By Melissa Wainaina
Interview with Selam* a gay Ethiopian based in Britain. Selam began an online LGBT movement and spoke on the subject of human and LGBT rights in Ethiopia.
Selam’s aim is to reach out to other LGBT Ethiopians with the hope that the day will come when homophobia and criminalization of same-sex couples is a thing of the past in Ethiopia. Below are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What is the human rights movement like in Ethiopia today?
Ethiopia has a diverse population upwards 80 million and has been under the same leadership for over two decades. There is an absence of a significant human rights movement of any kind.
Systematic and divisive repression seems to have taken root planting immense fear among society at large. Civil societies are continually monitored and intimidated while almost every form of media government controlled. This does not allow for much of a human rights movement in Ethiopia.
Q: But surely human rights abuses in Ethiopia will be exposed eventually despite the restrictions and intimidation tactics?
The global west seems to somehow favour stability over democracy. This is evident when there is continued support for the dictatorial leadership that oppresses human rights and this is rather hypocritical in my opinion.
If laws of western nations vow to uphold the values of basic human rights and condemn all kinds of discrimination based on age, disability, race, religion or belief, sex and sexuality, then they shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the situation of millions of people in nations like Ethiopia whose leadership they have close ties with.
Currently the right to basic human rights in Ethiopia continues to be unattainable and endeavouring to raise awareness of the issue or organize some sort of human rights movement seems impossible.
Q: So where does this leave the LGBTI Movement in Ethiopia?
The mere concept of the LGBTI community as a minority of any kind is non-existent in Ethiopia.
A few months ago, I tried desperately to get a hold of the latest Amharic-English dictionary just to see if at last there had been an entry for any of the constituting LGBTI terminology but to no avail.
The nation’s most used language which is thought to be one of the oldest in Africa simply doesn’t recognize our existence.
The strong bond between state and church (mainly Orthodox Christianity) has meant that religious beliefs greatly influence every aspect of laws and practices of the government and society at large. Hence homosexuality is viewed entirely from a biblical perspective.
Absurd as it may seem, the unchallengeable consensus here is that there is no existence of homosexuality in Ethiopia and that the fact that it is recognized elsewhere is a clear indication or a premonition that ‘the world coming to an end’ as predicted in the Bible.
It is unthinkable for an LGBT person to come out as the consequences would be catastrophic. Suspicions or less have lead beatings or killings even by close family members.
In my early teens, I recall my trembling fear when I heard about the incidents of individuals being violently punished after discovered to be gay in prisons and detention centres. Seeking help or protection of any kind from the state is inconceivable as both male and female homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.
There is not even a single LGBTI organization that has managed to come up and to bring about the much needed change in the attitude and provide support of any kind to LGBT individuals.
Ethiopia has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. A great deal of work is being carried out by several national and international organizations in terms of STI awareness, both in prevention and treatment.
But none of it is directed to the people who perhaps need it most, LGBTI individuals.
‘Yesedom Nefsa,’ is a book by Fares (pen name) about a HIV positive former gay sex worker. Among other things the book touched on how medical professionals would refuse to treat patients who they suspect to be gay. On the other hand, there were also shocking details of how such professionals would use their authority to take advantage of vulnerable individuals.
Considering this position, it is clear that the LGBT are a vulnerable group in the fight of HIV/Aids and other STI’s.
Any help the civil society and NGO’s could attempt to extend to the LGBT, would be denied the necessary permits by government. It is extremely cautious of such organization’s capability to educate people and raise awareness of human rights issues.
But it is also clearly evident that no significant measure has been taken to try and get the necessary approvals by such organizations. The only NGO that had interest in the issue was ‘United for Life’ an Organization that was the major force behind a gathering in 2008 of religious leaders from across the nation to urge the government for a clear constitutional mention and tougher punishment against homosexuality.
Therefore these limitations have so far made it impossible to establish a tangible and coherent LGBTI movement in Ethiopia. The only visible activism if any is internet based as it is the best means by which opinions can be shared with anonymity.
This being said, internet accessibility is still quite low and very limited as evident in the various LGBTI chat rooms and forums that die out before any real community as such is established. Currently, the only significant, interacting online communities at the moment are ‘Gayethiopians’ and ‘Ethiopian_lesbians’ yahoo messenger groups with members in hundreds. Almost all of the members live in Diaspora like me with relative freedom of speech and accessibility.
Unfortunately, the Internet is strictly censored and monitored with in Ethiopia. Websites disapproved by the government are blocked which has made it impossible to access information as a community and work to bring about tangible changes.
Q: Is there hope for an LGBT individual in Ethiopia?
Despite progress being painfully slow, I believe change is apparent as seen in the number cases where individuals are motivated enough to have their say and express their own life experiences which usually lead to the beginning of more open conversations and discussions around sexuality.
I set up and launched a website ethiolgbt.com and with the help of close friends and other LGBT Ethiopians mainly in Diaspora, there has been an awakening and unprecedented amounts of conversations and exchange of ideas on the issue of homosexuality and other issues around LGBT taking place.
But what is truly overwhelming is the support from Ethiopians who do not necessarily identify as LGBTI individuals. They seem to clearly understand the value of human rights and equality and have a strong belief that the Ethiopian LGBT community should be acknowledged and afforded the same level protection as a minority of one form or another in Ethiopia.
I quote a recent comment from a straight Ethiopian girl living in Addis Ababa,
“Lately things happening in my life are making me rethink my decision to be indifferent and turn a blind eye to what is going on around me as long as it didn’t affect me directly. I don’t think that kinda life is just for me (sic) not when there is this much injustice around me! So added to my list of latest happenings that inspired me to live a true life is that today I read your stories on your website which brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for standing up, coming out and shading a little light on what it is like to live as a gay person in Ethiopia. I am not gay and I can’t imagine how it is like to live here in Ethiopia where people think you are shameful or just a victim of popular western belief and in crisis. I think I am now more aware and no longer ignorant about homosexual life in Addis and open to understand more about it instead of judging without wanting to understand.”Q: What is the way forward in terms to the LGBT Movement for Ethiopian nationals?
As Ethiopian LGBT nationals we are all aware of the amount work that needs to be done and the countless challenges that lie ahead but hope to overcome and someday be able to live life freely in our great nation.
We also hope that other nations who claim to uphold a uniform standard of human rights but seem oblivious to the horrendous human right violations in Ethiopia would take up initiatives to perhaps change in foreign policy regarding leadership standards.
Ultimately, it is up to us LGBT Ethiopians to come together, and try to get our voices heard, work to bring about the necessary change in attitude at individual and societal levels. And most of all endeavour to have homosexuality decriminalized in Ethiopia.
*Selam is a pseudonym.