Being gay in Tanzania is still a crime, punishable with life imprisonment. That’s why researcher and LGBT+ activist Rainer Ebert talked to three Tanzanian LGBT+ activists – Lulu, Grace and Baraka – who are themselves members of the LGBT+ community, to learn more about the lives of LGBT+ people in the country.
Lulu is a lesbian woman in her late twenties, Grace is a trans woman in her mid-twenties, and Baraka is a gay man in his mid-thirties. These are not their real names, as they live in Tanzania and do not feel safe coming out to the general public.
We chose six questions from Ebert’s interview that show the painful reality of what it means to be LGBT+ in Tanzania. Read their stories of survival.
Lulu: It is very hard. Discrimination and stigma are at a high level. I have to pretend that I am heterosexual because I am afraid that, if people find out, they might violate me verbally or physically. I have to choose well the neighborhood to live in because if they even suspect I might get thrown out of the place. I live knowing that any day my family will force me to get married to a man, and I am getting prepared to refuse and get disowned by my own family. It is hard but we are trying our best to have each other’s backs as LGBT+ people, and we have each other as family. Relationships are even harder because many lesbians are married to men and want to have a lesbian women as a “side piece.” There are always conflicts and once their husbands find out they always out us to our families. We live in fear of being outed at our place of work and knowing the environment in Tanzania we will get fired just for loving people of the same sex.
Grace: It has been very difficult because of our culture and customs. It’s considered a curse, which is why I tried to keep my identity a secret, even from my family. But then one day pictures in which I appear feminine went viral, and I was subjected to a lot of harassment on social media. Some people accuse me of being the source of the coronavirus, and my family disowned me after they found out and haven’t talked to me to this day. Fearing for my safety, I moved cities, and I’m now trying to build a new life for myself, which is difficult.
Baraka: To a large extent, it is not accepted and I am considered useless in the society although there are a few people who seem to be okay with me and they respect me as well.
Lulu: My family suspected that I am lesbian when I was in college. They cut off all financial support and didn’t talk to me. They blamed me for all the bad things happening. Even when I finished college and couldn’t find a job, they said I was cursed for being a lesbian and that’s why I can’t find a job and will die poor. They said they regret forever paying for my school fees. Now my greatest fear is the fact that my family became okay with me and doesn’t talk about my sexuality because I have a job and can take care of myself and them as well, but what if one day I won’t be able to do so? Will they love me or reject me as they did before? That makes me sad. All of my friends are from the LGBT+ community, except for two. Two heterosexual friends support me and love me for who I am.
Grace: After I was outed, I was left only with few friends who continue to support me. Most people who I used to call friends, however, didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, and even started to bully and harass me.
Baraka: My family and friends know that I am gay. My family knew it since 2000 when they heard from the neighboring family about my feminine behavior. I came out to them and they were shocked and chased me away from home but nowadays I have a good relationship with them.
Lulu: Our health providers usually ask judgmental questions which makes us feel bad and never wanting to go back again. In schools, even when they suspect that someone is not heterosexual, they suspend them. The same happens in workplaces, where they fire us.
Grace: We have problems with landlords, and it is hard for us to find a place to live. We are being bullied in social networks and ostracized and harassed by society.
Baraka: Gay men and lesbian women are facing stigma and discrimination to different extents due to the negative societal attitudes and perceptions that exist towards them. Most of them experience difficulties accessing health services and employment. Others are fired from their workplaces due to their sexual orientation and negative perceptions from society. In schools, hate speech is used against us and rumours are being spread, leading to suspension.
Lulu: Tanzanians have little knowledge when it comes to LGBT+ people. They still believe that white people are the ones who brought the issue. They believe heterosexuality is the only right way, and they are not ready to learn. Some LGBT+ people even have self-stigma and tend to hate other LGBT+ people as well.
Grace: The main reasons are culture and customs. There is a lot of hypocrisy though. The same people who say we are cursed want sex from us in the night. There’s a saying for that: Cursed in the day, blessed in the night.
Baraka: Religious and cultural beliefs and norms that are firmly held in society are the main reason for the low acceptance of homosexuality in Tanzania.
Lulu: I felt that changes I want to see won’t just happen. I have to be part of the front line of activists to make the changes. The movement now is going slow after the knockdown, with the fear of being arrested or just kidnapped by unknown people. But we are trying our best to provide support to LGBT+ people, including counseling and sensitization.
Grace: There are a number of organizations working to advance the rights of LGBT+ people in Tanzania. They focus mainly on advocacy and awareness-building in our communities. There have been a few workshops for LGBT+ people where they learn about themselves, cybersecurity, and how to deal with bullying, and acquire basic life skills. Another important aspect of activism are counseling sessions for family members of LGBT+ people to help them understand that there is nothing wrong with their gay sons and lesbian daughters, and that they should accept and support them. We are trying to push things forward but we are afraid for our safety. What keeps us motivated is our hope that we will see the day when we can say that our hard work has paid off.
Baraka: It is after going through stigma, discrimination, cruelty (such as being beaten up by society), negative atitudes in society, and police harassment that I became an activist.
Lulu: All the time. I have taken some safety and security training so I tend to record any incident which might threaten my safety and take immediate action to avoid the risk.
Grace: I am acutely aware of the safety risk that comes with my activism. Some gay rights activists were arrested in the past, and others went missing. We try to take safety precautions, such as not meeting people we don’t know and communicating through safe social media channels only, but we know that by being an activist one is always taking a risk.
Baraka: I have always been concerned with my personal safety due to the different incidents that happened to some activists in the country.
* You can read the full interview here.
Written by Dr. Rainer Ebert, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre de recherche en éthique in Montréal, Canada, and a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He has been engaged in LGBT+ activism for more than ten years. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com