Feature writing

Gay issues

Mr. President, cows are not homophobic: inside Tanzania’s LGBT crackdown

The Daily Beast

June 28, 2017

Cows “disapprove” of gay sex, insisted the Tanzanian President John Magufuli in a speech criticizing those who campaign for LGBT equality.

“Those who teach such things do not like us, brothers. They brought us drugs and homosexual practices that even cows disapprove of,” AFP reported Magufuli as saying last Thursday.

The American Veterinary Medical Association disagrees. “Cows are not homophobic. Cows don’t know if you’re gay and they don’t care,” an AVMA spokesman told The Daily Beast. (We are awaiting comment from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.)

Days after Magufuli’s speech, Interior Minister Mwigulu Nchemba threatened to arrest Tanzanian LGBT campaigners, de-register LGBT organizations in the country, and deport foreign LGBT advocates.

“I would like to remind and warn all organizations and institutions that campaign and pretend to protect homosexual interests… we are going to arrest whoever is involved and charge them in courts of law,” Nchemba said.

Foreign campaigners would be “deported within no time… they will not have even the time to unplug their mobile phones from the socket.”

“Those who are interested in homosexuality should go and live in countries that entertain such businesses,” Nchemba added. “If there’s any organization in the country that supports and campaigns for homosexuality… it shall be deregistered.”

In laws that are a hangover of British colonial rule, male homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania. As reported by Newsweek, those found guilty of having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” face 30-year prison sentences.

“Gross indecency” between two men carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to 300,000 Tanzanian shillings ($134).

Lesbianism does not fall under the scope of Tanzanian law.

The law has been rarely used in modern times, said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the LGBT rights division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But the ratcheting up of the Tanzanian government’s anti-gay rhetoric marks a “perilous moment,” she told The Daily Beast.

Until now, Ghoshal noted, such rhetoric had been the province of regional politicians and Health Minister Ummy Mwalimu, who nearly a year ago oversaw the banning of sexual lubricants, claiming they promoted homosexuality and the spread of HIV.

Ghoshal said LGBT organizations had been raided and outreach groups targeting men who have sex with men had been banned.

Gay men had been arrested and charges laid against them in recent months, she said, although the outcome of their cases was not known.

“Until recently, there was an acceptance in African governments, even if they were homophobic and transphobic, that dealing with HIV in relation to men who have sex with men was a priority.”

Ghoshal—who researched the 2013 HRW report “Treat Us Like Human Beings,” focused on sex workers, gender and sexual minorities, and people who use drugs in Tanzania—said that in the past police would arrest overtly effeminate men walking down the street, threaten to reveal the existence of their supposed homosexuality to their families, and then extort sex and/or money from them.

Anal examinations are now being used on those men suspected of being gay, which “is a very serious abuse of human rights,” said Ghoshal. She added that a number of health centers treating those with HIV and AIDS had been closed down because the government had seen them as “promoting gay sex.”

In February, the government threatened to publish a list of gay people, as the BBC reported, later backing down from the plan. On Twitter, the deputy health minister, Hamisi Kigwangalla, wrote: “Have you ever come across a gay goat or bird? Homosexuality is not biological, it is unnatural.”

Ghoshal said President Magufuli’s vituperative words against LGBT people this week emerged in the context of a speech about teenage pregnancy and fury at Western campaigners’ suggesting that teenage mothers could return to school.

Ghoshal said LGBT Tanzanians generally lead quite closeted lives. “There has never been a huge amount of people out. There is a huge amount of stigma, particularly when it comes to the likelihood of family rejection.”

But, Ghoshal added, there has been progress in recent years, with some people forming and joining campaigning organizations, “and the formation of an underground LGBT life, and possibly more people feeling comfortable with their own identities.”

The Daily Beast reached out to the Tanzanian organization LGBT Voice, founded in 2009, and will add comment from them if forthcoming. (James Wandera Ouma, the organization’s executive director, wrote a wide-ranging essay on what it is like to be LGBT in Tanzania in 2014.)

The present homophobic focus of the East African country’s government may in part be a deflecting measure, Ghoshal said. Initially elected in 2015 as an administration Tanzanians hoped would clean up corruption, Magufuli’s government has come under fire “for not accomplishing all it set out to do,” said Ghoshal. “With governments feeling under threat, what we see is them going after vulnerable groups like LGBT people who they can use as scapegoats, and rally the general population against gay people as a common enemy.”

The government is also restricting freedom of speech and expression more widely, Ghoshal added.

Time will tell how vicious and real the LGBT crackdown in Tanzania turns out to be.

While the rhetoric might be saber rattling on the part of the government, Ghoshal said, “the most immediate danger is that those people who are anti-LGBT in Tanzania see the government’s words and see them as a license to physically and verbally attack those with different gender and sexual identities.”