Article by Rainer Ebert

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Tanzania experience substantial prejudice, discrimination, and violence, which has a significantly negative impact on their well-being, and are being denied their most basic human rights. I talked to three Tanzanian LGBT activists who are themselves members of Tanzania’s LGBT community to learn more about the lives of LGBT people in Tanzania. 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. Their experiences, however, are painfully real. I am grateful to them for having the courage to speak up, and I hope reading about the human cost of the evils of homophobia and transphobia will help the reader better understand the urgency of LGBT rights advocacy in Tanzania.

At what age, and how, did you realize that you are a member of the LGBT community?

Lulu: I always knew I was attracted to girls but it was not until I was 18 years old that the feelings became hard to avoid. I had a crush on a woman. We lived in the same street. I tried so hard to ignore the feeling but it became stronger and stronger. I had to accept it because refusing the feeling made me frustrated and distressed. I didn’t act on my feelings but I took a step to learn and understand LGBT issues. It took me more than three years from the struggles to getting into the first step towards accepting the fact that I am lesbian.

Grace: I realized that I’m attracted to men around the time I finished my secondary education, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I started to secretly wear girls’ clothes and tried on wigs. I generally found myself to be more interested in girls’ stuff. Because I was attracted to men, I thought I was gay. It was only two years later that I realized I’m a straight trans woman.

Baraka: I realized that I am gay when I was 14 years old.

What has it been like for you to be LGBT in Tanzania?

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.

Does your family know you are LGBT? Do your friends know? If so, how did you come out to them? What was their initial reaction? Do they support you? If you haven’t come out to your family, what is your greatest fear of what would happen if you did?

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 nowdays I have a good relationship with them.

Are you religious? If so, how do you reconcile your identity as a LGBT person with your faith?

Lulu: I was raised in the Christian religion. I believe in God and Jesus, and I believe God doesn’t hate us but human beings are pulling religion on their side and make us look like sinners. But I know that love can never be a sin.

Grace: I’m a God-fearing Roman Catholic. I’m very religious. When I go to church, I wear men’s clothes, and when I get back home, I change into a dress. I know that the Lord will always support and protect me. To him, my identity doesn’t matter. He created me a trans woman and loves me for who I am.

Baraka: I am not religious but I believe in God.

Could you please describe the different forms of discrimination that LGBT people face in Tanzania, including in health care, education, and employment?

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.

How, if at all, does the situation of lesbian women differ from the situation of gay men in Tanzania?

Lulu: Lesbian women face more forced marriage and marital rape because that’s how our families handle the situation when they find out that we are not heterosexual.

Grace: I think there is a little more acceptance for lesbian women, as it’s okay for a woman to act like a man, whereas it’s never okay for a man to act like a woman.

Baraka: The situation of lesbian women is different compared to gay men because most lesbian women are keeping a low profile. Some of them appear as “normal” women in society which helps them to avoid some challenges. Gay men on the other hand are more easily noticed when they behave differently from other men.

Did you ever think about leaving the country because of the discrimination you face?

Lulu: Yes, so many times, especially when political leaders direct hate speech towards LGBT people.

Grace: For sure. I’ve been thinking about asking for asylum abroad a lot lately, as I’m all alone here, and I can’t be myself and constantly have to hide who I really am.

Baraka: Yes, it was ten years ago but I changed my mind.

What kind of future do you think lies ahead of you?

Lulu: I see a bright future ahead of me. I know I will face a lot of challenges but I am prepared because I know the environment is not friendly. I am working hard. I am saving and becoming independent because I know I need to be financially stable to survive.

Grace: I see no future for myself in Tanzania. If I am to have a future, it will be abroad. All I and people like me have to look forward here is death.

Baraka: My future life will be good due to my good plans and strategies.

The negative impact of homophobia and transphobia on health and well-being is particularly serious in the case of LGBT youth. The rate of suicide attempts is significantly higher among LGBT youth than among the general youth population, with isolation, exclusion, abuse, harassment, and bullying being common contributing factors. Do you have any advice for young LGBT people in Tanzania?

Lulu: The advice I would give is for them to stand strong, as the Swahili saying goes, “Hakuna marefu yasiyo na ncha” (“There is nothing so long that it has no end”). They should work hard and become financially independent. When you are financially stable, you will avoid a lot of things. Also, learn to stand up for what you believe in, know your rights and challenge people when they violate your rights. Most importantly, accept yourself and love yourself a lot.

Grace: Don’t come out to anyone! You don’t know who might turn on you. You have to consider the result of coming out. My advice would be: Fake it till you make it! Focus on your education and make sure you graduate and get a good and stable job. Once you are independent and have a career and some power, you can be more free.

Baraka: My advice is that they need to understand that being gay is not a burden or curse, so when they face challenges they should find solutions or contact LGBT organizations or people who will help them to address those challenges.

A global survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2007 found that only 3% of Tanzanians believe that homosexuality should be accepted, one of the lowest rates among all countries surveyed. Why do you think acceptance is so low in Tanzania, even compared to other countries that criminalize homosexuality?

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 customes. 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.

What needs to happen for attitudes in Tanzania to change?

Lulu: We need education at the family level and for influential people to come out and speak about LGBT issues in a positive way.

Grace: People need to be educated. We want acceptance. We want people to understand that there are no gay rights, just human rights. We need to show people that we are human beings just like them. We need to do that through campaigns and advocacy. We need to talk to parents and the larger community. People need to know that we are here, and that we are here to stay. For all that, we need support, also from abroad.

Baraka: We need to create more awareness about LGBT issues. This will help to change negative societal attitudes against the LGBT community.

What role does the media play in fanning anti-LGBT sentiment in Tanzania?

Lulu: The media still uses discriminatory language and reports in a way that portrays being gay as immoral or a sin.

Grace: The media in Tanzania often publishes false information about LGBT people, and perpetuates stereotypes. News about the LGBT community are always negative, never positive. Journalists don’t want to do the work and get to know us and really understand who we are. They are also afraid of the government. Since the government is strongly opposed to LGBT rights, any article that might be perceived as supportive of LGBT people might result in serious consequences for whoever published it.

Baraka: Most of the people who are working at media houses are part of the general community that has a negative attitude towards homosexual people. That leads them to write and report negative news that increase negative attitudes towards homosexual people in society.

In mainland Tanzania, it is illegal for men to have sex with men, with sex acts between men carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, while sex acts between women are not explicitly banned. In Zanzibar, sex acts between women are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, and sex acts between men by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. How do these laws affect the everyday lives of LGBT people in Tanzania?

Lulu: We live in fear that any day we might be taken to a court of law. There are times when we feel like criminals. We lack freedom.

Grace: The law is often used to blackmail members of the LGBT community, including by police. People will threaten you and take your phone or other expensive things. The law also means that we are scared to go to the police for anything, as we don’t expect any help.

Baraka: A lack of understanding and interpretation of laws that criminalize homosexuality has led to the violation of their rights and makes them live a difficult life full of discrimination and cruelty.

In a landmark case for Africa, Botswana decriminalized gay sex last year. What does this mean for other African countries? How important is it for human rights advocates to work towards repealing the laws that criminalize homosexuality in Tanzania, and what do you think are the chances of success in the foreseeable future?

Lulu: Small steps can help towards it. I think we should start by changing the minds of individuals. LGBT people and the general population need to start seeing homosexuals as humans who deserve the same respect and rights as heterosexuals.

Grace: Activists in Botswana have worked so hard to make this happen. I love their work, and I’m very much inspired by it. It will be a long and complicated process to get homosexuality decriminalized in Tanzania, but progress in other parts of Africa gives us hope and motivation.

Baraka: A large portion of the community still has a negative attitude towards homosexuality because of customs and social norms. Hence, many were not happy with the law passed in Botswana. It is important that human rights activists continue with their advocacy towards repealing the laws that criminalize homosexuality and fan violation of LGBT rights in our country. I also believe that in fifty to a hundred years Tanzania will also change the law and allow homosexuals to live free lives.

Under the leadership of President Magufuli, the government of Tanzania has been engaging in a concerted anti-LGBT crackdown, starting in 2016, when the Ministry of Health suspended vital HIV/AIDS prevention programs that target men who have sex with men and the deputy minister of health, Hamisi Kigwangalla, accused health organizations of “promoting homosexuality.” Since then, lawyers, activists, and human rights activists have been arrested for holding workshops on LGBT rights, and Paul Makonda, the former regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, has threatened to “hunt down” gay men in his city. How has all this affected the health and well-being of LGBT people in Tanzania?

Lulu: The impacts of those acts from our political leaders live for a long time. Those statements give power to the society to stigmatize and commit violence against gay men and lesbian women. People are being evicted from rental places and streets, thrown out of their homes, and it becomes very hard for the community to access health services. LGBT people living with HIV have been left without medication.

Grace: People use anti-LGBT statements from political leaders to abuse us and beat us with impunity. We are being told, “If you don’t give me money, I’ll report you to police or put your picture on social media.” Criminals get empowered by the higher-ups, including the President and the former Regional Commissioner.

Baraka: Any strategy that was brought by the government of the fifth phase against the LGBT community has brought very negative effects to them. The health and well-being of gay men and lesbian women has been affected by this. Many have lost their lives through sucide when they were unable to cope with the bullying and violation of rights. Many stopped using ARVs, others got mental issues and others got into drug abuse.

What motivated you to get actively involved in the LGBT rights movement in Tanzania? How would you describe the current state of the movement?

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 is 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 atittudes in society, and police harassment that I became an activist.

Are you concerned about your personal safety because of your activism?

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 save 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.

Why should Tanzanians who are not LGBT themselves care about the rights of LGBT people?

Lulu: Because we are all human. We are no different from them, we just happen to love differently. When we say Tanzania is for unity, we are part of that unity. We pay taxes just like them and we build the country as they do. We are not criminals.

Grace: Because they really don’t know what we are facing, what life is like for us. If they knew, they might emphasize. If they just had to walk in our shoes for a few minutes, and experience the discrimination and violence we are experiencing, I don’t think they could take it.

What do you respond to people who say that homosexuality is “un-African,” or goes against Tanzanian culture?

Lulu: I am the living example of African lesbianism, as I loved women before I even knew that European or American women also love women. Sexuality has nothing to do with religion, culture, or continent. Love is love. It comes from an individual human being.

Grace: That is a lie. We are all created by the same God. And whatever a person is, is what God intended. Just like there are people with albinism and dwarfism everywhere, and they are part of God’s plan, so are we. We are all part of God’s creation.

Baraka: I always respond to them that being gay is a blessing and not wrong because I can do anything that anyone can do, even run the county.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Glossary of terms

Sexual orientation — An enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction.
Heterosexuality — Emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender.
Homosexuality — Emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to people of the same gender.
Lesbian woman — Women who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to women.
Gay man — Man who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to men.
Bisexuality — Emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to both women and men.
Homophobia — The irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people attracted to other people of the same gender.
Sex — The biological sex assigned at birth, male or female.
Gender identity — A person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a man, a woman, or an alternative gender; can be the same or different from the sex assigned at birth.
Transgender — Someone whose gender identity does not fit the sex assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Transgender people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
Trans woman — Woman who was assigned male at birth.
Trans man — Man who was assigned female at birth.
Transphobia — The irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender people.
LGBT — Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
Coming out — To accept, appreciate, and voluntarily make public one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Outing — To disclose an LGBT person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that person’s consent.

Illustration and translation: Njeri Kinuthia

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