Homosexuality may, unusually for an African country, be legal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the time being, but gay people there also face the ostracism, stigma and exploitation, according to Paul* 27-year-old the co-founder of a gay rights organization in the eastern South Kivu Province.
In November 2013, a bill that would criminalize homosexuality was brought before parliament. It has yet to be debated.
“I realized that I was gay when I was 16 after a friend explained to me what I was. Before then, I had this unexplained liking for men. At times I got people to pray for me because I thought I was possessed by the devil or I had demons. Despite the prayers, I still wanted to sleep with a man and I could not help having this attraction.
“I tried to change because of the daily stigma and discrimination at home and at school, but it was impossible. I concluded that you don’t become gay, you are born gay.
“When my family learnt that I was gay, I was banished and abandoned. They treated me as if I were cursed, a deviant, an Antichrist. I quit school because no one could pay my fees. My friends are very homophobic [although] some are tolerant, especially the girls.
“Homosexuality is considered as being against our African culture. Like something meant to stop human procreation. That’s why among certain tribes in the DRC a homosexual son cannot inherit anything from his mother or father. In others, he should be completely excluded from the family. Homosexuality is seen as something contagious. That is why a homosexual should be separated from other children not to `contaminate’ them. In other cultures like the Bamocha or the Kabare in Sud Kivu, if your child is homosexual his genitals should be mutilated because they have no meaning.
“Many LGBTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people] have been cut off from their families and society. They cannot attend school normally, get employed or take bank loans. The situation is unimaginable in the provinces where homosexuals don’t have the sort of solidarity like in cities.
“To survive, they take to prostitution. Their main clients are expatriates, young people or even older people. Sometimes they use condoms for those aware of HIV/AIDS infection, but due to poverty, others don’t use protection despite being aware of the risks. Some clients demand sex without protection. Without condoms the fee is US$100 instead of $20 with protection. So, many prefer to take the risk to meet their financial needs.
“Homosexuals are forced to hide their sexual orientation to get HIV/AIDS treatment. Known homosexuals don’t get treatment due to discrimination and stigma by health workers. In some health centres they are treated differently from heterosexuals and their HIV status is publicly revealed after tests.
“Since the National Assembly accepted for debate the bill to criminalize homosexuality, the plight of homosexuals has worsened in the country, particularly in Sud Kivu where some radio stations air homophobic programmes in which they are condemned as the anti-Christ and jinxes. Protestant churches are also preaching homophobia and encouraging people to support the bill.
“Some preachers are encouraging violence, especially sexual violence against homosexuals. Some churches in Bukavu preach that a homosexual can become heterosexual if raped. That’s why sexual violence against homosexuals has risen recently in Bukavu. Initially, lesbians also suffered sexual violence to make them become heterosexual.
“Criminalizing homosexuality will gravely undermine human rights in the DRC and put homosexuals in great danger, especially those already known to be homosexual such as LGBTI activists. This will also encourage brazen homophobia, with the knowledge that the government and society are supportive.”
*Not his real name