Gay Rights in Tanzania: Interview with a Young Tanzanian Male

Could you please begin by explaining the legal situation regarding the rights of homosexuals?

In Tanzania homosexuality is punishable under the Penal Code which states that,”homosexuality is considered an unnatural act punishable under the Penal Code, Cap. 16 R.E. 2002, section 154 of which provides that any person who (1) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature or… permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for 14 years.”

I want to point out that, one will never know of the Penal Code until one reads about it. This means, as I grew up, I knew it was wrong to be gay and that the society will deal with me severely, taunt me, exclude me and all the other horrible things that one can imagine but I never knew that I could be dealt with Legally. I never knew I could go to jail for this, I just thought it would be much more a societal thing. So until I read it when I was in University, that is when I found out, it is not just society but also the law.

There haven’t been any major cases in Tanzania that sensationalized the issue. So I remember growing up thinking that this is bad and my society would disown me but not so much that I will be persecuted under the law. This changed when I started reading about the issue. So the chances are, if you ask most gay people, they might not be aware of the Penal Code.

Also unlike Uganda, the issue in Tanzania is very low key still. No one is hunted by newspapers and there are no political parties advocating for the massacre of homosexuals just in order to get votes. Even following the statement made by the British High Commission which caused a strong backlash, there hasn’t been much scandal yet.

But homosexuals in Tanzania live in complete obscurity, not telling their parents, relatives or even friends for the fear of being persecuted. This means most of the homosexuals conduct their relations underground through channels they have established. Everything is very secretive.

-Is the situation the same for homosexual women and men?
It is interesting to note that in Zanzibar, a law was enacted that criminalized female homosexuality, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. But at the same time, it seems the Penal Code of mainland doesn’t say much about female homosexuality.

On the other hand, in Tanzania mainland there had been some news on tabloid papers of women who were suspected of being homosexuals. There were speculations that some members of the female football team were lesbians but it was never confirmed. There have been speculations of some female celebrities but also this has never been confirmed.

However, I would say male homosexuals face a much more difficult situation compared to females. Being gay is a sign of losing one’s masculinity and also a sign of male weakness. This becomes much more difficult for homosexual who are effeminate since they are more obvious.

-Are you hiding your homosexuality?
Largely, I would say, yes I am hiding my homosexuality. Coming from a very closed society, conservative and with lack of understanding on the issue, I have to hide my sexuality if I need to maintain ties with family, relatives and friends. It is the sense of double life that I am forced to lead because there is no any other way. I mean, there is another way, but I think it will be so bad that I will have to either stop living in Tanzania altogether.

But I have told a few friends who I believe will not pose any threat to my wellbeing. I have to choose very carefully whom I tell.

-For whom are you hiding?
I will say I am hiding for my own sake with the fear of my parents first and my brothers knowing. Homosexuality has never been something discussed in my household. If we were watching television and there was a piece about a certain country fighting for gay rights, then it would be a tense moment for me. It is almost like, “that horrible thing that we don’t have words for and we think it is the worst sin.” I have indirectly talked to my brothers about this and their comments made me realize that there is no coming out to them. But then I understand their attitudes might change a little bit due to the fact that it was one their own. But still I will never yield to telling them. I would also point out my relatives who will never be able to accept this. We have never talked about it but I understand their position. I feel the greatest worry is what people will say and how this might affect my parents and brothers. I always look at the bigger picture and try not to be selfish. At the end of the day, if it means putting them in danger of being excluded from society in whatever way possible, I won’t do it.

-How does it feel to hide it?
It is one of the most difficult things about my life. It has partly affected the relationship with my parents, brothers and relatives since I strive to maintain a distance from them. This has driven me away from them. I have made peace that probably I will not be able to tell them about me and I will need to grow with that, grow apart from them. I have made this decision weighing a lot of options. I feel that I need to lie all the time which is very energy consuming. I feel like I am denying myself the right to be who I am, the right to experience life as a normal person and the capacity to be open with my family concerning what is going on in my life. I live a double life whose ends will never meet. As I am coming from a religious family, during my teenage hood I went through a period of self-denial up until the last years of university. The quest was always to find a way to become straight, to become normal. I fought tireless but it was always there. And this is what most Tanzanian homosexuals are going through. It is a sin you are taught and you will go to hell. Religion is really big in Tanzania. I think also this sense of very clear gender roles which have branded homosexuality, like that of males to be a sign of switching gender roles has been the hardest thing to cope with. I remember when I was young and feeling this, I was conscious of the fact that this will mean I will become a woman. Liking men is for women as liking women is for men; there is no in-between. And most of the time there are no role models or anyone you can talk to about this.

-Will you ever tell your family?
After much deliberation and thought, I believe I might not be able to tell them about my homosexuality. My parents would never understand it and they will think they have been cursed to get a gay son. My family is very religious and this will not make this an easy thing. So I have made the decision of not telling them at all, period. Deep inside I feel I might kill them or give them the worst sadness. They will not be happy with this news.

-Have you ever experienced any threat from the society?
No I haven’t put myself in any position to receive the threat. But I do understand my actions of secrecy are geared towards protecting myself from any threat. My society is still a threat that looms above me all the time. I always think, what will happen when they will find out? And it is not a pleasant thought.

-Do you believe the situation is changing, or will it still take a long time?
In Tanzania I think it will take a long time. But maybe it is changing among the very few people who might have gotten the chance to study abroad and befriend members of LGBTI in universities for example. But most of the Tanzanians still do not understand what this means and they are totally against it. Just look at the backlash that arose when the British High Commission said it would stop giving aid if we don’t tolerate homosexuals. The British Government through its High Commission had to issue a statement after seeing the backlash. One thing is that, many people believe homosexuality is a western disease and many believe that there are no homosexuals in Tanzania or there are very few.

-What are your hopes for the homosexuals in Tanzania in the future?
I just hope that one day, no one will need to run away from the country or live in the closet just because he is different. I hope one day young boys and girls will grow up in the society that accepts them regardless of the sexual orientation, a society of tolerance and understanding, and above everything else, a society of love and compassion. For many gay people like me, living in Tanzania requires sacrificing a part of yourself and living a lie. I hope this will change one day.

by Rebecka Hallén
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