20 February 2014

Cote d'Ivoire: Gay Organisation Attacked By Rioters

Activists are warning of devastating consequences as a homophobic trend towards violence and criminalisation of gay people is increasing in many countries around the world.

On 27 January, nearly 200 people stormed the offices of Alternative, the Ivory Coast's leading organisation for men who have sex with men. Claver Touré, Alternative's executive director, said: "They broke windows with stones and stole computers. They left signs bearing anti-gay slurs all over the office. Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken."

The attack brings into question the Ivory Coast's reputation of being a safe haven for men who have sex with men.

Jean Anzoua, a communications officer who chose not to identify where he works, said: "Over time the country has built a reputation as one of the most tolerant countries in Africa, where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from all backgrounds do not have to fear the same kind of systematic violence, condemnation and censure that plagues them elsewhere on the continent."

Since 2010, Alternative has been providing HIV prevention services to men who have sex with men. It is a population group at higher risk of HIV infection and the organisation raises awareness about safe sex practice.

"This wave of violence can seriously undermine HIV prevention efforts since men who have sex with men will not seek Alternative's counseling and care services out of fear of being beaten or killed," Anzoua said.

Anti-gay legislation around the world

Across Africa, 38 of the continent's 54 countries have legislation making homosexuality illegal. In the Ivory Coast there is no explicit law prohibiting same-sex sexual activity, although public indecency with a same-sex partner is illegal and the penal code from 1981 refers to a same-sex relationship as an act of indecency.

Although homosexuality has been illegal in many African countries for years, recently the human rights abuses of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) has been getting worse.

In January, Nigeria passed a bill into law that imposes 14-year penalties on same-sex unions or gatherings by sexual minorities in public. In Uganda, the president is about to pass legislation which puts any person alleged to be homosexual at risk of life imprisonment.

Outside of Africa, in Russia a much publicised anti-gay law banning promotion of "non-traditional sexual orientations" to minors was introduced last year. And in December, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which bans same-sex acts, after the High Court of Delhi had previously declared the ban unconstitutional.

Gay safe haven under threat

Aras*, a thirty-year-old bisexual from Cameroon, moved to the Ivory Coast four months ago, where the capital Abidjan hosts two bars for gays. Aras said: "It is very different from my home country where some of my friends were always attacked, beaten and also raped."

But recent events suggest this safe haven for LGBT people in Africa is under threat. Two days before the attack on the Alternative office, anti-gay protesters gathered outside Touré's home to chant anti-gay slogans and issue death threats against those inside.

"It was around 6.50pm when me and my colleagues heard whistles and chanting," Touré said. "Around 60 people gathered outside, shouting things like: 'the house of fags', 'we will kill them', 'we do not want fags in our area'.

"The angry neighbors then attempted to burn the house down with the occupants still inside. They tried to break down the doors and threw garbage and all kinds of projectiles including human excrement at the building."

Touré and the other occupants managed to escape but a private security guard was hospitalised with wounds to his face. Touré said: "I had to call the French Ambassador who called the Ministry of Defense who called police forces to extract us."

The attack followed an incident on 5 January, when Touré's landlord had confronted him after neighbors complained that more than 20 people were staying in his home. They said he organised homosexual parties and that condoms could be found throughout the neighborhood each morning. Touré denies these accusations.

Undermining the response to HIV

According to Anzoua in spite of its openness, the country is hardly an oasis: LGBT people often encounter violence and stigmatisation, the manifestation of a culture of ignorance and suspicion. Such attitudes were reflected in negative reactions in the press after Alternative received a grant of 45,000 euros from the French Embassy.

Matturin Amey, coordinator of non-governmental organisation Action Santé Plus, said: "Alternative provides a secure, safe and violence-free environment for men who have sex with men, which is crucial if we want to halt the spread of HIV infection. Otherwise all our efforts and achievements in the AIDS response will be undermined."

For the time being Alternative's office is guarded by forces from the United Nations Operations in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) while staff and members are forced to conduct their activities in secret.

*name changed to protect identity

A version of this story was published first on Gay Star News

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