Pambazuka News

The Ethiopian LGBT community

Elyas Mulu Kiros

2012-03-15, Issue 576

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It has been reported frequently that clandestine homosexual groups exist in Addis Abeba, many of whom lead double lives, since being openly gay or lesbian could cost them their lives.

I recently discovered, a website dedicated to the Ethiopian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. I was never aware of it. As you may or may not know, being a homosexual is illegal in Ethiopia, where the majority of people are conservative Orthodox Christians and Muslims that consider homosexuality a sin, a crime, a heinous act; and homosexuals inside the country have to wear a mask to protect themselves from attacks.

I was raised Orthodox Christian, and I too at one point believed that homosexuals were criminals that God will burn in hell, just like what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah. And I only understood homosexuality as sodomy between male persons, as it was described in the Bible. In all honesty, I discovered words like gay, lesbian, transsexual, and bisexual once I left the country as a teenager; that may have to do with the fact that I grew up in a small town where my exposure to the outside world was quite limited. When I entered high school, I did hear about women having sexual or romantic affairs with other women in the West, but I didn’t know they were called lesbians, and the possibility of Ethiopian women being homosexuals had never crossed my mind.
The reality is that being gay or lesbian cannot be limited to one race, region, or country. Wherever there are human beings, regardless of their race or location, they are going to be faced with the question of sexuality. We Ethiopians, are not special creatures, we are not unique from the rest of humanity that we too cannot be affected by issues that other humans experience.
Having said that, one thing that Ethiopians can’t deny today is the fact there are a lot of homosexuals both inside and outside of Ethiopia. It has been reported frequently that clandestine homosexual groups exist in Addis Abeba, many of whom lead double lives, since being openly gay or lesbian could cost them their lives. Meron Tekleberhan discusses homosexuality in Addis Ababa in an interesting article entitled Revelation of Homosexual Life in Ethiopia (Tekleberhan 2011).

I question: Is it too early or too late for Ethiopia to address homosexuality? I do acknowledge that Ethiopians in Ethiopia may not be ready to face it, especially in the rural areas where the majority of the people live. I can just imagine how my parents would react if I were to tell them I am homosexual. My father would surely disown me, no doubt. And I don’t think I would even tell them if I were one; I wouldn’t expect them to understand or tolerate it. I would just want them to pass away with a peaceful mind, without bitterness against me. Let alone the people in the rural areas; even those in larger cities are not yet ready. Forget homosexuality, even sex itself is such a taboo subject in almost 99.99% of Ethiopian households. It is a very difficult position to be a homosexual in Ethiopia. But when will it be a good time? 50 years from now? 200 years? And till then these people have to live in shame for being who they are?

On the Ethiopian LGBT community website I discovered, the author makes a claim that the Agaw people of Ethiopia had a history of same-sex marriage way back in time; even before the West began to tolerate homosexuality, which obviously is a statement made to contradict the general belief in today’s Ethiopia that homosexuality is an imported, Western idea. But can the author back it up? What is his source of information? I don’t know. If you are Ethiopian or a foreigner who knows Ethiopian history, are you aware of this part of the country’s history? Are there any historical documents that can attest to the claim?
With the growing LGBT community in Addis, there is also a growing concern that has become a major headache for the general public: the growing sex industry and sexual exploitation of young boys (and girls), often by Westerners or foreigners who use their dollars as a buying power. And poverty is the primary reason for such prostitution.

Before Ethiopia becomes the next “Thailand in Africa”, do you think it’s better for it to acknowledge the existence of the minority LGBT community and protect their civil and human rights, thereby averting or reducing crimes that happen in their names? For how long can Ethiopia ignore the existence of the elephant in the room while the problems that are related to it multiply each day? Can the government crack down on illegal child prostitution without addressing the LGBT concern? What has the government done so far to aggressively fight the increasing exposure of boys and girls to prostitution and HIV/AIDS?

As Tekleberhan outlines in her article, even some of the LGBT members don’t want homosexuality to be legalized in the country, at least in the near future (Tekleberhan 2011); but they do want society to accept their existence and help them out of homosexuality—they apparently believe they can be cured from homosexuality since they relate their homosexuality to being abused or raped (when they were young boys) and to their premature exposure to the internet and Western media. But is that the reality for all the homosexuals in Ethiopia? How about the women? What made them become lesbians or bisexuals? Is it only rape, premature exposure to the internet, Western porn movies and magazines, or curiosity? What if they never had any interest in the opposite sex to begin with, and if that is the case how are they going to be “cured” from it? In a country where the information on homosexuals is so scarce, it’s really hard to make any kind of statement about their case. And society can only accept them if their sexuality is legalized. Otherwise, it’s naïve to expect that people will just accept them and will help them out of it.

I couldn’t help but think of such questions and thoughts when I came across the Ethiopian LGBT website. I hope you don’t mind that I shared with you my thoughts and questions. If you are wondering, no, I am not gay- and talking about homosexuality has never made any person a homosexual. But I do sincerely believe that Africans, and Ethiopians in particular, need to discuss this topic. You may not be gay or lesbian, but surely, you may know someone who belongs to the LBGT community (either by choice or not), who may be stigmatized because of his or her sexual identity, living a double life in order to avoid social ostracism, facing depression, self-hatred, guilt, worthlessness, blackmail, HIV/AIDS infection, or perhaps even suicidal.

Tackle this: What would you do if your (future) son or daughter declared he or she is a homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual?

If you visit Ethiopia or Eritrea and travel from region to region, you may come to the conclusion that these countries are a heaven for gays and lesbians, based on your pre-conceived notion of how same-sex couples display affection in public- by holding hands, hugging and leaning on each other.

In Ethiopia/Eritrea, it is common to see either young men or young women holding hands or hugging in public with other men and women, respectively. It is a way of expressing friendship, and has nothing to do with sexuality. But now not everyone does it, especially those who understand its sexual implication. How times/events change!


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1. Tekleberhan, M. (2011) (Part 1)
2. Tekleberhan, M. (2011) (Part 2)