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RGOD2: The spiritual journey begins in exile

(Editor's note: SDGLN is protecting the identity of Peter, which is not his real name. He says he is concerned about his family and colleagues in Ethiopia, and his future fighting for LGBT human rights in his native land.)

Peter speaks very quietly and it is sometimes difficult to understand his English. It is hard to believe that Ethiopian authorities see this 27-year-old man as a threat to their national security, but he is the leading gay activist in this largely Christian society.

He grew up in Addis Abba, the youngest of three siblings. He has not spoken to his mother for six months because of the difficulties he is facing and the nature of his work. His picture appeared in the press following an HIV Conference there in December 2011. The authorities did not want the conference to happen, even though the HIV infection rate in Ethiopia is between 2% and 6%.

The lack of actual hard data on HIV in Ethiopia is one of the main concerns. Another is the reduction of life expectancy. The primary mode of HIV transmission in Ethiopia is heterosexual contact. Young women are more vulnerable to infection than young men; urban women are three times as likely to be infected as urban men. Populations at higher risk for HIV infection include sex workers, police officers and members of the military.

It is illegal to be LGBT in Ethiopia and the criminalization issue is the main barrier to proving timely and accurate information to save lives and stop the estimated 2 million HIV population from rising further, as the third largest infected nation in Africa. The impact on the quality of life, economy and future of Ethiopia is profound. It is a relatively young country with the median age of 17, and it is this generation who will bear the burden of new HIV infections.

A rising star

Peter graduated with a bachelor of health sciences in 2006 and committed to helping his people combat AIDS. He worked for Engender Health, an American-based NGO that worked to promote HIV information and health services through USAID in Ethiopia.

After graduating, Peter founded Rainbow Ethiopia, the only LGBT organization in the country, and had acquired expertise in epidemiology on men who have sex with men (MSM). His work combined his LGBT activism with seeking more effective ways to prevent HIV to most at-risk populations (MARP). He also worked for amfAR and was invited to attend a pre-conference for 200 specialists to discuss health interventions before the African AIDS Conference was held in Addis Abba in December 2011.

Religious authorities got wind of the conferences and claimed “gay meetings” were being held and called upon the government to intervene. With 10,000 delegates expected to boost the local economy in Addis Abba, the government intervened and alternative arrangements were made so the pre-conference could go ahead.

Death threats

Kent Klindera, director of MSM Initiatives at amfAR, spoke out on the situation involving the Ethiopian activists.

“There is major concern for the Ethiopian LGBT activists who will be here after the conference ends. The director of a group that amfAR supports has received death threats,” he said.

“Recently, a local newspaper published an article purporting that the group had gone to Kenya learn ‘how to promote and spread homosexuality in Ethiopia.’ ”

These claims came after a Pepfar (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) funded study tour sponsored by Engender Health, a leading international reproductive health organization working to improve the quality of health care in the world’s poorest communities that sought to learn more on MSM access to HIV prevention and treatment.

“I am working with several other global organizations to ensure that they have protection and are informed and empowered about security strategies to allow continue to do their work,” Klindera said.

Peter’s photo appeared in the press and he was detained by the police. This was only the beginning of his ordeals.

The Christian Right strikes again

In June, a national conference against homosexuality was organized by Dr. Seyoum Antonius, president of United for Life, a non-governmental organization that describes itself as Christian, pro-life and backing the sanctity of marriage.

This conference was a follow-up to a 2008 initiative to use religious leaders to bring constitutional changes to make homosexuality even more illegal (beyond the existing five years imprisonment).

Please watch this video:

They even sponsored a Swedish pastor to give testimony who had been jailed by the Swedish government for his anti-gay propaganda. No counter argument was presented.

In 2012, more than 2,000 participants attended the second conference, including the main religious leaders of Ethiopia, government officials, members of the Ethiopian Parliament, leaders of political parties, youth organizations and representatives from other civil societies.

During the conference, an Ethiopian government spokesman stated:

“Recently, the U.S. President Barak Obama, British Prime Minster David Cameron and other western leaders are trying to establish ties between aid and the rights of homosexuals, but this will never happen in Ethiopia.
“We don’t want their aid as long as it is related to homosexuality, I assure you that Ethiopia has no room for homosexuality and our country will be the graveyard of homosexuality.”

Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was blunt.
“Ethiopians do not need their identity to be dictated for them from outside no matter how wealthy or powerful the forces applying the pressure were,” he said.

He also read a statement of an interfaith grouping of Ethiopia’s religious leaders condemning homosexuality as an unnatural and calling on international bodies to stop attempting to “subvert” Ethiopian traditions.

The statement called upon the Ethiopian government to punish “those who are found infested with sodomite activities’ and called for raising awareness how to protect society from this ‘infestation.’”

Dr. Seyoum Antonius presented findings of his “study” that “proved” that homosexuality is a result of inappropriate upbringing and leads to STDs, HIV and “severe psychological disorders.”

This directly contradicts the view of professional medical and psychological bodies around the world, including the World Health Organization.

The conference also heard a “witness” account of a young Ethiopian man who claimed he was raped at age 6 and consequently “infected with the homosexual disease for 20 years” and is also living with AIDS. The man claimed that he has been “cured from homosexuality” and is now a “changed man.”

There are connections between the agendas of United For Life in Ethiopia and its Washington-based counterpart. They use unscientific information and misinformation to make life impossible for gay people in Ethiopia. See their propaganda and their use of American conservatives who believe in ex-gay therapy:

In June, a local Ethiopian daily newspaper reported that the United States and Europe are looking to spread and promote homosexuality in the East African country.

The Yenga daily wrote, in a June 18 article, that “gayness” was growing dramatically in the country and the “infestation of those carriers” are now at least 16,000 people.

The “report” went on to contend that gay persons have an average of 75 partners annually and that this “promiscuous” nature sees some gay people having as many as seven partners in one day.

The article described how such “practices” are being “imported” to Ethiopia through students who receive scholarships to study in the United States and Europe.

Working against all odds

Peter very courageously worked for years to counter these kinds of exported propaganda from the American Religious Right. Ethiopians were dying of HIV and millions of dollars were being poured into organizations whose mission was to fight homosexuality and link it to other perceived western immorality like abortion.

Because of his leadership, the St. Paul’s Foundation selected Peter to attend the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. in July. You can read about the Spirit of 76 Initiative HERE. Peter was a wonderful participant and developed some long lasting connections while he was with us. He returned to Ethiopia not expecting his participation at the conference would cause him even more grief.

In August, the police arrested Peter and tortured him, so much so that he feared for his life. The St. Paul’s network was in constant contact with him as well as Kent Klendera of amfAR and Human Rights Watch. Should Peter go to Kenya and begin the arduous asylum process there, or could he use his U.S. visitor’s visa to return to Washington? He decided to do the latter.

The present emergency relief funding for human rights defenders (around $5,000 only allows travel and support within Africa) so he paid his own airfare to the U.S. and arrived here on Oct. 17. Eric Scharf, a volunteer with the St. Paul’s Foundation in Washington, offered him some emergency accommodation at his home and arranged for temporary housing through the end of the year with Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill.

Peter has no income and is not permitted to work here until his asylum process is completed, so the months ahead will continue to be difficult and uncertain. He called his sister to tell her that he is fine and he is connecting with the large Ethiopian community in Washington, but it is difficult to be an exile anywhere. This was clearly not his first priority. He merely wanted to help his people but found it impossible to continue working there to try to prevent HIV infection spreading further among his people.

He blames the religious community and religious attitudes to homosexuality (fueled by deliberate misinformation from churches in the Global North through organizations like United for Life) as the catalyst for his exile.

Emergency funds needed

St. Paul’s Foundation has launched an emergency appeal to help Peter and others. We have a second delegate who returned to a difficult situation in his country when he was fired from his government job, made homeless and ran into hiding. He loves his country and believes he has work to do there and does not want to leave.

Exile is always the last possible resort these brave people want to use. Peter will need time to adjust and to work with Human Rights First to find a pro-bono attorney in Washington to plead his case for asylum. Meanwhile his dramatic story raises several key moral issues for all of us.

Asking the hard questions

Can Ethiopia afford to lose well-educated HIV experts like Peter and still meet its HIV prevention goals? His story is a reminder that criminalization of LGBT people and stigma remain insurmountable barriers to the human family stopping the spread of HIV. We often talk about this in the abstract, but if countries deliberately persecute and torture their own citizens who are trying to stop an epidemic then, these countries will continue to lose millions of their citizens to a disease that can be managed more effectively.

Organizations like amfAR and those receiving USAID funding are all doing difficult work, but there is a moral responsibility to not only protect their staff and consultants who are on the front lines, particularly LGBT people, but to provide resources and a “B” plan when their work gets them into this kind of trouble with their authorities. Although we work in partnership with in-country activists who are passionate about their own quality of citizenship and rights, there is an inbuilt danger and consequences that larger organizations in the global north have not fully addressed.

There is no comprehensive plan, as we have discovered, to provide these brave advocates with a safety net and the current safety net has unreasonable limitations. The emergency fund should allow escape and support to the U.S. and Europe so it can help Peter or others who will, no doubt, follow him.

The religious community often hides behind the good work we are doing for relief of the sick and care of orphans but takes no responsibility for hounding Peter (and faceless others ) out of their local communities, breaking up families and causing major personal damage to individual lives. There is no conscience and no self reflection and it is a sin. Personal sins are small in comparison to the destructive nature of institutional sins. There is a direct connection between the behavior of local and international religious organizations in this case and the effects of deliberate misinformation from the global north on vulnerable nations particularly in the deeply religious continent of Africa.

A purely secular and human right approach from the governments and organizations of the global north can end with these kinds of situations. We need another track. Resources are desperately needed to engage religious leaders in the complex issues around homosexuality, most at risk populations and Peter was actually working on a project to bring funds to open up more dialogue before he was forced to leave. Religious leaders need to meet people like Peter and this becomes impossible if they encourage their governments to put them in jail or use state violence against them. Peter and others like him need funds to engage their local leaders. They cannot compete with the funds pouring in from organizations like World Vision or United for Life.

Thinking ahead

A number of religious organizations in this country will be meeting this week to strategize on how the faith community can support people like Peter. We expect many more are coming and they all need support.

I wrote about an emerging underground railroad for LGBT people last week, and in effect, this is what we will be creating. The long-term solution to these immediate problems will take years to implement. In the meantime, we must stand with our brave brothers and sisters who face daily threats and insults and give them the tools and the safety nets to do the work that someone needs to do.

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.