Tanzania: Gays defy Zanzibar sex ban

From the permanent prison of a poster-sized photograph high on a pale wall, Freddie Mercury gazed down on a lesbian couple embracing in the haze of a bright red light.

Gay icon and pop superstar Mercury took his first uncertain steps in the gardens near this bar on Stone Town’s waterfront in 1946.

And as gay people gathered at a restaurant nearby, Emerson Keens, the “ecstatically bisexual” owner of one of the top hotels in the Zanzibar archipelago, returned from leading a delegation of Japanese investors on a tour, at his government’s behest — the same government that recently passed a Bill to criminalise gay sex.

Irony runs deep on these islands.

“They function on a level of hypocrisy,” Keens laughed. “Everything is tolerated here. But you just don’t announce it; you don’t talk about it! This is a Muslim state and you don’t offend their religious sensibilities. Everyone here knows what everyone else is doing: but it’s kept secret. Everything here depends on romance and intrigue and mystery.”

Zanzibar has always been like this. Historians note that as far back as the 12th century it was an open secret that the Sultans’ favourite recreation was to sodomise slave boys. But the “secrecy” of homosexuality here was shattered a few months ago when a couple of gay tourists married two local men in large, public displays. Adding to the authorities’ embarrassment was that one of the locals was a police lieutenant — whom they immediately jailed. After his release a month later, he joined his partner in Italy.

The gay marriages infuriated conservative Zanzibaris, men such as Sheikh Hossam Mohammed, who said: “The Qu’ran is clear: sex between man and man and woman and woman is the biggest sin in God’s eyes.

“We must punish the homosexuals here so they change their ways and ask God’s forgiveness.”

In terms of the Bill, men found guilty of having homosexual sex face prison terms of 25 years; for women the maximum term is seven years.

Individuals convicted of “creating an enabling environment” for homosexuality can be imprisoned for five years.

But some NGOs fear the government has “surrendered” to pressure groups — most notably the Society of Islamic Propagation and Awareness — that are campaigning for the introduction of Sharia law.

The society stands accused of many acts of violence, including the bombings of Christian churches earlier this year. The NGOs believe the government has outlawed gay sex simply to appease “fundamentalists” ahead of the October 2005 general elections in Zanzibar.

“The government seems to have given in to the demands of a tiny group of radicals. If they’ve surrendered to demands that homosexuals be persecuted, who’s next? Muslims who drink alcohol? Muslims who dance? It’s set a dangerous precedent,” said human rights monitor Simia Ahmadi.

“The new law protects Zanzibar citizens. The government cannot let young boys be molested and those that are doing the molestation get away free!” said Ali Khalil Mirza of the government’s Tourism Commission.

It’s prejudice such as this that has prompted outspoken British gay activist Peter Tatchell to appeal to tourists, both gay and heterosexual, to boycott Zanzibar — an appeal echoed by gay rights groups across the globe.

The Zanzibari government, however, remains defiant. “We are not worried; this boycott has not and will not materialise,” Mirza repeated.

But Zanzibar has greater social “ills” to worry about than gay sex: girls as young as 12 are prostituting themselves; heroin addiction has spiraled; the clove industry has collapsed and the seaweed farms which have been generating valuable foreign exchange are folding fast as prices fold even faster.   

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