LGBT rights in Rwanda: The Promised Land?5 min read

“LGBT hasn’t been our problem, and we don’t intend to make it a problem.”

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Text >> Lucy Taylor  Photos >> Fredrik Lerneryd

In a crowded hall in the middle of perhaps the most LGBT-friendly city in the world, San Francisco, President Paul Kagame pulled off something of a diplomatic masterstroke: a woman in attendance at last year’s Rwanda Day celebration asked the President whether, having prioritised gender equality, he believed that gay and lesbian people also have a place in Rwanda’s future. The reply?

“[LGBT] hasn’t been our problem, and we don’t intend to make it a problem.”

Cue rapturous applause. The President had seemingly nailed his colours to the wall as a progressive leader – one of a small but dynamic nation committed to being a beacon of human rights in a region where neighbours have taken backwards steps regarding equality for all, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The President went on to say that Rwanda was determined to continue efforts to build an inclusive society: “That means being there for each other, the stability that comes with allowing people to live in harmony.”

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These words were hailed back home in Rwanda too, where a necessarily quiet network of activists has been fighting for acceptance in a slow but determined slog that most recently culminated in the country’s first LGBT rights conference held last November.

Christened Forward Together, the event brought together religious leaders, members of the media, civil society organisations, and even some government representatives to provide education about the commonly misunderstood LGBT community, and assess to its status in Rwanda today.

The LGBT community’s strong ally in delivering this landmark event was Bishop Tolton. Tall, clean cut, handsome with an easy smile, mellifluous voice, and a serene, assured presence that echoes the commanding reverence of the pulpit, this feminist, African American clergyman heads The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. Based in the U.S., Bishop Tolton spends a large proportion of time working in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire and the DRC. African LGBT equality has become something of a mission.

It began with Uganda. Tolton became deeply concerned with the rhetoric developing as the country began in 2009 to debate the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and its proposal of execution or life in prison for anyone having, promoting, or even recognising sexual relationships between people of the same sex. When Uganda’s President Museveni signed the bill into law, the state essentially sanctioned hate, discrimination, and alienation. (Despite the Act being later overturned as unconstitutional, records show crimes of LGBT persecution increased eightfold after its signing.)

More concerning still, Tolton saw that the momentum behind this law seemed to have originated with the influence of American religious evangelicals in the country. That, as much as anything, was his spur to act.

Bishop Tolton realised that while Uganda was in the news it is not an isolated case. He says that across the African continent, Western religious fundamentalists have engaged in “spiritual colonialism,” importing homophobia to societies where previously a spectrum of sexual orientation was accepted as natural.

After meeting some Rwandan activists he became convinced that this nation offers perhaps the best chances for an African model of full LGBT equality. Here is a country whose past has left every Rwandan, from the highest to the lowest level of society, aware of the destructive power of divisionism. Here is a land whose Constitution expressly protects every citizen from discrimination on any basis whatsoever. Here is a fiercely independent nation determined to prosper on its own terms, using its own leg power, ideas, and mechanisms.

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Events in Uganda caused ripples throughout the region. In 2009, Rwanda too debated introducing legislation to criminalise homosexuality. However, stories told at the Forward Together conference looked back on that moment as one where a threat to civil liberties caused a human rights movement to crystallise.

Nevertheless, this movement is still somewhat underground. Only one organisation working on LGBT rights and inclusion – Amahoro Human Respect Organisation – is legally registered, and that’s only because it operates through a wide human rights lens: its constitution does not expressly mention LGBT. Many other organisations and networks are not registered in law, with misunderstandings over constitutional exemptions to freedoms for “threats to public order or public health” being part of the problem.

These organisations are sorely needed though, and do courageous work in a difficult environment. Many gay Rwandans struggle with accessing healthcare, employment, and justice. There are reports of persecution, denial of essential services, and harassment on the grounds of LGBT identity.

Churches, such important moral authorities in Rwanda, have been unsure and mixed in their response. Bishop Tolton and Rwandan religious leaders at the event urged churches to welcome all into the church as part of their Christian duty. Other delegates believed misguidedly that people can somehow be persuaded to change their sexual orientation, and that it was churches’ role to do so. There is still much to be done.

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Western religious fundamentalists have engaged in “spiritual colonialism,” importing homophobia to societies where previously a spectrum of sexual orientation was accepted as natural.

While these debates go on, gay Rwandans are trying their best to get by – the same as any other citizens. In the face of discrimination they are actively pursuing their own solutions. Their organisations have begun arranging training for journalists in an attempt to kill off inflammatory and divisive reportage. Seeing qualified LGBT people refused jobs in Kigali’s major hotels and restaurants, Amahoro Human Respect Organisation is looking at ways the LGBT community can create its own jobs. It’s in the early stages of exploring a business venture: a restaurant or perhaps a hotel staffed by LGBT waiters, chefs, and porters – a safe space where employment is provided by and for the community.

Can we be sure of how to decipher Kagame’s assertion that “LGBT is not a problem”? The openness to interpretation is likely deliberate, the flourish of a seasoned diplomat. But to the activists, struggling to have their essential human rights recognised and protected, the words spoken by Rwanda’s leader are a ray of hope. The dream that their country will lead the way to fully realise LGBT equality in Africa is real. Should it come true, all Rwandans who believe in a cohesive society open to business, investment, and development, will share in the benefits.