The 39 People – a Tale on What It Means to Be Gay in Africa
“You are standing in court today for charges of prostitution and vagrancy”. Here I was, Ouma, 35 years old, being told by a judge that I am a prostitute. How did that happen?
A few weeks earlier, as I was going on with my day in the suburbs of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I got arrested by the police. What was my offense? Being gay. The Tanzanian government had started arbitrary arresting LGBT individuals and throwing them in jail. I was not the only one getting arrested that day. I was among a group of 39 people who all got arrested as well. We were detained at Buguruni Police station where we suffered from what many would consider torturous acts. It is a common occurrence in Tanzania. Police officers arrest LGBT people and leave them in jail for weeks or even months without a trial.
All 39 people arrested that day got charged with prostitution and vagrancy and had to appear in court, because of their sexual orientation. After several weeks, the charges were eventually dropped, but that was not the end of the story, rather the beginning of a bigger story.
Our pain and frustration from this incident were so big, that it turned into a strong determination to help anyone else who might get arbitrary arrested for being gay. We all felt that it was our responsibility to help and support each other. If we did not, who would?
LGBT persons in Tanzania continually face stigma and discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrests, alienation from family and faith, lack of access to social services including health, justice, housing, education, and dignified livelihoods. Same-sex sexual relationships between men are criminalized under the penal code and are punishable with a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison and a maximum of a life sentence. All these, despite Tanzania being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, particularly Article 2, and the AU values of equality and non-discrimination.
Several months after this incident, the 39 people regrouped and started organizing secret meetings. It was time to create a platform for making connections within the LGBT community in Tanzania, advocate for our rights, and develop programs.
LGBT Voice Tanzania was born.
Then we were able to register LGBT Voice Tanzania as a National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) organization with over 200 members. Ever since we have been helping the Tanzanian LGBT community in various ways:
We take legal action to defend who have been the victims of injustice.
We find shelter for those who have been evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation.
We enable students who have been expelled from school for discriminatory reasons to arrange private classes and sit for their exams.
We arrange medical care at private clinics, at discounted rates, for those who have been refused treatment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One of our most exciting projects is creating the country’s first free LGBT-friendly health clinic in Dar es Salaam.
We pressure the police to drop false charges when they are filed for discriminatory reasons.
We as Tanzanian LGBT activists are not asking for any new or special rights, we just want equal rights. Imagine trying to live a normal life while being constantly scorned, mocked, rejected, maligned, harassed, beaten, imprisoned, and possibly even killed, simply for being yourself. This is reality. Me, the original group of 39, our members, and all LGBT people I Tanzania, we just want to live a normal life.
LGBT Voice Tanzania has launched an emergency fund to help keep its door open on GivingWay. You can support the incredible work of Ouma and the LGBT Voice Tanzania Staff HERE. Any amount will go a long way in protecting and advocating for the LGBT community in Tanzania!
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