October 15, 2010

Thoughts on Homosexuality.

While polygamy is considered "normal" here and is even sanctioned by Tanzanian law, homosexuality is decidedly not. In Tanzania, sexual acts between men are illegal, carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. Sexual acts between women are not mentioned in the Penal Code of the Tanzanian mainland. However, in 2004, Zanzibar, which is a semi-autonomous island which is part of Tanzania's territory, enacted a law criminalizing female homosexual acts as well, punishable by the same prison term length that men face for homosexual acts in Zanzibar - a maximum of five years. While these laws are "on the books," these laws are rarely enforced, Amnesty International reports that no arrests have been made due to homosexuality in Tanzania or Zanzibar since 2004.

While that is encouraging news for some, or perhaps just further evidence of Tanzania's notoriously weak law enforcement and judicial systems, this hardly matters in terms of the active discrimination the homosexual community faces here. In Tanzania, gays and lesbians are violently persecuted, mistreated, hated, and ostracized. A World Bank-supported working paper entitled Sexual Minorities, Violence and AIDS in Africa reports that homosexuals in Tanzania run a high risk of experiencing violence and intolerance. In my office, well educated colleagues compared homosexuals to cockroaches, citing fear that homosexuality is "contagious" and that they actively seek to "convert" young boys into becoming homosexuals. In a training exercise in which we were asked to explore our own values as staff members before carrying highly sensitive sexual reproductive health messaging into communities, we were asked to take a stand of agreement or disagreement with the following statement by standing on one side of the room or the other, "Homosexuality can be normal." Two of us gathered on one side of the room, we just so happened to be the only two Westerners in the room, there were 14 people on the other side of the room, all Tanzanians. The conversation that ensued was divisive and loaded with emotion. There was no convincing one side or the other of the merits of each respective stance, but then again that was not necessarily the point of the exercise. In the end, I realize  certain sexual practices should be viewed within a culturally relative lens and state of mind, however I often find myself wondering when, if ever, is it ok to label certain modes of thinking as "wrong"? It can be emotionally taxing that I am expected to tacitly accept sexual practices my own value system and culture otherwise deem as "deviant" but at the same time accept extremely offensive claims about another form of sexual preference, dare I say, deviance.


Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Tanzania: Treatment of homosexuals
by society and government authorities; recourse and protection available to
homosexuals who have been subject to ill treatment (2005 - January 2007)., 2
April 2007. TZA102434.E. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at:
[accessed 13 November 2007]

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