Much to the joy of LGBT rights groups and the chagrin of the religious right, Ethiopia has pushed back against the anti-gay movement this past week. Here’s why that matters, and what it might mean.
As we had previously reported, Ethiopia’s lawmakers had been considering legislation which would have enhanced the country’s existing ban on same-sex sexual relationships, which currently can mean up to 15 years in prison, to make homosexuality a non-pardonable offense and therein ensuring that LGBTs convicted under the law couldn’t be granted early leave from prison.
The legislation had been condemned as setting the stage for further anti-LGBT measures, but in a rather sharp about-face, the AP reports that Ethiopia’s lawmakers have now abandoned that move.
Information Minister Redwan Hussein is quoted by the Guardian as saying: “It [homosexuality] is not a serious crime. Plus, it is not as widespread as some people suggest. It is already a crime and a certain amount of punishment is prescribed for it. The government thinks the current jail term is enough.” As a result, homosexuality will not be struck from the list of crimes that can receive a presidential pardon.
The government has also moved to prevent a religiously motivated anti-gay rally that had been planned for April 26. The rally, which was being organized by the government-affiliated Addis Ababa Youth Forum and a religious group associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, had seemed set to go ahead but, reports suggest, had failed to garner support among Orthodox church officials.
So why has the government nixed the rally? The exact reason isn’t clear, but church officials are quoted as mentioning that the move was heavily protested by “gay groups,” and that they had been “threatened” — which may mean human rights groups advocating on behalf of LGBTs in the country had spoken out about possible cuts to Ethiopia’s aid. There was also significant international pressure on this issue. Commentators within the country believe this may have been an exercise in essentially publicizing Ethiopia’s already strong stance against homosexuality as part of a wider political move ahead of next year’s elections.
That doesn’t mean that the threat to Ethiopia’s LGBT population has gone away, however. Dereje Negash, leader of the so-called Christian association Woyniye Abune Teklehaimanot, has said religious groups will continue to fight for amendments to the law to further penalize the country’s LGBT community.
“We want to continue with our plan… want the Ethiopian people to know about this situation and we need to have a lot of rallies to stop these actions. The constitution should be revised because the situation that is going on right now is getting worse.”
Orthodox church officials have even contended that gay people are actively recruiting young men in particular, and that homosexuals are regularly raping and “infecting” others, and so action must be taken.
The majority of Ethiopia’s population identifies as Orthodox Christian, and the Church has considerable power. In recent months in particular there seems to have been strong suggestions that religious leaders opposing gay rights have moved toward emphasizing so-called rehabilitation for homosexuals or, to put it another way, ex-gay therapy. They contend to have helped hundreds of gay people leave their homosexuality behind and want government support to continue their work.
This creates a two-pronged attack: further stigmatize gay people through pursuing though not necessarily passing discriminatory legislation while offering LGBTs only one way out, which is to conform to expectations of binary heterosexuality.
That Ethiopia’s officials have backed off from this flirting with further criminalization has, though, been read as a small victory for LGBT rights in the country. Does it really add up to anything meaningful in a wider sense, though? It is hard to say. As Negash is quoted as saying above, there clearly is a strong appetite for further hounding Ethiopia’s LGBT population.
However, taking the devolving LGBT rights situation in North Africa in particular, where several other governments have capitulated to anti-LGBT forces, this does show that the backslide on human rights isn’t inevitable — and that is meaningful in itself.
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