Friday, November 16, 2012

Gays in Ethiopia: Reaction of the State.


The Late Ethiopian Prime Minister allowed some gay activists to conduct rally in Meskel Square, but denied security. He was sure the public would stone them to death-rumors.

"“What do you and an ambulance have in common?” A driver besides me in a cafe asked me. I don’t know I answered in surprise. The guy leaned towards me and said, “You both get loaded from the rear and go whoo-whoo,” and he run away. I was shocked and terrified as if everybody there heard and recognized me," said Daniel.

I was assigned by the media institution I am working at, the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency, to cover news for the news briefing by the Inter Religious Council of Ethiopia /IRCE/. Prominent religious leaders planned to meet as to express their anger about the growing same sex practice in the country and to oppose the conference organized by the African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), in Jupiter Hotel prior to the 16th International Conference on AIDs and STDs in Africa /ICASA/ in 2011.

I did a mini research for the story I could produce the next day. I went to a local non-governmental organization which helps victims of forced sexual assault where I was sure to get someone who would be a self witness to show my point- the physical and psychological effect of being a gay. It was then I met with Daniel.

Daniel Degu, whose name has been changed for the purpose of this feature, owns the above story. Daniel had been a gay since 2008. Daniel, 21, was born in a small village called Cheko, 280k.ms south of Addis Ababa. He came to Addis Ababa at his 16 and worked every bits and pieces to survive and help his family at the countryside. Once I told him my objective Daniel was voluntary to tell his trauma off record. However, since it was decided not cover the issue, my research was to no avail till this day. 

Daniel joined the life of gays when he was assistant taxi driver. One day as he was working between Piazza and Megenagna, a black African man gave him 10 Birr and his business card for a 1.80 birr drive. “I don’t know why he was such generous to me. I was a bit surprised but called him at night. I am not good in English. What I only understood from our 3 minutes long conversation is only that he was in Hilton hotel, Guest room number 332 at that moment.”

“I knocked his door; he was half dressed when he opened and invited me to get in to. It was my first experience to see such a luxurious bedroom with lots of chocolates, liquors and cosmetics. We only exchanged few words before we went out for lunch. I was too eager to know the reason of his splash of money on me. But he kept quiet. Once we had lunch he took me to an open area besides the swimming pool where we begun to drink which I had never before,” Daniel witnessed. One can simply look a grief on his face while recalling those early days that changed his life for worse.

“He told me he was from South Africa. He came to Ethiopia a week ago to visit tourist sites. While we were chatting, in most of which I were listener, he had just begun to clasp my hands and kiss my chick. I then begun to realize the reason of my presence there when he hug me and kiss my finger tips. However, since I was filled to the brim and the mode was so sexy, I could not resist his move. The next morning I found myself in a bed with a pain in my anus. I remember we had sex once; but the pain was ten times more. He gave me oil and helped me treat myself.”

With a shivering voice Daniel continued, “Touring Ethiopia from South to North, we slept for 15 days together. He was rich enough to lavishly quench my materialistic interest. Since then I stopped working on taxi. When we were back to Addis, he introduced me with some South Africans in Ethiopia who too are gays. I accustomed to chew chat, smoke cigarette and take drugs and alcohols which they brought from homeland. Being drunk and lost consciousness, we usually made group sex. And in all cases I was the receptive.” Daniel bent his head to hide his wet eye.
Physicians agree that the risk of HIV prevalence is higher for homosexuals. Some even make fun that GAY rather stands for Got AIDs Yet?, to imply how much gays are vulnerable to STDs. Daniel is now HIV/AIDS positive; he has serious infection problem and abdominal pain. He is unable to work on daily basis and serve his need. However, thanks to an NGO, he is now getting full treatment for free and is taking anti retro-viral treatment /ART/.
The first record of possible homosexual couples in history is commonly regarded as Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, an Egyptian male couple, who lived around the 2400 BC. In Ancient Rome the young male body remained a focus of male sexual attention; but relationships were between free men and slaves who took the receptive role in sex.
During the Renaissance, wealthy cities in northern Italy - Florence and Venice in particular- were renowned for their widespread practice of same-sex love. But even as many of the male population were engaging in same-sex relationships, the authorities were prosecuting, fining, and imprisoning a good portion of that population. From the second half of the 13th century, death was the punishment for male homosexuality in most of Europe.
The number of people who are identified as gay is difficult to estimate reliably. In the modern West, according to major studies, 1% to 3% of the population is homosexual, while 2% to 10% have had some form of same-sex sexual contact within their lifetime. Reports estimate that there are at least 50,000 sex workers on the streets of Addis Ababa; out of them 5,000 are gay sex workers. While these numbers seem almost incredible, it’s hard to verify them either way because of its secretive nature.
Streets around international hotels, night clubs of foreigners’ preference and broker meditation places are where most Ethiopian boys are recruited for the satisfaction of gay visitors. Besides, media reports indicate gay sexual assault on children and young people is increasing. They report approximately 300 such rapes annually. Most of the cases are rarely brought to court and those that come to court get away with minimum sentence.

Seifu Hagos whose findings were featured in a publication of the Ethiopian Public Health Association, argued that homosexuals are not foreign to our society but part of it. According to Seifu, foreigners aggravate the issue and young people are attracted by the foreign currency that is offered for their services. This makes them easily join the ranks of male sex workers.

Following organized demands like gay pride movements, the practice of gay is relating with democracy. States which were against it are changing their mind in the name of respecting citizens’ choice and human rights. Strong public support for same-sex marriage exceeded strong opposition by a significant margin for the first time this year in ABC News/Washington Post polls. 53 percent of Americans say gay marriage should be legal, up from 36 % in 2006.

Barrack Obama, President of the United States of America, last may declared his support for gay marriage as part of the 2012 presidential election campaign. Weeks after, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN that he has "no problem with it." Recently, the State Department has implied it will ban aid for those African countries which do not respect the rights of gays. And the previous week, the French Cabinet proposed a bill that allow same sex marriage and grant them the right to adopt.

Though there are pro gay movements in Ethiopia, too, the case is different. In a nation distinguished by religion the public’s sentiment extend to almost undivided despise for homosexuality. In 2008 clerics of different religious organizations and government officials gathered together to discuss the prevalence of homosexuality in Ethiopia. All participants were united in denouncing same sex unions as the “pinnacle of immorality" and urged the government to adopt more stringent laws to deal with such practices. The stance taken by them represents the attitudes of a great percentage of Ethiopians.

Although the Ethiopian Constitution accepts international human rights and individual rights, it acknowledges that these can be limited by public health, education and societal norms and traditions. This clear recognition of social moral identity means that the government is constitutionally obliged to protect and serve the cultural, religious and traditional character of the nation.      
Same-sex intercourse officially carries the death penalty in several Muslim nations: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Sudan, and Yemen. There are also countries today in the Middle East and Africa, as well as several countries in Asia, the Caribbean and the South Pacific that outlaw homosexuality. However in Ethiopia where both the Muslim and Christian community do oppose same sex intercourse, the maximum penalty is three to four years of imprisonment which has even rarely been put into effect.

Despite the urge from different sects of the society, the government has kept quiet. A mocking rumor has it that some gay activists asked the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi to make rally at Meskel Square. The Great Leader allowed them on condition that he would not guarantee their security. He was doing so for he knows the public will stone them to death. 

The state media, prohibited by their editorial policy, do not report on same sex practices. Thus, we seldom hear/listen to such programs that neither condemn nor praise the gay community. With all the odds and struggle from both sides, will this seemingly ‘do not ask, do not tell’ policy of the government lasts long?
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