victim to acts of cruelty or sadism, or transmits to him or her disease with which he or she knows to be infected with or the victim is driven to suicide by distress, shame or despair. When the homosexual act is performed with a minor, the punishment goes up to 25 years of imprisonment. If women on other women perform the act, in the above-mentioned manners, the criminal code provides punishment not exceeding 10 years.
Without a doubt, even in countries where homosexuality gained legal ground, rape or statutory rape is a crime. However, in Ethiopia, since for the majority it is hard to believe that people might have given their consent for such an act, every homosexual case is associated with rape and the people engaged in it as perverts. If by any chance our society comes to the point where it allows discussion and public forum on the matter, this attitude might have its own constraint on it.
Though most fought to stop it, last week the Ethiopian public had to hear and talk frequently about homosexuality and related matters. The meeting on Saturday organized by an African gay lobby group, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (Amsher), under great pressure from religious leaders and the public, had to change its venue at the last minute from Jupiter hotel to the UN conference hall in Addis Ababa. Disturbed by the ‘bad’ publicity, Jupiter hotel had to deny such a meeting was schedule there in the first place.
Still the event woke the media and the society to consider what was assumed to be the evil of the western world. People who opposed the idea of the conference tried to demonstrate in front of the UN conference hall on Saturday. However, federal police, saying they do not have the permission for demonstration did not allow them to stand and convey their massages. Still some newspapers on the weekend published some pictures where demonstrators showed images claiming for article 629 to be respected and the gay conference to be banned. As in cancelled press conference a few days earlier, for the second time the Reporter newspaper reported on Saturday its photographer was confisicated outside the conference hall and the photos they took were deleted by federal police. This probably shows interest from the government side to keep the event unrecorded.
While homosexuality is illegal, the main question many were asking on Social Medias like facebook is why Ethiopia allowed such a conference to be held in the first place. From the government point of view, the reason seems rather obvious, which is to keep the spirit of the ongoing 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STIs) in Africa (ICASA). However, many felt betrayed by the government whom they accuse of compromising the society’s fundamental values for diplomacy and even for foreign exchange purposes. The conference violates the law that explicitly prohibits homosexuals to express themselves in any manner. If the act itself is a violation of the law, then the actors admitting their action on public should be arrested, instead of being permitted to discuss and make strategy how to continue their movement. This seems to have offended many including religious leaders and the media.
An argument between the great majority who condemn homosexuality and a minority who took a moderate position saying may be it is a matter of people’s privacy and the rights associated with it broke all over Social Medias. The latter group seem to believe may be it is time to let go of our conservative attitudes on the matter and free people to use their mind to decide their sexuality.
I would like to propose a dialogue on consensual homosexual acts between adults in Ethiopia. There is no ground to argue on rape and statuary rape by homosexuals on another individual whether by taking advantage of or intimidation since that automatically makes the act a crime under any legal system and immoral in any society. Our Ethiopian law also takes a firm stand on that point and provides rigorous punishments while the consensual homosexual sex is a matter of simple imprisonment.
Of course, the main point might be the fact that the act itself is illegal. However, we are having a minority group that seems to support the movement to make homosexual acts legal in the country. Therefore, if the majority intends to stick to its ground on the issue, it is necessary to come up with arguments that are sound and rational.
My proposal is for us to get out of our comfort zone and imagine, just for discussion purposes, two adults who completely agree on the matter and understand what they are getting into, perform homosexual acts and choose to be homosexual on their own free will. At this point, the question will be: can the society really control or define people’s sexual orientation? Since sex in general is a private matter, is society in a position to determine what is decent and what is not decent? From what I have read and heard in different occasions so far, many use religious scriptures as their springboard. I personally worry that making the matter purely religious might have its own problems since people can choose not to be religious or not to follow the teachings of any of the major religion, which is a constitutional right in this country.
Besides, many fundamental human rights are said to be violated by condemning homosexuals. Since denying their humanity, as many Ethiopians like to do, will not get us anywhere, homosexual’s right to non-discrimination, privacy, free expression and free association, right to work, right to family, and many other human rights are said to be denied. Therefore, in a civilized manner, if we have to condemn homosexuality, we must come up with a stronger reason that does more than merely tell people what to believe or follow. We also have to be careful to find a balance between the feelings of the majority and the inherent rights that are given to every person by virtue of his/her humanity.
I am hoping to get such arguments from my readers, which will make up the follow up article on this issue.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.