Beki Aby is a leader in the LGBT community in Ethiopia. In 2013 he co-founded DANA Social Club, an informal collective that advocates for LGBT rights and provides members with support and information. In an extremely difficult environment DANA has conducted online campaigns and publishes an online archive named the Ethiopian Gay Library. Beki is in London this summer to raise awareness of the situation in Ethiopia which has not been ‘on the radar’ of international organisations and activists. Here, IDS’s Cheryl Overs, author of Booshtie: Survival and Resilience in Ethiopia interviews him.
What is the legal status of homosexuality in Ethiopia?
Homosexuality is totally illegal in Ethiopia and it carries jail penalties. We know that some men are in jail for it but it is impossible to quantify this because government information is not available in Ethiopia and even trying to access it can be dangerous. Even outside of the arrests the law is a justification for anyone to abuse LGBT people as they want.
What are the dangers of LGBT organising?
Of course there is always the risk of being arrested and it is important to understand that this means entering a criminal justice system that is secretive and without the checks and balances of a democratic system. But in a way the more pervasive threat is being outed to family, employers, church, neighbours, etc. This is a real danger for activists but it’s also a very real risk for every same-sex attracted person in the country, as well as bullying in school and discrimination where homosexuality is even suspected.
Ethiopia is a tough economic environment even by the standards of our region and only a tiny percentage of Ethiopians can maintain livelihoods and carry out the ordinary functions of life without the support of their family and local community. So being outed is social and economic death and it happens very quickly. Violence is also a very real risk. There have been outings of DANA members and some have fled the country and one person who has lost everything is currently awaiting trial on false charges. We had a shared house but we have had to abandon that because things happened that made it clear hat it was only a matter of time until it was raided.
Is there any prospect of law reform?
Ethiopia is a one-party state and expectations for protections against discrimination and abuse are far lower than amongst our neighbours. Legal challenges such as the constitutional challenge to anti-gay law underway in Kenya are unthinkable in Ethiopia, not only because of homophobia but because no group of citizens gets to court to challenge the government. We are at a much earlier stage. We are gathering our strength as a community, making links with other citizens groups and beginning to ‘massage’ public opinion. In 2014 we conducted an online campaign in response to calls for higher penalties for homosexuality, Stop Hate Spread Love. The calls were rejected which even if not due wholly to our campaign, certainly felt like a small victory.
Is Dana the first LGBT group in Ethiopia?
No it isn’t. There was a previous attempt that illustrates the problem. A few years back a guy started a group to work with the HIV agencies and he spoke openly at an International AIDS Conference. Soon after he had to flee for his life. We are therefore very careful about how we work and we hope the timing is better because more and more Ethiopians have access to the internet. Our activism, information and support functions mainly happen online. These are complemented by small and very secret meetings, a bit like the ‘cells’ of an underground resistance movement. But still most queer lives are lived in complete isolation and there aren’t even small LGBT sub cultures you can find in other parts of East Africa.
What happened around HIV after that? How are men who have sex with men affected by HIV in Ethiopia?
Not much happened. There are still no services for us. DANA members have adapted information from MSM groups in other countries and we distribute that to the thousands of men who access us through social media. Members also distribute lube, which is hard to come by, especially in rural places. But obviously this is not enough because Ethiopia is a huge country, much of it rural with many languages and still most people are not online.
The fact is we don’t know the impact of HIV because there is no recognition so no research. But there’s no reason to believe it is lower than the very high rates in the rest of East Africa. How Ethiopia differs from our neighbours in this respect is that there is much less knowledge within the community about HIV. Even among my friends in Addis who are well informed and understand the stigma issues, information about HIV status is never shared often. This is one of many aspects of LGBT life in Ethiopia that is undocumented and unknown and we are determined to start filling in those blanks.
What are you hoping to achieve in Europe?
First and foremost it’s raising awareness about the situation in Ethiopia. We need Ethiopia to be on the map for organisations in the Global North who are helping LGBT communities in the Global South to challenge the abuse of our rights. To date, we have had no official support, apart from the disastrous foray of international HIV agencies into Ethiopia. International organisations that have been very vocal about LGBT issues in Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya and elsewhere have been silent about Ethiopia despite having a presence there. We understand that international support is risky given the ridiculous idea that same sex love is a foreign import, but without it we have great difficulty progressing and we have no back up for activists who are risking their lives.
Another aim is to learn. Thanks to the Human Dignity Trust and Stonewall I have many opportunities here to do that. I am meeting various organisations and government representative and people Eric Gitari from Kenya and Frank Mugisha from Uganda as well as diaspora activists like Bisi Alimi. Learning how to interact with international institutions to push the LGBT rights agenda is crucial for DANA. I am also very keen to learn more about campaigns for trans and non-binary gender rights around the world.
Finally I am searching for practical support, both technical and financial. DANA does not need a lot of money but we need some to safely communicate, protect our members, document queer Ethiopia, get better access to health services and to conduct research in our own communities. We can’t register DANA as an NGO which is why we deliberately call it a social club. Nor can we bypass the system by using personal bank accounts even if donors were willing because every financial transaction is closely scrutinised. Even if we were an NGO we could not receive money from abroad as there is a law that prevents all NGOs advocating for human rights and receiving international funds.
How do you like London’s LGBT scene?
It’s certainly very different. Even though I knew European gay life from websites I was still amazed when I went to Soho and saw the gay book store for the first time. People living their lives without having to look over their shoulder and wearing what they want without fear of abuse was unimaginable to me. I am so used to suppression and self-censorship that I almost had a heart attack the first few times I heard the gay word used in public.
I am really looking forward to Pride in London. I will wear the Ethiopian flag, as will other queer Ethiopians at Pride marches around the world. It’s such a great opportunity to make Ethiopia LGBT visible to the rest of the world. Although we must stay invisible to stay alive in Ethiopia, Pride marches in other countries are important to us. DANA members around the country mark the day with our own secret events, which as you can see from the photo, are much smaller!