Why it is good that Ethiopians are debating homosexuality?

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Photo of people at protest

Photo of people at protest

It is awfully painful to read online trolling, threats, hateful and dehumanising comments, and insults on Twitter against the queer Ethiopian community. Yet, I can’t help feeling that there are opportunities that arise from the explosion of support in spite of the extreme hatred on social media platforms.

It started when religious groups, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox church, protested against the Toto tour plan to visit Ethiopia. According to BBC news “Toto Tours describes itself on its website as having served the LGBT community since 1990.”

It started when religious groups, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox church, protested against the Toto tour plan to visit Ethiopia

In recent years, there have been uprisings of queer communities and allies strongly protesting against discrimination and in some cases criminalisation of homosexuality, in countries like Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to mention a few. So far, South Africa stands out as the only country in Africa that in terms of progressive legal framework recognises LGBTIQ communities human rights fully. Of course, the exciting news is that on 11th June we learned that Botswana decriminalized homosexuality. According to the BBC news "The court rejected laws that impose up to seven years in prison for same-sex relationships, stating they were unconstitutional.” However, what is experienced on the ground in different communities might be completely different and needs a lot more rigorous conversations.

This is one of the few times we see in Ethiopia a highly publicised protest against LGB community and a strong international backlash. In 2012, there was a “pro-gay conference that was scheduled to take place in the capital Addis Ababa by a human rights group” as an attempt to start a conversation. However religious organisations and politically active civil society members strongly protested against the platform and it ended up being cancelled1 However, this year following the controversy with the TOTO tour, coupled with international #PrideMonth celebration, it is unexpected to notice a small group of Ethiopians expressing solidarity with the queer community. The voices of these few supporters were quite visible, as they were met with widespread and hostile reactions. Ethiopia has never allowed opening up of any conversation or even recognised the existence of LGB community in the country. This is in fact supported by research reports from Addis Ababa University and abroad2.

Regardless of existing knowledge, never mind the uncomplicated logic of “love”, still homosexuality is considered as “western-construct”. Interestingly, also there has been in-depth research in Ethiopia, but dominantly from Southern and Eastern Africa that focuses on sexuality in Africa that challenges this notion3.

It is astounding to observe a diverse and large number of individuals across religious, ethnic and political affiliations vociferously embracing unified rhetoric, mostly nationalist or moral that denounce homosexuality, LGB community and advocates.

One might wonder, what is exciting about this? Following various conversations on Twitter, one can recognise that in today's social media era, it is no longer possible to ignore and dismiss the LGB community inside the country or push a singular stigmatising rhetoric. Sure, following the tweets, most articulations are filled with ugliness and just simple cruelty. Yet, everyone is discussing this issue. More so, few courageous public figures and institutions are standing in solidarity with the most discriminated population in the country. For now, the digital space seems to be the only option available for the LGB activists and movement leaders and activists to have their voices heard and mobilise much needed local and international support.

For now, the digital space seems to be the only option available for the LGB activists and movement leaders and activists to have their voices heard and mobilise much needed local and international support.

The few courageous voices that express solidarity with the LGBT community around conversations related to the #PrideMonth experienced the wrath of Ethiopians based in Ethiopia and abroad. The following tweets below were the two prominent ones - Activist and member of the Zone nine bloggers team; and Ethiopia Live Update online bloggers and reporters respectively.
 

 

Reading through the comments it is horrifying to notice the hate and rejection of LGB community in the name of national pride, influence of western modernity and civilisation, religious convictions, social and cultural construction of gender and sexuality ideology. All of which is often expressed as life-threatening messages to the advocates and LGB communities. Those supporting the notion of same-sex sexual relationships as a western construct, advocates, regardless of their sexuality, are dubbed as sellouts and beneficiaries of pro-LGBTIQ western institutions.

 Conversely, a few LGBTI members expressed their gratitude and surprise on the bravery of the few who stuck out their necks. What is more telling is that many more are liking the tweets, and these are people across diverse walks of life, suggesting perhaps a slight and hopeful shift in the sentiment towards same-sex relationships in Ethiopia. Regardless of how painfully it is manifesting, one cannot dismiss that this is the opportune moment to talk about the unspoken and hidden communities of LGB people in Ethiopia.

Regardless of how painfully it is manifesting, one cannot dismiss that this is the opportune moment to talk about the unspoken and hidden communities of LGB people in Ethiopia.

It is difficult to tell judging from the ongoing engagement whether such an open discussion and solidarity with LGBT community would have traction, or the topic remains stifled and bereft of any meaningful engagement in the face of a widespread backlash. For so long, Ethiopia has resorted to stigma, discrimination and criminalisation of homosexuality. Such systemic marginalisation is no longer tenable. It is long overdue for Ethiopia to recognise and uphold LGBTIQ+ human rights, and especially the right to love and self-expression.

 

 

 

Footnotes: 

1B. Y. Getahun, “Ethiopia: The Criminalisation of Sexual Minorities in Ethiopia”, 22 June 2018. https://allafrica.com/stories/201806280263.html

 

2G. Tadele, “Heteronormativity and ‘troubled’ masculinities among men who have sex with men in Addis Ababa,” Cult. Health Sex., vol. 13, no. 4, p. 457 — 469, 2011.

 

3 T. Baker, 'A Graveyard for Homosexuals', NewesWeek Megazin, Decmber 12, 2013, https://www.newsweek.com/graveyard-homosexuals-244926. Also see Public Health. Policy, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 269–79, 2009.