Rwanda President Paul Kagame doesn’t want to have the same trouble as his neighbors Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda when it comes to the LGBT community.
Some of Rwanda’s neighboring countries have passed anti-gay laws and harassed their queer communities, resulting in criticism from around the world.
“It hasn’t been our problem,” Kagame said before an estimated 1,000 Rwandans and the country’s supporters in San Francisco September 24. “And we don’t intend to make it a problem.”
The audience roared with applause following an initial gasp of shock, and then laugher, when the Bay Area Reporter asked about LGBT rights in Rwanda and what Kagame planned to do to ensure protection of queer Rwandans.
Kagame and an entourage of Rwandan business leaders were in San Francisco last month for the first Rwandan Day, a cultural and economic celebration of the Central African country.
He was joined by anti-gay pastor Rick Warren, founder and leader of Saddleback Church, based in Lake Forest, California.
“We are struggling with all kinds of problems that we have,” continued Kagame, touting stability and the harmony of different people living and working together. “We want to have everybody involved at this table. I think that we’ve made very good progress on that, so … as I said, that is not a big problem for us. I don’t want to make it a problem.”
However, it is a problem in the majority Catholic and Christian nation, where being LGBT is taboo and queer people are violently attacked without a clear path to seek justice via explicitly laid out legal protections. Gay rights are not specifically included in the country’s anti-discrimination law. There isn’t a law that criminalizes homosexuality in Rwanda. LGBT Rwandans and their allies believe they are protected under the Commonwealth’s constitution that states all Rwandans are equal, have a right to privacy, and are protected under the country’s anti-discrimination law under “sex,” according to activists and experts.
The only anti-gay laws on the books are same-sex sexual relationships with minors under the age of 18. As of 2010 marriage is only between a man and a woman.
That doesn’t mean that LGBT Rwandans are living free and equal in Africa. There’s social law within highly religious families and communities where homosexuality remains taboo and highly stigmatized, largely due to Catholic and Christian religious influence. HIV/AIDS is still considered a “gay disease,” and therefore, individuals who are HIV-positive face discrimination when seeking treatment.
“We are proud of the present, but not contented, not until the church can welcome [us] as their real children,” wrote LGBT activist and ally Mugabo Robien, 38, who works for both Rwandan LGBT organization Amahoro Human Respect and Isange LGBTI Rwanda Coalition, in an email interview with the B.A.R.
Another problem is Kagame’s close relationship with Warren, who is a member of Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council. Warren was one of the key instigators of Uganda’s so-called kill the gays bill in 2009. Uganda’s bill was ultimately watered down when President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law in 2014. It was overturned on a technicality by Uganda’s Constitutional Court in August that same year.
Currently, anti-gay activist Scott Lively is defending himself and his involvement encouraging Ugandan lawmakers to draft the law in a federal lawsuit in the U.S., SMUG v. Lively.
Warren has backed away from his involvement in the anti-gay legislation and transformed himself into more of a moderate religious leader within recent years.
For more than a decade Warren has been a very close friend and adviser to Kagame. He has been active promoting his PEACE Plan to help rebuild Rwanda with Kagame, who became president in 2000 following the genocide in 1994. It’s a program with a foundation in a modern Christian movement of the teachings of Jesus Christ that Warren touted as being successful with helping Rwanda rapidly turn around its economic outlook in the world.
Kagame himself is no angel, as Politico called him “the darling tyrant.” He has been accused of numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other global human rights organizations, according to Political Research Associates. He has also formed close ties with his neighbor to the west, the Republic of the Congo, a country that has a reputation for gross human rights violations.
Political Research Associates is a social justice think tank that produces research and analysis challenging the U.S. right to support social justice advocates and defend human rights.
This year alone, Kagame has limited individuals’ rights to access justice with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which operates like the United Nations for Africa. In February, Rwanda withdrew its declaration allowing individuals to file complaints, reported HRW, which called the action a “profound setback to access to justice.”
Yet, Kagame is a leader of contradictions. While he’s limiting some rights of Rwandan citizens, he has made some strides toward LGBT rights. A draft amendment to the country’s penal code to criminalize homosexuality was dropped in 2009 because it went against Rwanda’s constitution protecting all human beings from discrimination and stating they are equal. A year later, another proposed law that would have criminalized the promotion of homosexuality went nowhere. In 2011, Rwanda signed onto South Africa’s U.N. Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
Activists said they realize that LGBT rights are moving at a very slow pace in Rwanda. They emphasize education is needed for the general public and the LGBT community. The majority of Rwandans need to be educated about LGBT people and queer Rwanda’s need to know their rights, wrote Robien.
There’s “still lack of awareness,” wrote Robien. “[The] fact is that not all LGBTI members are aware of their protection from discrimination and stigma.”
In 2014, a Rwandan lesbian who was only identified by a pseudonym, Umutesi, told the newspaper East African about her story of coming out when she was 14 years old and the discrimination she faced. Even her own family married her off in an effort to “cure” her of her lesbianism. She told the newspaper that she escaped with her life and without contracting HIV and is an LGBT activist. Other LGBT activists in the series of articles exploring LGBT life in Rwanda by the newspaper described not being able to get employment due to their sexual orientation.
LGBT organizations oftentimes get evicted, pointed out Felicity Daly, director of Kaleidoscope Trust, an LGBT watchdog organization based in London.
Professor Stefan Jansen at the University of Rwanda confirmed that stigma against LGBT people is “normal” in Rwanda and it has been on the rise since 2009 following the proposed anti-gay bills.
“Stigmatization of homosexuals causes a lot of suffering to many Rwandan families because the prevalence rate of homosexuality in the country stands at about 3.5 percent, meaning at least one in four families has an LGBTI,” Jansen told the newspaper.
An unidentified gay 20-something man agreed. “I don’t know anyone who has been arrested or intimidated because of his or her sexual orientation,” he told Rwanda Today.
“That is why no Rwandan can claim to have gone into exile for being gay,” he continued. “We are not persecuted at all; our only problem is being discriminated against by some people who don’t understand what it means to be gay.”
“The society needs more advocacy to know that LGBT community did not make a choice to be who we are,” she said, noting that it is a process that involves civil society, faith leaders, media and other community leaders to be educated and then to educate people about LGBT people.
UN appoints first-ever LGBT expert
Thai human rights advocate and legal expert Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed as the United Nations’ first-ever independent expert focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, the U.N. Human Rights Council announced September 30.
Muntarbhorn will serve for three years to investigate abuses against LGBT people and enforce international laws protecting LGBT people. If successful, it is possible Muntarbhorn’s term in office could be extended in 2019, according to a September 30 U.N. news release.
“This appointment is a huge leap forward. The governments of the world have appointed an expert to document anti-LGBT rights violations and provide technical assistance to identify solutions and bring about lasting social change,” Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, said in a September 30 news release from the organization.
A veteran at the U.N., Muntarbhorn currently serves as commissioner on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. He has served on other U.N. bodies and participated in the draft of the Yogyakarta Principles, which detail the application of international human rights law to sexual orientation and gender identity, according to OutRight.
The mandate for the LGBT expert was created by seven Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay. It was adopted June 30 in Geneva with the support of 628 nongovernmental organizations from 151 countries that advocated for the adoption of the resolution and for the establishment of the sexual orientation and gender identity independent expert position.
Anti-gay Kenyan comes to Google
Ezekiel Mutua, the anti-LGBT head of Kenya’s film-classification board, visited Google’s campus last month to attend Web Rangers 2016, a digital-safety program.
In March, Mutua threatened to sue the tech giant simply for not taking down a gay music video at YouTube. He also banned a film about Kenya’s LGBT community along with a video, podcast station, and a gay speed-dating event.
LGBT activists caught wind that Mutua was going to attend the conference, but he wasn’t scheduled to speak. Nonetheless LGBT activists weren’t happy with the tech giant that is known to be LGBT-friendly.
Google representatives didn’t respond to the B.A.R. ‘s request for comment by press time.
East African Court strikes a blow to LGBT rights in Africa
A three-judge panel of the East African Court threw out the case where a Uganda civil society group challenged the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, the organization that filed the case following the passage of the 2014 so-called Jail the Gays bill, argued that the bill was contrary to the rule of law and good governance, reported All Africa.
Citing the annulment of the bill by Uganda’s constitutional court the same year it was signed into law, Uganda Justice Monica Mugenyi stated that the court could not pronounce itself on the matter because there were no disputes.
by Heather Cassell
Source – The Bay Area Reporter