When the Ethiopian Orthodox Pope actually left his mansion to meet with reporters and gripe about the homosexuals coming to Addis Ababa, I thought the most important man in Ethiopia was surely going to give another sound reason on why there’s no possible way to allow a seminar on Men Having Sex with Men at a prestigious HIV/AIDS conference.
The last time the Ethiopian Orthodox patrician was quoted on anything homosexual, he said homosexuality is “the pinnacle of immorality, for people to act in this manner, they have to be stupid, like animals.”
While in my mind there’s absolutely no argument to deny any minority population human rights, mutual respect, health services and dignity, Ethiopians (and Africans in general) continue to live in the dark ages of tolerance.
I was a volunteer writer at the recent 2011 International Conference on AIDS & STIs in Africa, and every day I left the conference, I felt like I was stepping off an island of enlightenment into the folds of ignorance.
I wonder how an entire country— an entire continent— can live according to these rules. I guess I am foreign enough to be excluded, that or I still have a lot to learn about Africa and being a Gay African. Going through the conference outdoor, passing the empty HIV-testing tent where I picked up my results, I had to increase my speed to catch a bus stopping in front of Medhane Alem, Ethiopia’s largest Orthodox church.
“You coming from the Christian-house (bete cristian) ?” a man on the bus asked me as I settled in the front seat of the blue mini bus.
“No, Im coming from the HIV house (bete hiv),” I replied. “Today I got tested. Have you ever been tested?”
“I will never get tested. The media gives us HIV. The hospitals give us HIV. The only reason we have HIV is so the government can get more money. I don’t have HIV,” he reasoned.
Huh. I’m not exactly a fan of hospitals either, but I’m sure the HIV counselors are not pricking patients to spread the disease, and I’ll admit the news can make me want to vomit, but never once have I been terminally ill as a result. Not even Fox News.
But Addis Ababa was buzzing with talk about “the gays” coming to town. A blanket of fear had suddenly been thrown over their sensibilities, and the mere thought was so constricting that in the eyes of even my closest Ethiopian friends, these sexual abnormalities were converted into amoral men walking the streets raping children, infecting unsuspecting straight males, and destroying anything and everything.
“I know they hire young, pretty girls to lure you into a house. Then a gay is there waiting to have sex with you,” a friend explained, revealing his hidden fears. When I became frustrated by the lack of rational thinking on the part of people I actually respected, I wondered why Ethiopia was seized in a state of homophobic panic.
Unfortunately, stereotypes beget stereotypes, and this continent of uncivilized, hypermacho male dominated barbarians became less a blurred image and more a reality.
The Cameroonian penal code sends suspected gays to prison for up to five years. While the law states one must be caught in the act to be condemned, pervasive hate has landed gay men behind bars for much less than making love to a man. The current government is busy reforming the penal code to increase the sentencing from the maximum 5 to 15 years.
Jean Claude Mbede was sentenced to 3.6 years in prison after police intercepted “sexual” text messages to his gay friends and lovers.
Jonas and Francky each received 5 years in prison for having too much of a feminine appearance. One has dreadlocks while the other appreciates creamy liquors likes Bailey’s.
When M Omgba ended up in jail for 5 years after a neighbor outted him as a homosexual, his three friends that came to visit were automatically assumed gay and thrown immediately in jail.
While I’m relieved I’m not gay (much like some Germans in Nazi Germany were thankful they weren’t Jews), it’s hard to swallow.
Cameroon is not just an isolated case of homophobia. Neighboring Nigeria is the same, and in the rest of Africa, being gay may get you stoned to death (Mauritania, Somalia), life in prison (Uganda, Sierra Leone) or maybe, if you’re gay in the right country, some hard labor on the chain gang (Angola, Mozambique).
In Ethiopia, being homosexual is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That means all these gay men walking around the ICASA conference pissing off religious leaders were hundreds of potential prisoners.
I decided to make some friends with the criminally sexual.
LIVE HAPPY, LIVE HIDDEN
Aymen is currently planning his escape from Tunisia. He’s plotting where he’s going, country, city, neighborhood, strategically planning where his life as a gay Tunisian might be easier, with less restrictions and above all less fear. In the coming year, he will turn his back on his family, his friends and his countrymen. Aymen has no choice but to flee. Even as Tunisia attempts to build a democracy from the rubble of the Arab revolution, Aymen will perhaps never witness how his country evolves and is shaped by the leaders of his generation.
Aymen is a gay Arab barely thirty, and there is a fork in the road. One road leads to a chance for personal freedom in the precarious context of a homosexual immigrant, while the other leads to forced cohabitation with a Muslim wife he is repulsed by, all in the name of social convention, traditional gender roles and the propagation of his family’s legacy. If Aymen doesn’t choose to flee, his family will wrap the coils of tradition around him and pray to Allah for healthy grandchildren.
He grew up in a well-to-do family in Tunisia. His father was a military man while his mother stayed at home raising children. Aymen was easily her favorite, and he enjoyed all the benefits of being the first-born while uncles held lofty expectations for the “man of the house” to make the family proud.
Aymen grew up in the city of Bizerte, a upper-middleclass town not too far from the capital city Tunis. By Tunisia’s standards, the town is considered open-minded, liberal and a model of progressivism, and like many of Tunisia’s port cities, influenced by the French colonizers.
“Men in Bizerte are more into cultural events, art expositions and fashion. But they would never have sex with one another,” Aymen explains. Instead gay men travel to the capital city where “gay cruising” is popular, not just among locals, but with European travelers.
The small city is made up of various families—almost clanlike—many of which have been a part of the ruling class for over seven centuries. Aymen’s family is one of these, and if Aymen were to have sex with a man from another clan, the social construct of Muslim virtue and decency would collapse under the weight of disrespect and shame.
Aymen’s family: wealthy, upstanding, humble and pious. But having a gay son: shameful, indecent, mentally ill and heathenistic.
When he turned 12, Aymen already felt attracted to males. After experimenting in sexual relations with girls, he was steadfast in his sexuality by 16 and at the same time confused and frightened by what he was becoming.
“I couldn’t accept my image in front of Allah. I couldn’t look into a mirror,” ha explains. Reading the Koran caused so much shame, and Aymen chose to lock himself in the house and remove the temptation of seeing other men. “I stayed inside for six months. If I decided to leave, I would take a family member with me. I was scared of Allah and my family. Just terrified.”
When he finally removed himself from the dungeon of shame, he gave into physical temptations. At 17, Aymen made eye contact with Seluh, 21, walking through the streets of Bizerte. Most gay relationships begin with eye contact. In fact, the two men glared at each other for three weeks. When they finally spoke to one another, they became instant friends, and the courtship continued.
For nearly six months, Aymen and Seluh met every day. Seluh became a close family friend, despite being from a lower social class. The family tolerated him hanging around Aymen and his brother. The attraction grew, but Aymen and Seluh continued to speak about girls, football and movies. “We had to make up conversation because neither of us wanted to talk about being gay.”
Finally during Aymen’s high school vacation, the two traveled to the beach. In the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea, they held hands (as men do in many parts of Africa) and kissed, passionately, romantically, and energetically.
For ten years, the couple existed in a parallel world. Aymen’s family still had him figured as a close friend. When Aymen went to university in the South of the country, Seluh met him every weekend. They relied on friends through a network of gays and lesbians in Tunis to spend the weekends together.
During those ten years, Aymen and his partner were happy, living by the adopted homosexual Tunisian motto vivons heureux, vivons caché or, live happy, live hidden. “One must be very strong to live as a homosexual in Tunisia. Today, if you discover at age 15 that you are more attracted to men, you are lost. There is no reference, no model.”
Therefore, most homosexuals in Tunisia prefer to hide the fact that they are homosexual. Last year Aymen’s and Seluh’s relationship ended just as the two had always predicted. Seluh’s family forced him to marry a woman to start a family and begin living the life of a heterosexual man stuck in a charade of heterosexuality.
“You get a nice job, get married with a woman from your class. You have children and everybody thinks you are successful,” he says.
For now, Aymen continues to resist his family’s attempt to “correct” him. Even at thirty, Aymen has never come out to his family, and coming out to society still remains impossible in Tunisia.
Seluh is currently expecting a daughter.
RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE: SAD AND IRONICAL
After seeing the Pope and Ethiopia’s religious leaders launch war cries into their disciples’ collective consciousness, I began to suspect that it is true that Christian and Muslim colonizers straightjacketed Africa with the notion of homophobia.
Many civilized societies pre-dating Christianity and Islam, such as the Greeks and Persians, tolerated homosexuality. What if ancient African civilizations did the same? The irony is that today’s African blames the West for bringing the evils of homosexuality to the continent. In fact, the West mostly brought irrational ways to separate African ethnicities coupled with submission in the form of religion.
Whether it’s Ugandan media publishing a “gay hit list” in the newspaper or “corrective rape” of South Africa’s lesbians, homophobia remains a barrier to improved health, HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and discrimination reduction.
“When you talk about gay rights in Africa, there’s nothing to say. There are none. We talk about the gay situation in Africa,” according to Aymen, “and the situation is that we don’t feel very secure.”