Cultural Collision

A conference involving people who are gay took place at the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa despite concerns from the religious community and uproar from members of the public.The conference that opened on Friday was originally scheduled to take place at Jupiter International Hotel, according to a statement on the website of the continental organizing body. However, the management of the two branch hotel in Addis Ababa denied that it was to be host to any such event.

 

Ever since the news of the gay conference went public, Ethiopians have been discussing the issue mainly on digital platforms such as Facebook. Most of the statements on the social networks reflect public loathing based on religious and cultural values. A 2007 Global Attitudes survey on the subject revealed that almost all (97 percent) Ethiopians believe homosexuality should be rejected by society, which was the second-highest percentage rejecting homosexuality among the 44 countries surveyed, exceeded only by Mali with 98 percent.

Speculations and rumors on a possible change of the venue for the conference were among the discussions about the issue by Ethiopians at home and overseas throughout the week.

“The conference is underway now,” a source at the ECA who didn’t want to be identified told Capital on Friday December 2. It was planned to continue on Saturday.

On Tuesday, a press briefing called by religious leaders to denounce the conference led to a dispute with government authorities later leading to the cancelation of the news conference. It has been replaced by a meeting between Health Minister, Tewodros Adanom, and religious leaders from the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical churches that ended with dispute over whether or not to ban the continental gay conference.

Just a day before the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STIs) in Africa (ICASA) opened, about 200 people who are gay as well as UN and U.S. officials were expected to attend the conference where organizers said the discussion would revolve around issues in preventing HIV/AIDS when men are having sex with men (MSM).

Organized by African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), the meeting dubbed Claim, Scale-up, and Sustain, sought to increase attention on MSM and HIV related issues in Africa, to reflect on the state of the response in MSM communities in Africa and to identify ways forward for scaling up MSM and HIV interventions, according to the News from Africa website.

On Tuesday, while the religious leaders were expected to ask that the conference be banned, Tewodros showed up for what later turned to be an hour long meeting behind closed doors. “The Minister came to convince the religious leaders to call off the press conference because the government believes it would affect the ICASA turnout,” an informed source had said.

At the end of the meeting neither the minister nor religious leaders spoke about what they agreed on. With signs of disappointment on their faces, religious leaders told journalists “the press conference has been postponed to an undetermined date.”

Speakers including UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, United States Global AIDS Coordinator, Eric Goosby, and current Chairperson of the Committee for the Protection of the rights of PLHIV, Reine Alapini – Gansou; were expected at the conference but Capital couldn’t confirm their attendance as the UN offices are closed on Friday afternoon. They were set to discuss health and human rights issues facing people who are gay, including criminalization of same-sex practices.

Ethiopia’s criminal law strictly prohibits any form of homosexuality on grounds that the behavior goes against the country’s cultural norms and is not a sexual practice or lifestyle that should be condoned.

“Homosexual or same sex marriage and unethical activities in the country are considered criminal and the person who engages in the activity would be sentenced to three to 10 years imprisonment.”

Exactly three years ago, Ethiopian religious leaders gathered at the African Union (AU) Conference Hall to lobby lawmakers to enact a constitutional ban on homosexuality. The clerics said the current laws were inadequate.

Abune Paulos, head of the Orthodox Church, had then said that Ethiopia’s special place in biblical traditions means a firm stance is warranted. “We strongly condemn this behaviour. They [people who are gay] have to be disciplined and their acts discriminated against, they have to be given a lesson,” he said. His idea was shared by other religious leaders who attended the December 2008 meeting.

Dr. Seyoum Antonios, Executive Director of United for Life Ethiopia – a local NGO – had said a tough stance is timely as some visitors come and engage in sex tourism and the prostitution business is also gaining momentum.   According to him, the practice is a new phenomenon brought about with the increased exposure to globalizing trends, adding that orphans are especially at risk as they do not have proper family protection.

The religious leaders deemed homosexuality part of “cultural colonization” and a sign the new generation is “loosening”. They cited preaching in religious institutions, schools, societal institutions and societal out-casting as key to ensuring the practice does not become widespread.

The final resolution of the meeting had called on Ethiopian lawmakers to act forcefully against people who practice homosexual behavior:

“We urge parliamentarians to endorse a ban on homosexuality in the constitution.”

Homosexuality is illegal in about 80 countries throughout the world and nine countries prescribe death as a punishment.