Ethiopia: Gay-bashing, to what end?

Last December, Addis Ababa hosted the 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA 2011). It was a grand event that attracted about 10,000 guests, including former US President George W. Bush.

As it is common with such international events, it was preceded by pre-conference events. One of those was a three days workshop, plus a one day meeting, organized by African Men for Sexual Health and Rights(AMSHER) -  a coalition of African -based and -led MSM (Men who have sex with Men) organizations.

Local Christian and Muslim leaders, however, sought to prevent the event, which they dubbed a ‘homosexuals meeting’.

To that effect they called a joint press conference a few days earlier, though they cancelled it and told the journalists to go home, after an hour long closed meeting with the Minister of Health, Dr. Tewodros Adhanom.

Still, the incident led Jupiter Hotel, which had already received installments, to cancel its contract, thereby forcing Amsher to relocate the event to ECA (UN Economic Commission for Africa) conference hall. Reportedly, an anti-gay demonstration was intended for that day.

It is not clear what the religious leaders really wanted.

ICASA 2011 was an international event – of which Ethiopia was just a host. Thus, it would be convened as it would be elsewhere. (Note that the about 200 participants of Amsher’s event were gathered from 25 countries, among which a handful are Ethiopians.)

In fact, LGBTs(Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual &Transgender) are the next front in the fight against HIV/AIDS and STIs – Sexually Transmitted Infections, as recent statistics indicate.

Thus, Amsher’s pre-conference gathering ‘to increase attention on MSM/LGBTI and HIV related issues in Africa, to reflect on the state of the response in MSM communities on the continent, and to identify ways forward for scaling up MSM and HIV interventions’ squarely fits with ICASA 2011 – which is supposed to serve as ‘a forum for exchange of scientific knowledge, experiences and best practices in Africa and around the globe in all dimensions of HIV/AIDS and STIs…..[and] as a platform for sharing of progress towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support in the continent’.

It is no secret that Amsher wants the de-criminalization of same-sex practices. But, so do several presenters and participants of ICASA 2011, which had a session focused on LGBTs issue.

Not to forget the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who spoke against ‘discrimination based on sexual orientation’ in the African Union last month in Addis Ababa.

If the religious leaders don’t wish to see any conference on LGBTs in Ethiopia, then they will have to oppose not only the ICASA conference itself but also Ethiopia’s hosting of several other international events.

Banning any discussion sympathetic to same-sex practices is the ultimate demand of the religious leaders.

Unfortunately, the Ethiopian websites and private press saw no problem with it. In fact, they referred  to Amsher’s event as ‘a homosexuals meeting in the pretext of a pre-conference event’.

The religious leaders didn’t need a ‘pretext’, in 2008, to attend a three-day conference by ‘United for Life Ethiopia’ and petition lawmakers for a Constitutional ban and a death sentence(?) for same-sex practices. Apparently, they were not satisfied with the current law which stipulates up to three years imprisonment for ‘homosexual acts’ between two consenting adult.

Why would ‘a pretext’ be needed to discuss whether it is appropriate to police the bedrooms of consenting individuals?

Usually, Ethiopian media and NGOs often insist that an exchange of idea regarding terrorist organizations should not be taken as supporting terrorism. It is a paradox how they supported, or remained silent, when a  discussion on same-sex practice was publicly flogged.

How come gay-bashing topped the religious leaders’ agenda?

As there is literally no pro-LGBT movement in the country and the government sees ‘no possibility of changing the law on this subject at present’, as its representatives told the UN Human Rights Committee last July.

Plus, gays and lesbians make up only 2-4% of the population in most countries – even where it has been legal for several decades. One wonders what was all the fuss about the ‘spreading of homosexuality’ in the absence of any data to back it up. In fact, the Ethiopian population is conservative enough, it needs no more agitation.

Interestingly, the gay-bashing was a rare moment of unity for the religious organizations whose inter-organization and intra-organization relations are marred by dispute. For once, they were able to speak in one voice. Some of them even organized a joint prayer event at the International Evangelical Church in Addis.

This reminded me of President Barak Obama’s comment, in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that:

“when I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text, but the living Word, and that I must be continually open to new revelations. Whether they come from a lesbian friend or a Doctor opposed to abortion. All too often I have sat in a church and heard a pastor use gay bashing as a cheap parlor trick. It was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, he would shout usually when the sermon is not going well”.

Ironically, it appears the religious leaders’ move to condemn a sexual practice – which they consider foreign imported – is prompted by NGOs affiliated to US right wing groups, who wished to use an international venue.

But this imported agenda is not without serious consequences, as observed in the case of Uganda where religious leaders inflamed the public.

The account of a 26 year old Ugandan gay, who recently fled his home, indicates how anti-gay campaigns organized by US-linked organizations, and the consequent call for legal and media campaigns, ended up inflaming the public.

The story reported this month by Agence France Presse(AFP) states:

In Kampala, people "did not know we [gays] existed" until a member of parliament in 2009 proposed strengthening the law against homosexuality, which could already lead to a life sentence in prison.

"People demonstrated against us, told us we were not human beings. We could not buy from shopkeepers," recounted John, 26.

But worse was to come.

A screaming tabloid headline encouraged its readers to "hang" homosexuals and in October 2010 published the names, photos and addresses of more than 20 gays, including those of the couple.

"People started disappearing," said John, who was beaten up several times.

Then Paul was attacked.

"I was watching a film when I heard a lot of noise," said the well-built 24-year-old. "People had broken into my place, armed with stones, sticks and machetes."

John, who was on his way to his boyfriend’s home, fled when he saw the attackers.

"To me he was dead," he remembers thinking of his partner.

Paul owes his life to the intervention of the police, who however immediately jailed him. "I was physically abused, beaten, bleeding from everywhere," he recounted with difficulty.

His friend David Kato, a gay activist, intervened to get him freed.

Paul, whose home had been trashed and who no longer dared set foot in his three electronics shops, kept on hoping the situation would improve.

That is until Kato was brutally murdered just over a year ago, found bludgeoned to death at home outside Kampala on January 26, 2011.

The killing sparked widespread international condemnation, including from Obama who decried such crimes as "unconscionable" and said: "LGBT rights are not special rights; they are human rights."

After Kato’s murder, Paul decided to join John who had gone into hiding in Busia, near the Kenyan border.

Whatever the motive of the recent gay-bashing in Ethiopia may be, it is of paramount importance that opinion makers note that the life and safety of individuals is at stake.

In fact, they have yet to convince us if there is a real need for an American-styled media circus on the issue.

Daniel Berhane

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