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LGBTQ+ Ethiopians flee in the face of sudden crackdown

Martina Schwikowski
August 18, 2023

Authorities in Ethiopia have initiated a crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community. Rights activists have branded it a diversionary tactic in the wake of renewed violence across the country.

Ugandan LGBT refugees pose with a rainbow flag in a protected section of Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya
Homosexuality remains deeply taboo in Ethiopia, with many choosing to leave for their own protectionImage: Sally Hayden/ZUMA/imago images

Few understand the dangers of belonging to a marginalized group in Ethiopia like Faris Cuchi Gezahegn.

"The reality of being queer and being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Ethiopia and being Ethiopian is to the point of like, you know, we don't exist," they told DW. 

Gezahegn are far from alone in their anxiety. The fear of persecution among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other sexual minorities in Ethiopia is so great that some are fleeing abroad.

Gezahegn, who describe themselves as nonbinary, co-founded the LGBTQ+ activist group The House of Guramayle in Ethiopia before fleeing the country. They now live in Vienna, Austria, working with others who have found refuge in London and Washington to raise awareness for the plight of the LGBTQ+ community back home.

Above all, Gezahegn and their colleagues are fighting for recognition and against hatred in Ethiopia, where a new wave of homophobia threatens the safety of many. 

Authorities launch crackdown on same-sex activities

Last week, authorities in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa announced a crackdown on same-sex activities in hotels and bars. The public was also urged to report "heinous" acts to the police.

The so-called "Addis Ababa Peace and Security Office" — a government body that, among other duties, purportedly protects the peace and tranquility of Ethiopian society — announced they had already raided a guesthouse in Addis Ababa after receiving a tip, leading to the arrest of its manager.

"We strongly believe the current coordinated and organized attacks towards LGBTQ+ Ethiopians in Ethiopia and also the diaspora is heavily politically motivated to divert attention away from what is happening at the moment," said Gezahegn.

"What is happening at the moment" refers to the renewed outbreak of violence in the country and the reaction of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government.

A portrait of Faris Cuchi Gezahgen wearing the Ethiopian flag
Even in exile, Faris Cuchi Gezahgen works to protect Ethiopia's LGBTQ+ communityImage: Ina Aydogan

A state of emergency was declared in Ethiopia on August 4 after days of fighting between the army and insurgent militias of the Fano group in the Amhara region. The violence was triggered by the government's announcement that it would disband local militias and integrate them into the country's armed forces.

This puts Ethiopia in another state of civil unrest, despite ending the two-year civil war in the Tigray region with a peace treaty last November.

'We are monitored by our families'

According to Gezahegn, the current hunt for members of the LGBTQ+ community is nothing more than a smoke screen on the government's part.

"We are being used as pawns! The aim is to distract from the political tensions."

But authorities in Ethiopia refer to the existing laws prohibiting same-sex relationships in Ethiopia. If found guilty, offenders can face up to 15 years in prison.

"Homosexuality in Ethiopia is not only a taboo, it is equated with crime or murder," said Ethiopian-born DW editor Azeb Tadesse Hahn.

"In the past, people did not talk openly about homosexuality, and same-sex relations were considered devilish. Today people say: 'It's not our culture, homosexuality is not acceptable in Ethiopia, it's a Western thing.'" 

A general view of the skyline of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Authorities are calling for a crackdown on 'heinous' acts in Addis AbabaImage: Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS

Gezahegn strongly condemn what they view as a clear escalation of homophobia in the country. 

"It's really the case that this social mentality and this way of thinking extends into the families," they said. "We are monitored by our families."

Data released last year by Equaldex, an online publication resource on LGBTQ+ rights, also reveals the prevalence of homophobic attitudes in large parts of Ethiopian society. According to the report, 69% of Ethiopians do not want to live next door to LGBTQ+ people, and 80% oppose accepting homosexuality.

Minority groups are 'convenient scapegoats'

Annette Atieno works in neighboring Kenya at the Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Nairobi. From her perspective, the situation in Ethiopia is profoundly worrying, but not surprising.

Homophobia is deeply rooted in religion, culture and tradition in many African countries, including Ethiopia, Atieno told DW. In particular, the conservative and highly influential Orthodox Church is partly responsible for the fact that the LGBTQ+ community is still so firmly rejected by society.

Uganda passes world's strictest anti-LGBTQ bill

Atieno also believes the increase in the persecution of LGBTQ+ people has to do with the tense situation in Ethiopia.

"We know historically that in times of political instability or societal unrest, minority groups become convenient scapegoats," she said. "In this case, the LGBTQ+ community bears the brunt of this misplaced aggression."

Atieno also believes unchecked aggression on social media has further fueled the problem.

"Without checks and balances, these platforms become the fires of hatred and prejudice," she said.

But from their exile in Vienna, Faris Cuchi Gezahegn remain optimistic about the future of their homeland. 

"Like all nations, we have an LGBTQ+ community trying to survive and thrive, given the tense political situation," they said. "It is challenging. But despite all these challenges, we exist, I would say, in a significant way."

This article was originally written in German.