LGBT Life, Rights and Health in Ethiopia

Photographer: © European Union, 2014 – European Parliament

Stephen Wood in conversation with Cheryl Overs

As part of our current Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme here at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), we have commissioned a number of case studies examining the complex intersections between sexuality, gender identity and poverty in a number of country contexts. In the last year, Cheryl Overs has worked with communities marginalised on account of their sexuality in Ethiopia to examine the particular challenges they face in obtaining employment, and get access to sexual health care; and she has documented and some of the novel strategies they have employed to empower themselves and their communities.

Reading Cheryl’s fascinating report on same-sex communities in Addis Ababa, “BOOSHTEE! Survival and Resilience in Ethiopia”, it struck me how fast- moving the political situation has been in the country and how rare it is to take stock of the impact of our work. Research reports like these can reflect the moment, contribute to the shifting context and at times pose as many difficulties as they can be helpful. Consequently, to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) last week, I took the time to sit down with Cheryl to ask her a few questions about the life of the report she produced and the impact it might have on her partners.


The report has been published for a little while now. How do you feel post-publication?


 Like any decent researcher my first concern is not to do harm, so it was a difficult decision to publish this case study. The decision had to be made together with the people in Addis who were kind enough to entrust us at IDS with information about their lives. The human rights situation in Ethiopia is fluid and it is hard even for locals to read.

In its attitude to homosexuality, the Ethiopian government is unengaged and ambivalent. It has insisted that homosexuality is a low priority in every sense (including law enforcement) and it has refused to engage on the issue in any way. True to its word, it has discouraged both LGBT rights discussions and anti-gay activism.  Ethiopia is very different from its neighbours whose politicians have famously embraced and amplified homophobia. It has a strong geopolitical position which limits international influence generally and seems to make it immune on human rights issues. Everyone is keenly aware that a bad situation could very quickly become a terrible situation. So foreign governments, the many health and development agencies in the country, and the local LGBT community alike grapple with deciding if they should ‘wake sleeping dogs or let them lie.' 


Making the decision to publish the report has brought the issues facing the communities that you work with to a wider audience. What sort of feedback have you had from your partners in Ethiopia?


I think there is justified ambivalence. The community both want to expose the situation and fear the consequences of doing so. Of course no single study is not going to make or break efforts to change societal attitudes and government policy on same sex relations, but there are fears about what could happen if the floodgates are opened to foreign academics and activists campaigning on their behalf. The local community know that well-intentioned external 'script writers' can cause damage. The Ethiopians are not alone in this of course, but they have had very little access to the LGBT and MSM groups in other countries that have faced similar issue or the networks that can link people up. We've tried and so far failed to get visas for Ethiopians to attend international LGBT events, but that's a crucial work in progress.  


 Do you get a sense of the ways in which the LGBT movement is moving forward in-country?


 The global trends are exactly that - global. Same-sex attracted people are less inclined to accept persecution everywhere and no country can hold that back.  The same is true of women, indigenous people, religious and ethnic groups, informal workers, disabled people and many others. But homosexuality or gay rights is not necessarily what same sex attracted people want to organise around. Rather the question is how LGBT rights will be configured into the architecture and the narrative of broader resistances to oppression and persecution.[EM1]  In Ethiopia - and settings like it - navigating intersectionality is a real and ongoing experience for activists. 

Although the community leaders there are keep abreast of international debates about issues such as the criminalisation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage they are forging a local agenda which centres on education, collective resilience, individual survival and making queer space(s?) in a very tough environment. These are actions of responsible citizens, not dissidents. The extent to which the human rights of those citizens need protection and can be protected will be a major determinant of how rapidly LGBT communities emerges throughout Ethiopia.


One of the most surprising and disturbing elements of the report is that there is no MSM ( men who have sex with men) HIV programming. Is that going to change?


Well I mentioned the difficult question of whether or not to wake up the sleeping dog (the dog metaphor doesn't work actually, it really needs to be a lion when we are talking about Ethiopia!) But when it comes to HIV there is no dilemma, it is time to wake up. There is an urgent need for sexual health education and treatment for MSM in one of the world's largest HIV epidemics where up to a quarter of MSM may be living with HIV. In this context there is no getting away from the long-standing rallying cry in the HIV movement.  ‘Silence =Death’ I was assured that 'quiet diplomacy' is underway to convince the Ethiopian government to allow HIV donors to support HIV programming for MSM but I am not sure that's good enough. I don't understand enough about the geopolitics that cause the Global Fund, the European Union, the United Nations and the US [EM2] government's Pepfar[EM3]  programme to take such a softly-softly approach with Ethiopia on this (they don’t with other governments) but in view of the rhetoric about evidence driven programming and respect for human rights that we hear from them it seems scandalous. I know those agencies are committed to eliminating HIV and they know that means getting services and medicines to every subpopulation in every epidemic so I am looking forward to good news.

Having said that, I saw evidence that lack of imagination works along with homophobia to form a barrier to HIV services for MSM. I was fascinated to hear from every HIV expert to whom I spoke that HIV prevention and care for MSM could never happen in Ethiopia because the public would never accept the lewd images and bold demands for rights that they see as integral to such programming. Despite, (or perhaps because of) attending many training sessions and international AIDS conferences the only models and strategies recognised were European or American. No-one seemed to have turned their mind to what effective and culturally appropriate programming might look like in Ethiopia and no lessons had been learned from other countries in the region who have experienced and overcome similar issues. I suspect an opportunity is being missed here. The optimist in me says that this problem could be at least partly solved by developing ideas about culturally appropriate, cost effective strategies and presenting them to Ethiopia’s famously pragmatic government.


You’ve also recently worked with IDS on a report examining sex work and economic empowerment in Ethiopia – do you see any connections between the challenges both groups face?


Yes and, more importantly, those connections are increasingly being seen by sex workers, and LGBT communities who are forming new and dynamic alliances (such as UHAI and Chouf) [CO4] . Manifestly heteronormative law and policy combined with the development industry’s wilful blindness to sexuality have been foundational in the social and economic exclusion of sex workers and other people of non-conforming sexualities and gender identities. For a long time it felt like the IDS Sexuality Programme was a lone voice on that but recently mainstream agencies are recognizing the importance of making development and humanitarian aid work for 'sexual minorities' and space is opening up to look at ways to do that. That is great news for sex workers and LGBT people and if it is done properly it will be great news for everybody else too.

Cheryl Overs is an activist and researcher. She has focussed on gender and sexuality issues in the context of HIV prevention and care programmes and worked in more than 20 developing countries since the 1980s.  She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University in Melbourne and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies UK.  She can be found on Twitter at: @CherylOvers

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer in the Gender & Sexuality cluster at IDS and a member of the DfID-funded Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme. He can be found on Twitter at: @StephenWood_UK

To mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), Stephen Wood interviews Cheryl Overs to discuss the post-publication implications of her report on Ethiopian MSM communities and responses to it's findings in the community.

Date published: 

Cheryl Overs

Visiting Fellow
Institute of Development Studies