By Nico Colombant
While gay rights are slowly expanding around the world, including in Africa, human rights activists note some political, media and religious leaders are leading sometimes violent campaigns in the opposite direction. Activists say they feel the tradition of tolerance no longer applies to homosexuals in that West African nation.
Protesters in Senegal screamed at each other during this noisy anti-gay rally, one of many broken up by security forces over the past two years.
One protester said it was not normal in a mostly Muslim country to have homosexuals, and that it was his right to protest their existence.
Ryan Thoreson has been researching anti-gay persecution in Senegal as part of his work with the U.S.-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
He says Senegal's traditional image as a country of tolerance has been severely tarnished by a recent wave of arrests, negative media coverage, and announcements by political and religious leaders targeting Senegal's gay community.
"Every time, there is a wave of arrests, they are covered in a really sensationalistic way and politicians have picked up on that and capitalized on that as well by running and organizing marches and inciting people to violence as a way of stirring up support for opposition parties and the opposition to the government," said Thoreson. "And then, as soon as the government saw how popular that could be, you saw people like the prime minister making the same sorts of accusations and condemnations."
Prime Minister Souleymane Ndiaye Ndéné last year called homosexuality "a sign of a crisis of values." He said it was due to the world's economic problems, and that government ministries as well as society as a whole should fight against homosexuality. His statements were then praised in Senegalese media. Articles said the prime minister was standing up against alleged pro-gay western lobbying.
Senegal's penal code says what it calls "an impure or unnatural act with another person of the same sex" is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Last year, activists fighting HIV/AIDS were sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of homosexual acts and criminal conspiracy.
When their conviction was overturned several months later on procedural matters, an influential religious leader, Imam Massamba Diop, said they should have been killed. Other Imams said unless there was proof they had committed homosexual acts, they should be set free, and that God would judge them.
Thoreson, the American researcher, uses the acronym LGBT to refer to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. He says once people are identified as being one of these in Senegal, their life and even death become difficult.
"Many LGBT are sort of in and out of exile. They have to move frequently from place to place because their housing is not secure and if their neighbors, or families or communities find them to be LGBT, or if allegations are made that someone is LGBT, they are often ejected from that community, or they face pretty severe violence from even their own family members," he added. "There have also been reports that the corpses of people who are presumed to be LGBT have been dug up in multiple cities from Muslim cemeteries, and have been dumped back into their family's own compound, or dumped by the side of the road."
Last year, the body of a man believed to have been gay was dug up twice in the western town of Thies.
A Senegalese lesbian living in the United States, Selly Thiam, recently started an audio history project and Web site called "None on the Record."
Interviews, which Thoreson has been using to complement his research, have been conducted across Africa.
Most, like this gay man describing his experiences in Senegal, requested they remain anonymous to avoid retaliation.
He says if someone is known to be gay in Senegal it is a justification for others to insult and attack him, and rob him on the streets or in his home. He says people do not believe it is possible to be Muslim and gay.
He adds that in the 1990s, gays were viewed as artists who were called on to help organize parties and public ceremonies. Now, he says, they are viewed as persona non-grata.
One woman who is lesbian says she is a human like others. She says she has her religious faith and she has her heart.
She adds that being in love is when your heart chooses someone regardless of gender and says she believes it is a noble life to follow one's heart.
One gay Senegalese man who has exiled himself to Belgium for security reasons says there needs to be a public debate involving media, politicians and religious leaders to discuss equal rights and protection against discrimination.
Pro-gay activists in Senegal say they feel they are victims of politicians and religious leaders trying to gain power by using hate and fear tactics against them to divert attention amid poverty, unemployment and youth frustration.
They say they also fear the publicizing of help they are receiving from outside the country, saying it could hurt their cause more than help it.