Beki and his friends sit around a table on the deserted terrace of the Sally café on Addis Ababa’s bustling Bole road. The sun is beginning to set and the cool evening air has driven the other patrons inside. The half-dozen young men, all in their 20s, remain outdoors, sipping macchiatos and fruit juices and discussing the day’s news—a seemingly quintessential group of guys revelling in the Ethiopian capital’s early evening café culture.
Except that Beki and his friends are far from that. For them, holding hands or draping an arm around another’s shoulders—everyday signs of male friendship in Ethiopia—could have a different, and dangerous, meaning: a demonstration of love or affection they dare not show in this deeply conservative country.
“I knew I was gay since I was 12 but I didn’t say anything because I thought I was the only one,” says Beki (his Facebook moniker—he is too afraid to disclose his real name). “I learned informally that what I was feeling was wrong, that it was a sin. I tried not to be gay. I did try. I didn’t want to bring shame on the family.”
He was 23 years old when he eventually admitted that he was homosexual, but even then only to a childhood companion who had already confessed his own attraction to men. Through this solitary gay friend, Beki was introduced to a vibrant community of Ethiopian gay men on Facebook. “I was relieved that it wasn’t just me in the country feeling this way,” he explains.
In the three years since Beki joined this virtual community, it has more than doubled in size to about 3,500 members, he says. “Facebook is the only thing that we have,” Beki explains, adding that there are no clubs or bars in Addis Ababa where gay men and women can congregate openly.
It is through this network that Beki found his tight-knit group of friends. “Most Ethiopian gay people are not this lucky,” he says, casting his eyes around the table.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for these acquaintances to hang out and “be themselves” in public. Just a few weeks earlier they had been asked to leave a café in Piassa, the old heart of the city, after a customer complained.
The café owner “wouldn’t have dared before, but nowadays they will tell you to go”, complains Ezana (his online pseudonym). “We are one step closer to discrimination. One day they might come to my house.”
Over the past two or three years, Ethiopia has witnessed a small but growing campaign against homosexuality, rooted in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, an ancient, indigenous branch of Christianity.
About 44% of Ethiopia’s 90m citizens identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, according to the 2007 census. The country also has a substantial Muslim minority, which makes up around 34% of the population, as well as a smaller (19%) community of Protestants, according to the census.
At the forefront of the anti-gay movement is the Weyiniye Abune Teklehaimanot Spiritual Association (WATSA), a religious society linked to the Orthodox church. Established in 1994, the association has more than 1,000 active members and operates out of 16 different centres in Ethiopia and 12 outside the country.
In June 2013, the association released a documentary entitled “No Silence About the 666 Satanic Act of Homosexuality in Ethiopia”, which includes supposedly undercover footage of men wearing women’s clothing attending a secret gay party and depicts a gay man slapping his arm to reveal the numbers 666—the sign of the devil—on his skin.
Dereje Negash, chair of WATSA, claims that homosexuality is a Western import and did not exist in Ethiopia until recently. He blames sex tourism and the diaspora for its spread. “[Homosexuality] has a 50-year history in Ethiopia, but the number is increasing and the cases have been getting serious in the past five years,” Mr Negash insists.
Mr Negash is not alone in this belief. Adey Tamire, a master’s student at Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies, agrees. “It’s a Western thing,” she says assuredly. “It’s never been in the culture of Ethiopia to be gay.” Tirsit Yetbarek, a fellow student, is less certain: “It could have been in Ethiopia before, but now it is becoming more visible,” she says.
They both speculate that foreign films and television shows depicting homosexuality are encouraging people to adopt the “lifestyle”.
Gay sexual activity is illegal in Ethiopia, as it is in most countries on the continent: 36 African states currently criminalise homosexuality. In Mauritania and Sudan, and in northern Nigeria and southern Somalia (where sharia law is practised), it is punishable by death, according to Amnesty International.
Homosexuality has been unlawful in Ethiopia since 2005, when a new criminal code was introduced. Under Articles 629-631, a homosexual act is punishable by imprisonment for not less than one year and up to 15 years if “violence, intimidation or coercion, trickery or fraud” is used.
However, no one has been charged or convicted of the crime since the new legislation was introduced, says human rights lawyer Abebe Hailu. The criminal system is already overloaded, leaving no time—and therefore little judicial appetite—to prosecute homosexuality, he maintains.
“The law is not the problem,” Mr Hailu says, especially since it is not currently being enforced. “This is a conservative society, deeply religious, and we have lived in isolation for three centuries,” he adds. Mr Hailu worries that, given the strength of homophobic public feeling, it would be a mistake to promote gay rights at this juncture. “My personal opinion is to keep quiet. Talking about homosexuality will not help. It will create more social problems.”
Beki and his friends agree, but only to a certain extent. “If we raise our flag it will be worse than in Uganda,” they say, referring to the recent state-supported surge of homophobia in the east African country. But they are still keen to highlight the worsening conditions for gay people in Ethiopia, albeit anonymously.
The group used to go out together to straight clubs and bars in Addis Ababa, but now feel too conspicuous and afraid to do so. Some members of the group have had stones thrown at them and been called “bushti”—the Amharic equivalent of the derogatory term “faggot”—in the street. Increasingly, they have taken to meeting at one another’s apartments, careful to ensure that female friends also pay visits.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the anti-homosexuality campaign is its conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia. Mr Negash, for instance, does not appear to draw a distinction between the two.
Erroneously interpreting a report produced by the Bright for Children Voluntary Association, a child protection NGO, Mr Negash asserts that homosexuals abuse 22% of all children in Ethiopia. The actual research indicates that 47 instances of the sexual abuse of boys were reported to the police in Addis Ababa during 2004, representing about 22% of all cases of abuse. He uses this incorrect interpretation of the data as the basis for calling for a strengthening of the law against homosexuality.
The danger is that this misinformation is gaining traction in many quarters of society. Ms Yetbarek and her friends believe that if a boy is raped he will become gay and they too would like to see prison sentences for homosexuality increased. They also express dismay that a government proposal to include homosexuality (along with genocide, human trafficking and terrorism) on a list of unpardonable offences was quietly sidelined in early April.
Homophobic sentiment is strong in Ethiopia. Whether speaking to taxi drivers, university students or middle-class professionals, it is clear that being gay is widely considered to be morally and religiously wrong. Mr Negash says that 97% of the population is opposed to homosexuality and anecdotal evidence suggests his estimate is not wildly inaccurate.
The Addis Ababa Youth Forum is a political organisation that claims to have 55,000 members. Some analysts refer to it as “the youth wing” of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Together with Mr Negash’s WATSA, the forum had planned an anti-gay demonstration in Addis Ababa for the end of April. Government institutions such as the tourism and children affairs bureaus and the Addis Ababa police commission had given their support to the march, according to Mr Negash, who said the organisers were expecting 200,000 people to attend.
The government, however, revoked permission for the protest one week before it was due to take place.
What worries Beki and his friends is that next time, the government may not choose to take the quieter line. How long will it be, in the current climate, before Mr Negash and his kind are given the run of Addis Ababa’s streets? It is this that compels them to speak out now, whatever the dangers may be. “We want people to know that we are human beings,” Beki says. “We are not cursed. We are not devils.”
Pic Credit: By Magnus Manske
This article was first published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa
Elissa Jobson is a freelance journalist based in Ethiopia. She is the Addis Ababa correspondent for The Africa Report and Business Day and also writes for The Guardian. Prior to this she was editor of Global: The International Briefing. She holds a BA and master’s degree from Cambridge University in the UK.