From Ireland to Tanzania – the long road to equality
Nearly a year after same-sex marriage was introduced in Ireland, LGBT activist Conor Vaughan-Buggy writes about the issues still facing many communities across the globe.
As a self-proclaimed LGBT activist, though one that does not consider himself very brave or outspoken – a half-closeted activist one could say – after my experiences volunteering and raising funds as part of the Irish Marriage Equality Campaign in 2015 I thought if ever I get the opportunity to visit a country where LGBT people were repressed I would do my best to see if I could help them.
I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in May of this year. Tanzania has quite oppressive anti-LGBT legislation though not as severe or as notorious as neighbouring Uganda. I thought this could be my opportunity.
My siblings were not happy when I told them that I intended on making contact with LGBT Tanzanians, fears for my safety were at the top of their minds.
So I quietly dropped it from our conversations and instead worked away on initiating contact with anyone I could find on the internet in Tanzania that I thought was legitimate.
My husband Dave knew I could not be dissuaded so instead he supported me in ways to protect myself while I was there from being tracked down.
I found the only registered LGBT charity in the country – LGBT Voice Tanzania.
I was pleasantly shocked that they were actually a registered charity that could fundraise.
I emailed them and friended them on Facebook. I heard nothing for a few days; I then received a very tentative hello back, asking who I was and why I was contacting them.
I realised that they may have thought I was from the police or foreign conservative media, so I decided openness was the best policy. I sent them links of my activities during the referendum campaign and also to some of my work.
Eventually they trusted me enough to put me in contact with their chairman – James Wandera Ouma. James and I began to email back and forth to build up trust. I eventually told him when I was available to meet in Dar Es Salaam to arrange a meeting.
For his safety and mine, I decided to arrange the meeting in a different hotel to where I was staying.
I brought books and a DVD from Ireland to give to him about our recent campaign. I naively thought I could really give great advice on our experiences. A colleague came along with me to the meeting and she was a great support.
At the meeting I was nervous as we waited for James, he too was nervous I think in case we were not who we said we were. But after a few minutes we began to talk about LGBT life in Tanzania. I have to admit I was quite upset by the end of our conversation.
James spoke of police harassment particularly of the Trans members of his community, of families turning on LGBT children.
He spoke of the 90% of the gay men he knew who were HIV+ with no access to medication due to stigma and medical professionals refusing treatment until they became “good boys and got married”.
He outlined how if you were gay bashed in Tanzania, in order to receive medical treatment you need to obtain a form from the police first at which point you must tell them why you were beaten. Thus giving the police a reason for further harassment of the community.
James told us of a trans woman friend that was badly beaten. They sought to obtain one of these forms from the police so that their friend could be treated. They were told to return the next day while the police thought about it.
James and his friends had to nurse her through the night as a result.
A lot of what James told us was extremely shocking to me and my colleague, but it was because he was so matter of fact we realised how much this man is immersed in this.
He really knew what he was talking about and it was based on his experiences leading the charity.
His discussion on corrective rape of the lesbian members of the community particularly focussed my mind on my happy lesbian friends in Dublin.
James told us many things about LGBT life in Tanzania, or should I say the non-existence they endure.
There is no specific protection in Tanzanian constitutional or statutory law specifically against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. If you are caught having anal sex in Tanzania it is punishable by thirty years in prison.
Being LGBT as such is not illegal, just the sexual activities. Lesbians are virtually invisible in their society. The LGBT harassment and discrimination is focussed on gay men and Trans people.
In 2011 (11th November) in the Tanzanian parliament, their prime minister, Mizengo Pinda, responded to a question from a parliament member about whether the government was prepared to lose aid from the UK over a lack of progress on LGBT rights.
His response was not unusual for East Africa: “I would like to say that homosexuality is unacceptable to our society. We need to look critically on these issues. To me this is unacceptable. Even animals can’t do such a thing.”
At one point in the discussion I had to excuse myself to use the bathroom, in actuality I was so upset about a particular topic that I needed to leave.
James told us how if a child in secondary school is suspected as LGBT, the teachers call the parents in and tell them of their suspicions and then expel the child.
Most of the time the parents then disown their child. In one single event the child loses their family and their education together. Their lives instantly become one of no hope.
To me as someone who values his own education and how much it shaped me into the man I am today and gave me a wealth of opportunities, that was unbelievably upsetting.
James himself has been arrested nine times for his activities pushing for acceptance and equality. He outlined his setting up of the charity in 2009 and how he has travelled abroad to promote it and to seek funds.
Unfortunately the last few months have not gone well for LGBT Voice Tanzania.
In late 2014 a conservative journalist wrote about their LGBT youth shelter in Dar Es Salaam, describing it as a brothel for western tourists.
Ultimately due to the negative publicity the charity lost donations and eventually their shelter and offices in March of this year. It was the only LGBT shelter in a country of 52 million people.
Critically low on funds they are looking for any international donors. Below I include the link to their Global Giving website and I would encourage everyone to donate some amount.
Our community is global, and while we here in Ireland have made significant steps in our strive for equality so many parts of the world are struggling and are LGBT brothers and sisters are oppressed, harassed and hunted.
James was delighted to hear about our campaign in Ireland and was intrigued to learn about how our LGBT groups organised and changed the perceptions and awareness of the people of Ireland about our community.
He was also delighted to receive the books I gave him. I am optimistic that my small story of volunteering and fundraising in our campaign gave him a glimmer of hope for his own country.
In reality it could go either way in Tanzania, if conservative groups hold sway like Uganda the country could become more repressed, however, if through the perseverance of people like James and his team of volunteers the people of Tanzania move towards acceptance, we can hope it will be a beacon for other east African countries.
To donate to LGBT Voice Tanzania please do so via Global Giving: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/lgbtq-rights-support-fund/
Conor Vaughan-Buggy is an academic and active member of the Irish LGBT Community. His self-proclaimed “very boring” Twitter account can be followed here.