Ethiopia’s Faulty Views on Homosexuality: Part I
By: Samuel M. Gebru |
April 19, 2014
Note: This is the first in a two part series on homosexuality in Ethiopia.
-Nelson R. Mandela, President of South Africa 1994-1999
I maintain a dual identity. I am American as much as I am Ethiopian and do my best to keep my arms and legs in both countries. The growing popular hostility in Ethiopia and Africa towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is quite unfortunate and disturbing.* Homophobia runs contrary to everything I’ve ever been taught as a child about hate and discrimination.
I grew up with friends who have two dads or two moms. Some of my friends’ parents underwent sex changes and/or bitter divorces. Some of my most favorite elementary and high school teachers identify as LGBT. My gay friends are no better, worse or special than my other friends; their sexual orientation or gender identity never prohibited our friendship. To me, they all seemed and still seem normal. But what is “normal,” really…
The Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious American hate group, held a protest at my high school on March 13, 2009 during my senior year. I was one of the lead organizers of the counter-protest and was driven by my commitment to sending Westboro and its likes a clear message that hate groups have no place in my city. I remember working with city, police and school officials in January and February of that year trying to develop a response to Westboro’s impending arrival. The hatemongering cohort that protested at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School included two minors. Throughout this process, it became quite evident (if at already wasn’t) that many of us in Cambridge were and are a community bounded by the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
But this sadly does not hold true in Ethiopia.
Pew Research Center’s 2007 Global Attitude Survey found that 97% of Ethiopians are homophobic. And the penalties for being gay in Ethiopia are harsh and include severe imprisonment. Fortunately, I suppose, the death penalty is not legally applied although homosexuals are frequently subjected to mob justice.
Article 25 of the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia mandates the right to equality “without any discrimination whatsoever.” Despite this Constitutional protection, gays in Ethiopia are subject to discrimination on all levels be it in the workplace, hospitals or school.
The popular hostility towards LGBT Ethiopians is fueled by ignorance and social and religious influencers. Many Ethiopians view homosexuality as a modern Western disease, which is rather odd since homosexuality has been practiced in Africa for millennia. Anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard noted in Sexual Inversion Among the Azande that single male warriors in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Azande tribe were practicing homosexuality since pre-colonialism. Some in the Azande also practiced lesbianism in polygamous families.
Before European rule was imposed on the Azande there was a good deal of fighting between kingdoms…the adult male population of each kingdom was organized in military companies [of single and married men]…it was the custom for members of bachelor companies, some of whom would always be living in barracks at court, to take boy-wives. This was undoubtedly brought about by the scarcity of marriageable women in the days when the nobility and also the richer commoners kept large harems and were able to do so because bridewealth was hard to come by and they were able to acquire it more easily than poorer men. Most young men consequently married late—well into their twenties and thirties—and, because girls were engaged (in a legal sense married) very young, often at birth, the only way youths could obtain satisfaction from a woman was in adultery…So, the risk being too great, it was the custom for cautious bachelors in the military companies who were living at court, if they were not content to masturbate—a practice to which no shame is attached, though a young man would not do it in public—to marry boys and satisfy their sexual needs with them. A youth of position in his company might have more than one boy (kumba gude). To these boys their warrior mates were badiya ngbanga ‘court lovers.’
Evans-Pritchard further writes that Azande princes were even accompanied by boys who attended to their sexual needs. Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe indicate in Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities that women in Lesotho engaged in long-term lesbian relationships called motsoalle (“special friend”).
There are some historians who even suggest that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two ancient Egpytian male royal servants who lived c. 2400 B.C., were possibly the first homosexual couple in history. While this is arguable, there are ancient paintings that depict them in romantic positions.
Homosexuality has also been observed in over 1,500 species of animals with extensive documentation of about 500. So did animals somehow contract this Western disease as well…? Keep in mind that animals have far less complex social structures than we do. Nature v. nurture…?
Important Ethiopian social and religious influencers have been strongly voicing their homophobia and encouraging others to do so as well. They have continued to make clear that LGBT Ethiopians apparently don’t exist and have silenced conversation about their existence let alone their rights and protections.
Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism and charities and societies laws unfortunately severely hinder any advocacy related to LGBT rights or the provision of health and social welfare services. This becomes problematic since those Ethiopians who engage in same-sex intercourse are now at risk for sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Let alone preventative health services, there are no mental health services offered to homosexuals. This further becomes a problem since hetero and homosexual sex tourism in Ethiopia has grown significantly in the past few years. In my last visit to Ethiopia, I noticed a number of young male and female prostitutes in some neighborhoods of Addis Ababa, many around affluent areas, including by hotels and Western embassies. There needs to be at least one organization that can implement robust programs to ensure that these sex workers are protected from diseases and infections.
Major international nongovernmental organizations and foreign governments including the United States have failed in pressuring the Government of Ethiopia to provide health and social welfare programs that are sensitive to the LGBT community. Although the Government of Ethiopia is quick to point out that technically anyone can get access to basic health services regardless of their sexual orientation, the reality of discrimination and outright hate of gays in Ethiopia trumps that statement.
Homophobia and homosexuality predate the Abrahamic faiths that most Ethiopians vigorously defend and follow. And loosening the legal and social grip on homosexuality will not make Ethiopia or Ethiopians any less religious. This is a matter of human and civil rights. Furthermore, it is the basic issue of discrimination that I’m talking about. No Ethiopian, no human should be discriminated upon—not only for race, gender, creed, religion, politics, ethnicity, etc., but also for sexual orientation.
Gay Ethiopians are Ethiopians whether you like it or not. Gay Ethiopians are people whether you like it or not. We should only evaluate and judge people by what they have done, not by what they believe in or who they love.
One’s rights do not stop or start where or when you want them to.
*In this article, I use LGBT, gays and homosexuals interchangeably for the sake of simplicity but I am aware that there are many who do not identify with the heterosexual-homosexual continuum.