The love that still dare not speak its name

In the week that two Malawians go on trial for violating anti-gay laws, Daniel Howden finds that their experience is all too common in a continent of legalised homophobia

A whispering campaign is under way in Uganda's capital, Kampala, accusing Paul Semugoma, a doctor, of being a predatory homosexual, actively recruiting younger men into his "vice" with the help of foreign conspirators. His home and business addresses have been published online and he has received a string of death threats. "They are saying that I'm the 'gay tycoon', spreading the infectious disease of homosexuality in Uganda," he says with a bitter laugh. "It's such nonsense."

In reality, he is a respected doctor who has volunteered his time to help with HIV and safe sex education programmes and writes a weekly medical advice column for a popular newspaper. But in the last month he has been publicly outed as a homosexual four times with government officials offering money to anyone willing to inform on his private life.

The doctor is living a lonely preview of the nightmare that life is about to become for the gay community in Uganda if new legislation is passed this month making homosexuality punishable with life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Uganda's minister for ethics and integrity has said it will be every citizen's duty under the new laws to denounce friends, family or acquaintances they suspect of being gay.

Church meetings this week in the capital and elsewhere in Uganda have been whipping up support for a public demonstration in favour of the anti-homosexuality bill on 19 January ahead of its second reading in parliament. Before that goes ahead, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga will have had to face a trial in Malawi on charges of consenting adult homosexuality.

The pair are being held without bail in Chichiri prison after they held a symbolic marriage ceremony which was reported in the local press. The same-sex couple were arrested and three Malawian human rights activists who spoke up in their defence have been jailed also. Authorities have since tried to force the young couple who had been living together for five months to undergo anal examinations to medically establish whether they had had sexual relations.

The apparent tide of anti-homosexuality may have peaked in Uganda and Malawi but the two countries are far from alone in Africa.

"Sodomy laws", legislation criminalising same-sex intercourse, are under consideration in new commonwealth member Rwanda and in neighbouring Burundi. In Nigeria, a bill awaiting legislative action would impose criminal penalties for engaging in or performing same sex marriage ceremonies.

In Senegal, nine men, including a prominent HIV prevention worker, were sentenced to eight years in prison last year for "engaging in acts against the order of nature". Their sentences were commuted to a fine and they were finally released three months later after an international outcry.

Monica Mbaru, the head of the Africa programme at International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, believes increased attention is revealing the full extent of institutional and popular homophobia. "There is more focus than before so it might appear that things are getting worse. In reality, it was already there but it was kept silent, there was no media talk of homophobia."

The current anti-homosexual crackdown is drawing worldwide attention, but 38 out of 53 African countries had already criminalised consensual gay sex. And in many cases, sodomy laws had remained on the books from the colonial era.

Mbaru, who has monitored the intensifying debate around gay rights throughout the continent, says one of the reasons for the sudden offensive in this culture war is opportunistic politicians who see the gay community as an easy target. "There are those who are willing to use a component of society as a sacrificial lamb in order to cast themselves as society's saviour," she says.

It is 15 years since state-sponsored gay bashing found its most enduring voice, and the vituperative words of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe still echo across Africa.

In 1995 the theme for the annual Harare International Book Fair was "human rights and justice" and organisers had given a booth to Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a small, local organisation. When government officials discovered this, the organisers were forced to bar the group. Not content with that, Mugabe decided to deal with the issue head on in his speech to open the fair. "If we accept homosexuality as a right as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts," he told the assembled crowd. "What moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organised drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality, the rights they might claim."

While harassment of gays and lesbians had been routine in Zimbabwe prior to Mugabe's speech, homophobia was now official policy and about to get its own language and slogans. Speaking to reporters after the event he elaborated: "We don't believe they [gay men and lesbians] have any rights at all." And most enduringly, the former Jesuit mission schoolboy justified his intolerance with the claim that homosexuality was "un-African", describing it as a disease "coming from so-called developed nations."

Taking their cue from the Zimbabwean leader, his counterparts, such as Namibia's Sam Nujoma and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, started using the same language.

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who twice attempted a citizen's arrests of Mugabe and was beaten up for his efforts, believes homosexuals are being "scapegoated" by leaders keen to deflect attention from their own failures. "The current wave of homophobic oppression appears to be a reaction to the growing visibility of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender Africans," he says.

Tatchell, whose organisation, Outrage!, is assisting the Malawian couple who go on trial on Friday, said the notion that homosexuality is "un-African" is "ignorant and delusional". However, the Australian-born activist saves particular ire for the US evangelists who, he believes, are giving funding and succour to the chauvinists.

The anti-gay push in Uganda followed a three-day visit by a trio of controversial Americans whose teachings on homosexuals have been widely discredited in the US. The evangelical Christians are: Caleb Lee Brundidge, who describes himself as a former gay man and offers "healing" sessions; Scott Lively, a missionary who writes on protecting children from gay recruiters; and Don Schmierer, who works with Exodus International, an anti-gay church group.

Participants at the Kampala talks describe hearing about the "hidden gay agenda" in which homosexual men convert boys by sodomising them and how gays can be made straight. The appearance of the anti-homosexuality bill so soon after has been blamed on the evangelicals, especially as the bill's sponsor, David Bahati, claims to have friends in America's religious right.

However, others point out that evangelicals – who deny any role in the drive for legislation – were pushing on an open door in Uganda.

Erwin van der Borght, the director of Amnesty International's Africa Programme, says that unlike in the debate over the death penalty, this is not a matter of African leaders telling the public what they want to hear. Whereas many African leaders would in private actually like to abolish the death penalty but bow to public opinion, he believes that their homophobia -- and the conviction that homosexuality comes from outside the continent – is genuine.

"We really feel it's the politicians themselves who are pushing these harsher laws," he says, pointing to Rwanda where the President, Paul Kagame, appears to be driving new criminal statutes on to the books.

Mbaru, a Kenyan-born lesbian who lives in Cape Town, says that some of the blame for the failure to fight back against the "un-African" charge rests with the gay community. The influx of international donor funding for HIV prevention has in many countries helped the gay and lesbian communities to find a voice and organise. Too often, she says, this has given homosexual activism a foreign face.

"Who is the first voice to focus on these abuses?" she asks. "It's from outside." She says that there have been too few homegrown heroes, such as South African activist Zackie Achmat, with the result that the defence of gay rights "doesn't have an African face. We have to ask ourselves, how far do we want to go and what will we risk," she says.

The stakes can be horrifyingly high, especially in South Africa which despite its progressive constitution and equality under the law suffers from an epidemic of sexual violence.

Phumi Mtetwa knows better than most how painful the limits of supposed legal protection can be. Her friend Eudy Simelane, a midfielder with the national football team, Banyana Banyana, was repeatedly stabbed, gang-raped, mutilated and left to die in an open field in KwaThema township outside Johnannesburg in April 2008. A well-known sport personality and the first openly gay woman in her township, the 31-year-old's murder was part of what Mtetwa says is a rise in the practice of "corrective rape".

"This country is going through a major social, economic and political crisis," says Mtetwa, who is also the director of South Africa's Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. "We have got to ask ourselves where our constitution is in all of this? When we wrote this constitution, gay people, were supposed to be given the right to choose and live freely. But what we didn't do was transform society, or the conditions people lived in." The result is a constitution that is like a "rainbow ideal" out of touch with what is happening on the ground.

Even that fragile protection is a distant prospect for Dr Paul, as he is known for now to the readers of New Vision newspaper in Uganda.

Even before the latest tensions which have spilled over into the streets and left many people fearing for their lives, the gay community survived by "hiding", he says. "That's why it's a big deal being outed. It's the biggest protection we have."

The only thing stopping the legalised hanging of gay men in Uganda is now the government, as the bill's backers have the votes if it goes to the floor in parliament.

For now, the doctor is ignoring the advice of friends and colleagues worried for his safety and staying put. Despite the smears, his patients are still coming to his clinic. "I'm fighting so it doesn't become law. That's more important than my personal security. I'm not stupid, I know it's not as safe as it should be."

In the front line: Victims of anti-gay crackdown

Malawi's first same-sex marriage

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga could face a 14-year jail sentence after they held Malawi's first public same-sex wedding in the commercial capital, Blantyre. Mr Chimbalanga, 20, and Mr Monjeza, 22, are set to be tried on Friday on three charges of "indecent practices". Since their arrest, the couple claim they have been beaten in prison and that authorities tried to force them to undergo anal examinations. The couple, who have been together for five months, have pleaded not guilty, and have been denied bail. At their court appearances, the gallery has been packed with supporters cheering congratulations and opponents yelling insults. Three human rights activists who had spoken out in the men's defence have been arrested.

The lesbian footballer

The South African football star Eudy Simelane was gang-raped before being stabbed to death simply for being a lesbian. The 31-year-old, who was the first openly gay woman in her township, was raped and killed in an open field outside Johannesburg in April 2008. It is claimed that Miss Simelane, a midfielder for the national women's football team, Banyana Banyana, was a victim of "corrective rape" – a practice that is meant either to punish the victim or "cure" them of their sexual orientation. Despite more than 30 murders of lesbians in the last decade in South Africa, Miss Simelane's death was the first to lead to a conviction. In September last year, Themba Mvubu, 24, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a verdict hailed as a breakthrough by gay rights activists.

The Aids activist

Diadji Diouf was one of nine men arrested for committing "indecent and unnatural" acts in December 2008, just weeks after Senegal hosted a major African conference on Aids and sexually transmitted diseases. Mr Diouf is a prominent gay activist who works to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids in the largely clandestine gay community in the West African nation. He runs an organisation that provides condoms and counselling to gay men in Senegal. During the raid on Diouf's apartment, police confiscated condoms and lubricants as evidence of homosexual conduct, and threatened several of the men that they would tell their families. The nine were sentenced in January last year to eight years in prison, but in April the appeals court ordered their immediate release. According to Human Rights Watch, the men were beaten while in prison. MIRANDA BRYANT

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