By Katie J.M. Baker / December 13 2013 12:42 PM
In a bleak little apartment on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, nearly a dozen men in their 20s take turns trying on a pair of black skinny jeans and watching Project Runway episodes downloaded off YouTube. There’s no plumbing, Internet or furniture, but because the space is private, it’s paradise.
When friends enter, they’re greeted with chirpy Hiiiiis – an homage to RuPaul’s Drag Race – before joining the jumble of cute boys sitting on the floor, drinking tea, eating spaghetti, and sharing photos from a recent “glamping” (glam camping) trip. Boche ruffles his boyfriend’s hair – they share this apartment with a friend – as he tells me how they met. Victor shows me the cursive tattoo over his heart: B.T.W., which stands for Lady Gaga’s acceptance anthem Born This Way. Like most of his friends, Victor still lives with his parents, so he’ll be staying the night, as he does most weekends. A cold tile floor and threadbare cots have never seemed so cozy.
If these giggling, affectionate men acted this way – unabashedly, stereotypically gay – on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, they could be expelled, beaten up, fired, disowned, or jailed. This is the reality of what it means to be gay in Ethiopia.
Seventy-six countries criminalize sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and 38 of them, including Ethiopia, are in Africa. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 97 percent of Ethiopians think homosexuality should be outlawed. Unlike Mauritania, Sudan, and Northern Nigeria, Ethiopia doesn’t mandate the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts, but thanks to draconian laws that forbid activism while allowing Western evangelicals to promote homophobia, Ethiopia is on track to join their ranks.
In many countries, it’s getting better for the LGBT community. In Ethiopia, it’s getting worse.
A Society Eviscerated
Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law allows the government to hand down 20-year sentences to anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, [or] disseminates” statements that the government considers terrorism – meaning, essentially, that the police can search and arrest anyone they please, from reporters to activists, without a warrant. The country’s anti-advocacy law bars charities and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad from participating in activities that advance human rights and the promotion of equality. The latter measure is both cruelly specific – children and the disabled are two examples of many marginalized groups that can’t be protected – and vague enough to scare nearly everyone.
As a result of these laws, both adopted in 2009, there are no health centers, charities, publications or even nightclubs that expressly serve Ethiopia’s underground LGBT community – the few reputable organizations that once existed have been shuttered or forced to remove any mentions of human rights from their mandates. Given that a volunteer who, say, dares to hand out lubricant to gay men could face imprisonment and jeopardize his or her groups’ larger-scale work, organizations have decided it’s not worth the risk.
Prominent international financing organizations like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has convinced repressive governments to devote funds to educating and treating MSM (men who have sex with men), have had no luck in Ethiopia, which refuses to fund or even permit any MSM-targeted HIV prevention, treatment or care programming. Gays are persecuted in Uganda, but that country’s health ministry recently admitted that specialized clinics for LGBT people have helped combat HIV rates; Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu, the Ethiopian Minister of Health, would only tell Newsweek that homosexuality is unlikely to be decriminalized “in the near future,” although any person “can access any type of services regardless of their sexual orientation.” More than two dozen gay and lesbian Ethiopians interviewed by Newsweek said that’s a sick joke; the community is terrified to seek care.
Ethiopia employs a “two-pronged strategy that results in a climate of fear and self-censorship,” said Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director, Africa division. “The government has effectively closed off the country in terms of independent investigation. They’ve eviscerated the civil society. Frankly, it’s shocking.”
Lefkow said HRW, one of the few organizations that once researched LGBT issues in Ethiopia, has found it “increasingly challenging” to do such work, since it involves sneaking in undercover workers. She was surprised that gay Ethiopians had agreed to talk to Newsweek, even anonymously. “You should check up on [your sources] after the article comes out,” she warned, “because the government will.”
Several prominent global watchdog organizations said Ethiopia wasn’t on their radar due to limited resources and difficulties getting around the anti-advocacy law. “The U.S., U.K. and other governments give huge amounts of aid to Ethiopia while remaining tight-lipped about the extensive violations of human rights happening throughout the country,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher.
Aaron Jensen, a spokesman for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said in an email that the U.S. supports LGBT rights “and frequently delivers this message in public statements and private meetings with government officials,” but would not go into details. It seems that the most productive way the U.S. State Department “delivers this message” is by copying and pasting the same two paragraphs year after year in its Ethiopian Human Rights Report, which briefly notes “some reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals” while acknowledging that “reporting was limited due to fear of retribution, discrimination, or stigmatization.”
Feeling God’s Hate
Most Ethiopians insist that homosexuality is a Western disease, says Mercy, a 28-year-old LGBT activist who fled to Washington, D.C. from Addis last year. A 26-year-old Ethiopian who currently studies in Boston and goes by the name Happy on Facebook said that he grew up thinking it was a “Western thing” to be gay.
“Ethiopia is supposed to be clean and holy,” he wrote in an email. “I felt like such a dirty person for having those feelings.”
Leaders of Ethiopian Muslims, heads of the Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic churches, government officials, members of the Ethiopian Parliament, leaders of political parties, and youth organizations routinely put their differences aside to attend conferences on the “gay problem” – one last year, entitled “Homosexuality and Its Associated Social Disastrous Consequences,” was held in the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. “Ethiopians do not need their identity to be dictated for them from outside no matter how wealthy or powerful the forces applying the pressure,” Abune Paulos, the former head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, told conference goers last year.
But, while Ethiopia prohibits foreign LGBT-related activism, it welcomes international religious groups that preach homophobia. Thus, “religion is used as proxy for discrimination,” explains Ty Cobb, director of Global Engagement at the Human Rights Campaign, by groups who “couch hateful rhetoric in faith-based terms.”
Last year’s anti-gay conference and others like it are organized and funded by United for Life, a Western Evangelical Christian organization that receives funding from the U.K. and U.S. In May 2013, United for Life hosted a workshop during which police told government officials, religious leaders and health professionals that “homosexual family members and neighbors” were likely to sexually abuse children. A representative from the Ethiopian Inter-Religious Council Against Homosexuality announced that the council was making “promising” progress in convincing the government to introduce the death penalty to punish “homosexual acts.” United for Life’s president, Seyoum Antonius, has made it clear that he won’t quit anti-gay advocacy until Ethiopia adopts the death penalty. One of his rallying cries is, “Africa will become a graveyard for homosexuality!”
In 2009, clandestine gay get-togethers were so popular in Addis that a Wikileaks cable from the U.S. embassy cited them as evidence of a “thriving” underground LGBT social scene. But no one can recall any taking place after last June, when a documentary called No Silence – About the 666 Satanic Act of Homosexuality in Ethiopia made national headlines. It didn’t live up to its lurid title: The most “egregious” moments feature men in women’s clothing drinking beer at a secret party. Still, the party-goers who were outed by the undercover cameramen had to go into hiding, especially after newspaper articles alleged that homosexuality was a contagious disease and the moral equivalent of child rape. A man named Solomon Negussie posted a comment wondering “what I can do as an Engineer to eradicate these people (I mean gays and lesbians) from Ethiopia or generally from the face of earth next to praying to God to give me the wisdom to produce a machine or virus that will kill or make them straight (like normal people!)”
The video was produced by the Gedame Tekle Haymanot Bible Association, based in Washington, D.C.
Ethiopia is a deeply religious country – the majority of its citizens are Orthodox Christian, then Muslim – but many church leaders are increasingly progressive when it comes to social issues like family planning. During a visit to the Holy Trinity Church, tour guide and longtime teacher Getenet Teshome said the church had relaxed its stance on contraception but that LGBT rights were “unthinkable” – even discussion was “highly condemned,” since gay people would “bring doom to the whole earth.” He added, with a smile, “I would kill them and expose them to the public, and I’m sure the public will never have mercy upon them.”
Even idealistic millennials are homophobic. Youth leader Hezkias Tadele, 24, championed his generation’s “openness” at November’s International Family Planning Conference in Addis but said he didn’t want to talk or even think about homosexuality, and claimed that his peers nationwide felt the same. “We want to keep our own culture,” he said.
Selamawit Tsegaye, a 25-year-old graduate student at Addis Ababa University researching homosexuality in Ethiopia, said that her human rights classmates “think homosexuals are less of a human and they deserve to die; some even say very proudly if they meet one gay man they would kill that person.”
The national campaign against sexual minorities has gained “extraordinary momentum” in the past five years, says Dagmawi Woubshet, a gay Ethiopian English professor at Cornell.
“There’s complete silence around LGBT experiences because there’s no forum for stories about the violence meted out by the state and family members on a day to day basis,” he says. “My biggest fear is that these religious organizations are monopolizing the conversation and perpetuating a fear that’s becoming impossible to combat.”
Activists in Exile
In December 2011, Addis hosted 10,000 delegates at the 16th International Conference on Aids and Sexually Transmitted Infections. Ethiopian religious leaders were enraged when they learned that African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), a continental gay rights lobby group, planned to discuss LGBT-related issues, and quickly launched a text-messaging campaign that led to widespread protests and a meeting with Ministry of Health officials. Gay Ethiopians silently watched their friends and family post Facebook statuses about their plans to burn the host hotel to the ground.
Mercy couldn’t take it anymore. As a volunteer for a few U.S.-based NGOs focused on HIV prevention and the founder of Rainbow Ethiopia, the only LGBT organization in the country – it covertly distributed condoms and safe sex information to gay men – he was invited to a preconference, and his photo appeared in the press.
A week later, Mercy – the lone gay Ethiopian willing to out himself that weekend – was detained and told to lay off the activism by police who said they’d been following him for years. Instead, he attended another AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. a few months later. When he got back, he was arrested and tortured. Fearing for his life, Mercy quickly secured a visa and escaped to Washington, D.C., where, he believes, the Ethiopian government is still monitoring him.
Mercy regularly updates Rainbow Ethiopia’s website and Facebook group and says his goal is to “spread news of what it’s really like to be gay in Ethiopia” – but it’s hard to get U.S. organizations to listen. He’s had a rough time attracting attention in Ethiopia, too. Mercy is an “ambiguous character,” says Happy, who moderates two popular gay Facebook groups: Ethiopia Gay Library, which tracks media coverage, and Zega Matters, a forum on which more than 700 people discuss LGBT issues. (Zega, which means “citizen” in Amharic, is a code word for gay). “Many in the community are doubting that he is gay in the first place because he is just like this ghost that knows everything about the community,” Happy says. “he watches you but you can’t see him.”
It’s not a good sign if one of the most dedicated LGBT activists in Ethiopia’s history is so shadowy that his allies can’t track him down.
Even U.S.-based activists like Mercy and Happy are afraid to divulge their real names or get into details about their work. Consider what happened to 26-year-old Robel Hailu, universally adored by other Zegas because he’s one of the only “out” gay Ethiopians still in Africa. Hailu “put Ethiopian Gay rights on the map,” one admirer says.
Like Mercy, Hailu attempted some LGBT activism in Addis but moved to Pretoria, South Africa in 2011 to pursue a master’s degree. In 2012, he entered the international Mr. Gay World contest. He wasn’t only the first Ethiopian to enter the pageant; he was the first black African, which meant he was pilloried in the press and shunned by his family. Hailu remembers his father’s last words to him: “I don’t want a gay son. You are not my son from this minute. It is better to kill yourself than be gay.”
Hailu moved to Cape Town after his phone wouldn’t stop ringing with anonymous death threats, and believes he’d be arrested if he returned to Ethiopia. He misses the family and friends who’ve abandoned him, but says it’s his life’s dream to start an Ethiopian LGBT organization. He just has to figure out how to do it.
“I told myself that if I put myself out there, a million people like me can start to live,” he said via Skype. “Nowadays things are worse than ever in Ethiopia.… I am not sleeping until everything sorts out.”
Afraid to Show Your Facebook
Ethiopian LGBT activists face ostracism and jail as they fight for their rights. For some gay Ethiopians who aren’t as idealistic, the Internet is enough radical change for now. “Without the Internet and social media, [being gay] is a living hell,” says Happy. “We live in hiding, in constant fear, in secrecy… with the help of the Internet, we were lucky enough to meet other gay people, make friendships, and thrive underground.”
On his closed Facebook group, Zega Matters, gay and lesbian Ethiopians ask each other questions (“Have you ever got caught while masturbating?”), post funny videos (“Every Bottom’s Thoughts”) and share tips on safe sex. The few Ethiopian lesbians who post on Zega Matters told Newsweek they don’t have any gay female friends off the Internet, so it’s comforting to share awful experiences, like when Dondo, 24, was accused of “displaying affection” on her college campus with a woman, taken to the police station, and nearly expelled.
Around two dozen well-educated, middle-class 20-something Ethiopian men have formed an intimate clique both on and offline. Some people call them The Facebookers.
Before they found each other, the Facebookers were lonely and self-hating. “I knew I was different, but I didn’t have a label for it,” says Beki, “and I didn’t think there was anyone else out there like me.” The Facebookers knew of starved, homeless sex workers who would sleep with anyone – young teenagers ignored by authorities, even when assaulted, unless they were willing to “convert” to heterosexuality – and married men who allegedly had affairs with other men, but they didn’t know any gay Ethiopians who weren’t ashamed or persecuted. Their only proud and out role models were from mainstream Western pop culture, which explains why their weekend get-togethers resemble the sassy PG-rated sleepover party of a Bravo executive’s dreams: Many LGBT people find those stereotypes limiting, but for the Facebookers, they’re liberating.
Beki says the movie Boat Trip (2002), about two straight men who get stuck on a gay cruise (Roger Ebert said the film was so bad that “not only does it offend gays, it offends everyone else”) changed his life; another Facebooker says Get Real (1998), a critically acclaimed British film about a gay teenager, was a revelation. Starved and searching for what one called “gay resources” – from porn to episodes of Glee – the Facebookers eventually discovered gay Yahoo! groups, then Facebook, then each other. Now, they go clubbing on weekends and meet for “lifesaving” lunch breaks during the week. They text each other constantly.
Most of the men have two Facebook accounts: a straight one for family and old friends, and a gay one under fake names like “Lucy Fur” or “Ben Dominus” (the latter reminded the user of a Greek goddess). “It sounds like I spend an unnecessary time on Facebook, but it’s my home,” Ezana explains. “It’s my ‘hood. My everything. On Facebook, you can be angry when you want to be angry, you can miss someone if you really miss someone, and you can be naughty when you want to get naughty.”
The Facebookers allow me to tag along as they go to restaurants, clubs and their favorite meet-up spot, an elegant, quiet hotel frequented by expats and backpackers. It has a shady terrace in the back, ideal for conversations no one will overhear. Some of them constantly look over their shoulder, while others are comfortable acting, as they say, “Fagulous” – like when Ezana, wearing cargo-patterned harem pants and a neck scarf, squeals, “Ooh, my new Nikes!” after a waitress accidentally spills coffee on his feet. Beki says he has felt progressively more comfortable being himself since he started hanging out with The Facebookers. “I do a lot of snapping,” he jokes, doing just that with his well-manicured nails and a sly smile.
When I ask if it’s not obvious to strangers that they’re gay – a dude-only crew of super stylish, impeccably groomed guys in fitted leather jackets who all yelp and shimmy when the DJ plays Lady Gaga – they tell me they often get suspicious looks but usually nothing worse.
But that’s because they don’t push it. When they do grind up too close on the dance floor, they risk getting kicked out of clubs. All can name friends who’ve been beaten up for acting “too much like themselves” in public. I can’t take their photos, or use their real names, or even describe any of the spots where they like to drink or dance because then they’d be in danger – they’ve already had to abandon a few hangouts that became known as gay favorites.
But when the Facebookers are together, they’re too blissed out to care about the risks they take, like teenagers in that heady, social butterfly phase of middle school. They sling their arms around each other and show off their customized jewelry. They whisper about cute boys who work at the nearby pizza place. They’re in BFF love.
The Facebookers help each other out in times of need, too, like when a friend was kicked out of his parent’s house after his sister accused him of being a pedophile, or when two gay students were outed and suspended from their university. But, overall, they’re more concerned with their weekend plans than how to spark a revolution. Sure, most of their families and friends would abandon them if they knew they liked to have sex with men, and they can never let their guard down; but together, they feel safe. It’s a double life, but it’s better than no life at all.
Some say they’re slowly coming out thanks to the support they get on Facebook. One night last fall, Victor’s sister asked him if he wanted to test out some of her nail polish. The two ended up painting each other’s nails and chatting late into the night. Later, Victor posted a photo of his shiny nails with some thoughts:
“It got me thinking, is this normal, do most guys sit on a couch and have their nails done by their sister?… Does she know, is that why she is comfortable?… Does she suspect?… Was it a test which i have failed so miserably? Couldn’t figure it out. Its true that we all give these little signs that we r and might be gay. We like to cook, we like to put on that perfume which will make all heads turn, we dress nicely and neatly, and well, we walk the walk. I call these signs, THE COMING OUT SLOWLY SIGNS. They guide ppl in helping them to sink the idea of our sexuality slowly… Don’t hesitate to be urself. It will make ur life easier and it will also make their understanding way easier.”
The Facebookers don’t like to think about the future. How will they ever be able to pursue long-term romantic relationships if they have to keep them secret? As they enter their 30s, “the pressure will get stronger to get married and have kids,” Beki says. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
The largest barrier for most is what their parents would think; not one has come out to his mother or father. “My mom would literally die,” Ezana says. “I would rather be depressed and sad for the rest of my life than tell her I’m gay.”
“I Cry Over Them.… “
One night, a Facebooker invites Dabir, a seemingly shy 24-year-old he met online, to join us for dinner. Dabir’s not quite mellow enough to gel with the group, but I soon realize he’s not timid, just paranoid: He’s more interested in revolution than Project Runway.
Over the next few days, Dabir, a tireless overachiever who excelled at university and has worked as a teacher and an educational consultant, shows me the streets where gay teenagers who are kicked out of their homes search for rich tourists to sleep with in exchange for cab fare, and the bars where it’s too dangerous to pick up guys in the bathroom. He’s intense and effusive – thoughts on both sex and Karl Marx are often punctuated with “Wow!” – and becomes agitated when he talks about the young people who come to him for advice. “I cry over them,” he says. “I don’t give a f**k about me. I want to help them.” That’s partially because he used to be one of them, although by choice: when he moved to Addis after college from his hometown a few hundred miles away, he had to “do so much stuff to survive” – stuff he’d rather not talk about on the record.
Dabir has big plans to build a shelter and community center for gay kids who lack the physical and mental resources they need to survive, partially funded by Planet Romeo, a popular gay dating site with a foundation that backs LGBT projects in disadvantaged regions around the world. This proposal is the first they’ve sponsored in East Africa. Dabir assumes he’ll have to flee the country eventually, even though that means abandoning his family, who he has supported ever since his father died a few years ago. His younger brother and sister recently moved into the closet-sized room he rents on the fringes of Addis. Neither of them know he’s gay, Dabir says, and neither of them would accept him if they did.
One afternoon, Dabir invites me over to his home for coffee and khat, a leafy stimulant that’s illegal in most countries but sold on every street corner in Addis. We chew it with peanuts to mask the sour taste while his 18-year-old sister prepares a traditional coffee ceremony, brewing, roasting, and grinding the beans before serving me cup after cup as the sun goes down. Their 21-year-old brother reads a book in the corner. I grow progressively wired – and uneasy – as Dabir shows me his most prized possessions. Other than a suit hanging on the wall that his sister paid for by selling coffee beans for a year and his dad’s copy of Das Kapital, most of them involve shirtless men and are in a folder on his laptop.
After watching a clip of Wentworth Miller coming out as gay – a “huge deal” for Ethiopian fans, Dabir says – and a bizarre gay parody of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” we settle in to watch Prayers for Bobby, a Lifetime made-for-TV movie starring Sigourney Weaver, based on a true story of a gay teenager who killed himself because his family wouldn’t accept him.
Afterward, Dabir reads from a printed copy of Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech, the first by any U.S. president to address gay rights. “I was like, Wow!” he says, beaming.
Dabir’s brother speaks English and has been watching and listening to us for hours, occasionally asking me questions about whether homosexuality is genetic or how American’s feel about gay marriage. I’m convinced there’s no way he doesn’t know Dabir is into guys, but Dabir insists I’m wrong. “He might suspect, but he won’t admit it,” he explains later, because the concept is “too disgusting” for him to fathom – and, perhaps, because then he couldn’t bring himself to take his brother’s money and live in his home. And even though they’d desert him if they knew the truth, Dabir worries about leaving his family: how will they survive without him?
The Facebookers – who Dabir wishes cared less about pop divas and more about future generations of gay Ethiopians – don’t think the government will ever let him open his shelter. But Dabir is determined to prove them wrong and gain their support, even though he’s already receiving threatening Facebook messages and texts warning him to stop his “illegal actions.”
“I’m nervous, but there will be people who will take the next step after I leave,” he tells me. “I don’t think I can do everything by myself.”
“Yes,” he reiterates one more time before we leave his room for the night, and he closes his laptop, the photo of his sister that he uses as his screensaver fading to black. “They’ll take over when it’s impossible for me to function.”