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RGOD2: The awful truth behind putting LGBT Africans in prison

The black market brought millions of dollars to the poor communities along the truck routes from Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and onward to busy ports in Kenya. Truck drivers paid thousands of prostitutes who, thinking they were taking school fees back to their villages, took home something else: HIV.

The long-term cost of this greed and unregulated business firestorm cannot be estimated, and the sins of the past generations were indeed visited upon the children and their children’s children who are living with HIV. This we learned while studying the complex causes for the rapid spread of HIV in Africa.

The story came to mind as I reflected on a recent visit to Cameroon, where we got a chance to see the very courageous work that CAMFAIDS is doing in Yaounde helping 25 LGBT prisoners. My conclusion? Not only is criminalization of gay people morally wrong, but I see it now as a multimillion-dollar underground economy with LGBT people suffering as the unwilling chattel for sale.

The black market here is largely hidden, and most of the cash exchanges and negotiations happen in secret and usually at point of service. It reaches into the top levels of the church and government, through the legal, judicial and police authority systems, as well at a grassroots level including businesses surrounding the prisons where negotiations between people like us, who want to meet some of the prisoners, can arrange to send a message to the guards and negotiate what we want.

Then there is the hierarchy within the prison system where you also need to pay money for food, a little rent and medicine if you need treatment. So outside and inside, a population of 25 LGBT people can keep a lot of other Cameroonians employed. Who needs decriminalization?

At the top of the totem pole is the government and the churches that gain enormous popular support for anti-gay sentiment, which they express by the garbage can at every public event. American Evangelicals pour in millions of dollars in contributions, and even some PEPFAR and USAID dollars have been known to find their way to support the hateful Interreligious Council of Uganda. This organization called for an anti-gay fatwa just before Christmas when the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed. Every bishop, pastor and imam preached in support of the bill.

Henry Orombe, former Archbishop of the Church of Uganda and the prime religious leader behind this bill, has raked in more than $16 million for his Church House project in downtown Kampala and has an American visitor visa to come to the USA and raise even more money for the anti-gay movement from American Evangelicals whose churches serve under these bishops. Then MP David Bahati can also come and go freely and stay with his good friends from the former State Board of Education in Virginia, and I am sure he receives a regular check from The Family to keep up the good work. Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga also fundraises in the USA and Canada, and she is building her campaign coffers to run against Museveni in the next election. Money and political collateral are the main results of keeping a vigorous anti-gay agenda before the electorate.

The cottage industry making money off imprisoning gays

The first place where a suspected LGBT person enters the criminal justice system is through the police. The police arbitrarily arrest any vulnerable person suspected of homosexuality. They might be asked to pay a $10-$20 bribe and get off. The police use informants who may know many gay people and they receive a kickback when a group ends up in jail. This is what happened recently in Uganda when the chairman of SMUG was falsely charged, but it cost him thousands of dollars in costs and legal fees.

In Cameroon, Eric Lembembe had been working on a story of a notorious informant when he was murdered. Even when the police are informed about these nasty and dangerous characters -- Alternatives Cameroon made a formal complaint three weeks ago -- nothing is done. So the informants are also part of the business network and are necessary to get people into police custody where they are often extorted, names appear in papers, neighbors destroy their homes and ransack their possessions. Except for two attorneys out of 2,000 in Cameroon, nobody in the judicial system cares.

We met several prisoners who have been waiting seven months to a year for their cases to be heard. So here are young people in these dreadful prisons merely on suspicion of being a homosexual while the community leeches off them. Andy Kopsa and I has to pay 2,000 francs ($5) for our prison pass at the Palais De Justice. Taxi fares cost another $20 each way, and the two young men we were with also had to pay $5 each to enter the prison with us. We bought $20 worth of food to give to our LGBT inmates and paid another $25 to get our time extended so we could meet with them for more than 10 minutes. We also bought cold drinks in the store across the street from the prison where the guard met us to arrange the visit and take the money, so there goes another $5 ... all in all, the visit cost $100. That is the equivalent of a month’s wages around here.

They received us in the Governor’s Office, just inside the outside courtyard where family members (mainly women) were streaming through with bags stuffed with food. They had to pay too. Our six prisoners came out and sat on a long wooden bench in front of us with the warden and his aide de camp listening on. There was a lesbian who has served one of five years for homosexuality. She needed medical attention but because her family disowned her, she had no money. All of the man had a similar story, of family abandonment, except for an aunt and a father.

A young man with an extremely non-present persona fluttered like a wilting leaf in the window. He looked about 12 and was a Muslim. All the others were Catholics and they were taking care of him. He needed medicine for the flaky, nasty rash on his hands and arms. Another young man complained about the lack of nutritious food in the prison and said the water was not drinkable. If you could not come up with a few francs each week, you were assigned to the most disgusting and demeaning chores in the prison.

It was difficult to talk about security and safety in front of the guards, but they had all been violently assaulted by other inmates. They lived in a place of terror and hell. It was a slow and demeaning demise. I wanted to invite Orombe and Bahati to visit to make sure this is what they had in mind for Uganda.

There is obviously so much we saw and experienced and are still processing it, but the prison situation for LGBT people must become one of our greatest educational tools in the freeing of LGBT prisoners. I will talk next week on some programs that will be expanding to help these people and what CAMFAIDS needs from its international partners.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.