Out in the World: East Africa's conversion therapy problem exposed

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday July 7, 2021
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OpenDemocracy has issued a series of reports finding that major aid groups are inadvertently funding conversion therapy in several East African countries. Photo: Courtesy openDemocracy
OpenDemocracy has issued a series of reports finding that major aid groups are inadvertently funding conversion therapy in several East African countries. Photo: Courtesy openDemocracy

International and African LGBTQ organizations have called for a redirection of aid after an in-depth investigative report alleged government and private foreign investments unknowingly fund conversion therapy practices in East Africa.

The investigative report conducted by United Kingdom-based openDemocracy revealed organizations funded by major international aid agencies — USAID, PEPFAR, UK Aid, and Global Fund — inadvertently are supporting conversion therapy.

Undercover reporters allegedly found staffers secretly offering referrals to so-called conversion therapy services provided by third-party operators in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

OpenDemocracy published its findings in a series of articles June 30.

Efforts to "cure" homosexuality are "inherently degrading and discriminatory," said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Africa director at the International Commission of Jurists human rights organization, in response to the openDemocracy's reporting.

In one of the reports, a Ugandan lesbian told the story of how she was subjected to electric shock as a part of her therapy at a clinic in Kampala, Uganda's capital, that her family brought her to. Despite the years that have passed since the incident, she told an openDemocracy reporter, "the resentment I felt for my family has never really gone away."

East African organizations that provided HIV/AIDS, mental health, and other health care services, including services for LGBTQ people, received millions of dollars in funding from the United States' USAID and PEPFAR programs, UK Aid, and Switzerland's Global Fund.

"Donors should make sure that their money does not fund any 'conversion therapy' activities — and to withdraw money if it does," Ramjathan-Keogh said.

Kenya Yvee Oduor, a gender-nonconforming feminist with the Gay and Lesbian Coalition, called to "redirect funding" away from LGBTQ-non-affirming health care providers.

"We already have clinics and health centers run by LGBTQI+ people all over the country," they said. "Why not fund these community initiatives?"

Conversion therapy is the practice of attempting to convert or suppress a person's sexual orientation or gender identity to fit into mainstream society. The practice has been widely condemned by the United Nations, World Health Organization, more than 60 counselors, psychologists, and doctors' associations globally, and human rights and LGBTQ rights organizations.

Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, and Malta banned conversion therapy as have 20 states in the U.S., including California, which prohibits the practice on minors but not adults.

Call for investigations

Major donors stated they will investigate and act upon their findings in response to openDemocracy's reports. International aid agencies and local non-governmental organizations operating health care clinics also pledged to launch investigations following the series of articles.

Rosco Kasujja, director of mental health at Makerere University's school of psychology and head of the Uganda Clinical Psychologists Association, called openDemocracy's findings "disturbing."

"It's really frustrating that we don't have any power," he told the media outlet in reference to his association's voluntary and nonbinding standards. "People are playing by their own rules and [we] can't do anything about it."

The facilities involved in the undercover investigation did not publicly advertise conversion therapy referrals or services.

USAID, the UK Aid, and the Global Fund launched investigations in response to the report.

"USAID does not fund or promote anti-LGBTQI+ conversion therapy and will investigate any report that a USAID-funded partner is doing so," U.S. Embassy spokesman Anthony Kujawa told openDemocracy.

PEPFAR, Most at Risk Populations Initiative, and the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau along with Uganda's Kisubi Hospital and the HIV clinic at Mulago Hospital, did not respond to the reports.

Going undercover

OpenDemocracy undertook a six-month undercover investigation of how international funds were being used to support conversion therapy in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Reporters interviewed more than 50 people at 12 health centers, including clinics that outreached specifically to gay and bisexual men, along with conversion therapy survivors, clinic staff and heads, foreign embassies, and funders' representatives in the East African countries.

They found conversion therapy activities in 12 of the 15 clinics they visited.

Many Africans perceive the LGBTQ movement and the movement to ban conversion therapy as a Western ideology being pushed on the continent, as one Ugandan clinician stated to openDemocracy reporters it is "for whites."

Matthias Ssetuba, Lubaga Hospital's self-described "mental health focal person," told the undercover reporters that homosexuality was a "mental health issue" caused by multiple factors from the internet to peer pressure. Ssetuba argued that "those whites are saying 'it's normal,' in our society it is abnormal" and it could be "changed" if the person accepts, they need help "in converting," he told the undercover reporters.

Staff at other clinics throughout Uganda expressed similar attitudes and beliefs.

Half of the health centers funded by international aid money serving marginalized communities, including the LGBTQ community, belong to aid-funded health networks outside of local governments.

Health care clinic staff in Kenya and Tanzania held similar beliefs as those in Uganda and operated similarly. Same-sex relationships and anal sex are illegal in Uganda, as well as in Kenya and Tanzania.

In May, Uganda's parliament passed the Sexual Offenses Bill 2019. The bill is awaiting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's signature.

To sign the openDemocracy's petition asking that the U.S. government investigate its agencies to make sure they are not funding conversion therapy, click here.

Gay Luxembourg PM hospitalized for COVID-19

Gay Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel was admitted to a hospital July 4 after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. He is in "serious, but stable condition," government officials said July 5.

Government officials said Bettel, 48, will remain in the hospital for up to four more days, reported the Associated Press. Bettel tested positive for COVID-19 and began his self-isolation June 27, two days after attending the European Union summit, reported the Guardian.

Bettel is Luxembourg's first, and Europe's third, openly gay prime minister.

He started displaying COVID-19 symptoms after last month's heated summit where he and 16 other member states strongly criticized Hungary's Russia-styled anti-LGBTQ propaganda law for minors.

No other EU leader has reported testing positive for COVID-19. All safety measures — social distancing and mask-wearing — were in place during the summit. The Guardian reported he was only days away from getting his second AstraZeneca vaccination shot July 1 when he was diagnosed. He received his first shot May 6.

Bettel continued working remotely until he was hospitalized Sunday. Finance Minister Pierre Gramegna is temporarily overseeing the state of affairs with Bettel coordinating some work remotely, reported the AP.

OutRight takes stock of the state of Pride

OutRight Action International released its first examination of global Pride events in "Pride Around the World."

The initial 53-page report — leading up to a more in-depth examination in 2022 — reviews Pride events that happen in 102 out of 195 countries around the world, including eight new Pride celebrations within the past three years.

The brief examines Pride events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eswatini, Philippines, Poland, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and Uganda as examples of how Pride events are being oppressed and rising in resistance.

The report also examines the impact of COVID-19 on Pride celebrations around the world; digital Pride celebrations, such as Global Pride, Global Black Pride, and Pride Afrique; trends in Pride events; and the future of Pride.

Pride events existing in more than half of the countries around the world symbolize an evolving litmus test for democracy, according to the report. However, some Pride events have been lost, such as Shanghai Pride, which launched in 2009 and ended in 2019.

More than 50 years after the famed 1969 Stonewall riots in New York when LGBTQ people fought back against police raids, some Pride events are just as highly politically charged.

"The essence of Pride never ends, and that we fight for our rights every day," said OutRight Action International Deputy Executive Director Maria Sjödin in the organization's June 30 news release.

Pride protests in Croatia's capital Zagreb and Georgia's capital Tbilisi erupted in violence and arrests of more than 20 people in both cities the last two weekends.

The Tbilisi Pride office was ransacked, and the violence leading up to the celebration was so intense organizers called off the event for the first time in 10 years.

In Zagreb, anti-gay demonstrators burned the rainbow flag. The violence in Zagreb was the first since 2011.

Turkey banned Istanbul Pride, but LGBTQ people took to the streets in rainbows in an unauthorized event thwarting police in the narrow streets of Istanbul. Police eventually broke up the celebration with tear gas and rubber bullets and arrested 20 demonstrators.

Rwanda anticipates 200 Pride-goers at its first-ever Pride celebration in Kigali, the country's capital, later this month. Homosexuality is not criminalized in the East African country but is highly stigmatized and socially taboo.

To read the full report, click here.

Czech trans people call for president's apology

Transgender Czech people called upon Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman to publicly apologize for calling transgender people "utterly disgusting" on TV last month.

Zeman made "it clear to the whole world that he thinks it is OK to hate a certain group of people on the basis of their gender identity," Viktor Heumann, director of Transparent, the country's transgender organization, said in a June 28 statement.

"The president [is] fundamentally wrong in his statement," Heumann said, responding to Zeman's remarks. "Not all transgender people undergo sex reassignment surgery" and "self-harm does not constitute a crime."

Heumann reminded Czech leaders in the statement that the country is "one of the last countries in Europe to force trans people to undergo surgery for official sex reassignment."

On June 27, Zeman was defending Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and the Central European country's new anti-LGBTQ law while addressing the international outcry and the European Union backlash against the country in a Sunday-night debate on CNN Prima News.

Seventeen EU countries condemned the law, but the Czech Republic did not. Instead, Zeman called the EU's interference in the internal affairs of any 27 union member countries a gross political mistake, reported Republic World.

Zeman went on to say that he saw "no reason to disagree" with Orban stating he was "completely annoyed by the suffragettes, the #MeToo movement, and Prague Pride."

It was at that point that Zeman turned his attention to the transgender community, calling sex reassignment surgery a "crime of self-harm."

"All these transgender people are utterly disgusting to me," he said.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp: 415-517-7239, Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected]

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