By Suzanne Trimel, Amnesty USA Media Director
Denis Nzioka, a gay activist in Nairobi, was harassed constantly by neighbors who finally sent a letter demanding he leave his apartment because: “We know you are homosexual.”
Frank Mugisha in Uganda had his tires slashed and once was slapped across the face by a man who told everyone nearby: “He is a homosexual.” He recalls a neighbor coming up to him and saying: “Why are you still alive?”
“There is so much homophobia here,” said Mugisha. “I am so paranoid and do not sleep very well.”
Amnesty International researchers heard dozens of sickening stories like these about harassment and intimidation, even violence, when they spoke to gay and lesbian and transgender men and women across sub-Saharan African for its latest report, “Making Love a Crime.”
Human rights are the birthright of every one of us. Yet millions of people across the globe face imprisonment, torture, discrimination and violence because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Pepe Julian Onziem, 31, a transgender individual who in 2012 received an award from the Clinton Global Initiative for his work as an activist and has been profiled by TIME magazine, recalled that he had groceries delivered to his Ugandan home to avoid shopping in person, for safety reasons. One day the shopkeeper said to him: “I am not selling stuff to someone like you.”
On the African continent, consensual same-sex conduct is against the law in 38 countries, meaning individuals can be arrested and jailed for their sexual orientation or gender identify. Amnesty researchers are seeing reports of homophobia on the rise and more and more arrests. In Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia, individuals convicted of ‘homosexuality’ face the death penalty.
This week, President Obama will visit two of the countries that outlaw homosexuality in Africa – Senegal and Tanzania – and Amnesty International is calling on the President to speak out against this discrimination.
The criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct creates a climate where hatred, discrimination and violence can thrive and even turn deadly, as we’ve seen from the murder of Ugandan gay activist David Kato and others.
Across Africa, reports of homophobia are on the rise, even in the 16 countries that do not outlaw same-sex sexual conduct. South Africa, which has seen several positive legal developments, including allowing equal marriage for same-sex couples, has also seen at least seven people murdered between June and November 2012, in what appears to be targeted violence related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Along with other reported instances of homophobia, arrests for alleged same-sex conduct have also grown in the past decade. This development has gone hand in hand with harsher and more regressive policies being put in place in some countries. In Cameroon – where Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was sentenced to three years in prison for sending a text message to a male acquaintance – 51 people were arrested for alleged same-sex conduct since 2005. Individuals are often detained for 48 hours and forced to submit to anal examinations.
In Uganda, the harsh 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill has led to more cases of people turning in friends and neighbors to the authorities.
“The situation I’m living is very hard,” said “Stosh,” a transgender man in Uganda. “Where I used to live, the boys and straight men started throwing stones at me and my house. Two days after David Kato’s death, they smashed my window.”
Nzioka in Nairobi has faced threats and harassment due to the exposure he has received in the media for his involvement in the organization Gay Kenya.
“Now I only go on TV or radio if necessary,” he said. “I have a security plan in place.”
At the same time as the escalating arrests and homophobia overall, the past decade has also seen the flourishing of LGBTI activism on the continent by brave people who are speaking out against oppression and persecution, despite the very real risks they face.
Even though hatred and bigotry persist, these courageous activists have contributed to many positive legal developments – such as the elimination of discriminatory employment legislation in Mozambique, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Botswana and the Seychelles.
Take action with them and tell President Obama to speak out in support of these brave activists.