Every Tuesday night, Bwawani Nightclub threw their informal “gay night.” It was a taboo topic, as you’d expect in a Muslim-majority region in Tanzania, but the club thrived, along with a growing underground LGBT+ scene. For many, it was the only place they could express themselves, the only place they felt a true sense of safety and belonging. Now, fourteen years after the infamous “gay marriage” that launched the club into public scrutiny, gay night has been discontinued. It is too dangerous to continue.
Homosexuality was once turned a blind eye in the nation. Anti-gay laws were written into the penal code, of course, but rarely enforced. Tanzania was one of the better countries on the continent in terms of LGBT+ rights, but the election of John Magufuli in 2015 signalled a dark shift. Magufuli, unlike many politicians at the time, spoke openly against homosexuality, labelling it sinful, disgusting, and morally wrong.
Initially, many of Magufuli’s actions were laughable, but unsettling. He banned the sale of lubricants under claims that they aided gay sex and declared in a speech that “even cows disapprove of homosexuality.” Still, his statements stirred anti-gay sentiment in the nation and shifted perceptions of homosexuality from simply a taboo topic to an active issue.
Then came the crackdown. In 2016, the country began restricting pro-gay charities before entirely suspending their registration. His government closed 40 private HIV clinics and suspended the Tanzanian HIV LGBT+ outreach program, citing the fact that “homosexuality is illegal,” despite statements from the UNAIDS director in Tanzania that “these interruptions in treatment are very dangerous” and will promote the spread of the disease rather than curbing gay sex.
Fervent supporters of the President have started their own programs. One in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city with a population of 4.4 million, was started by Paul Makonda. The Regional Commissioner announced the creation of an anti-gay surveillance squad which would make arrests in the city starting November 12. Helpfully, he has created a hotline to report homosexuals, boasting in a tweet that it was used to report 100 men as of October 31.
The city’s LGBT+ community is in shock as thousands hide, fearing their openness just a few years ago may lead to their arrest. One man, Michael, told The Evening Standard, “I haven’t left my house during the day for the last four days. I am scared to death.” Arrest means 30 years of prison time, a relatively light punishment compared to many nations on the continent, but it comes with a host of human rights abuses.
First, a forced anal examination is used to “verify” a man’s homosexuality. The procedure is based on a disproved 19th-century theory which claimed that doctors could test whether or not a man has had gay sex through forcibly inserting their fingers or other objects into the accused’s anus to check the tightness. According to the Human Rights Watch, “forced anal examinations are a form of cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment that can rise to the level of torture. They have no medical justification and cannot be consented to fully,” but the procedures continue in the nation, traumatizing many.
Throughout the process, victims are subjected to police brutality, often being physically assaulted as slurs are shouted. A report titled “Treat Us Like Human Beings” documents the brutal extortion, rape, and torture LGBT+ minorities face after arrest. This treatment continues in prisons, where homosexuals are harassed by other prisoners and beaten, while guards observe from the side indifferently. Sexual assault is common.
Reincorporation into society is just as difficult. Known homosexuals are typically denied health services, especially in HIV clinics, leaving them open to sexually transmitted diseases and infections, as well as general illnesses. Freed LGBT+ arrestees are pushed to the edge of society, as most acquaintances, close friends, and family members end association. Magufuli’s threats have increasingly focused on associates of LGBT+ people, claiming that he would arrest the social media followers of homosexuals, and Tanzania’s penal code threatens arrest for anyone that has “carnal knowledge” of homosexuality.
Despite Magufuli’s statements, Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued an ultimately hollow and meaningless statement declaring that Makonda’s actions are “his opinion and not the position of the government.” As of now, however, the Tanzanian authorities have not stood in his way; in fact, they’ve continued to arrest homosexuals outside of Dar es Salaam.
The nation’s sentiments seem more properly echoed in Makonda’s recent speech, where he declared to the international community that “there is no right to go against creation written on any religious books. Keep your laws. Being gay is not allowed here.”