LGBT sex worker on Tanzania crackdown: I'm afraid

The Tanzanian government’s ongoing crackdown on LGBT people has given pause to sexual minorities there who previously enjoyed a relatively tolerant environment. Now, says Tanzanian trans sex worker and fashion designer Queen M,  for the first time she is afraid.

These are excerpts from Queen M’s story, published in News Deeply,  a news website that focuses on issues that affect girls and women in the developing world.

Queen M (Photo courtesy of News Deeply and Queen M)
Queen M (Photo courtesy of News Deeply and Queen M)

Tanzania Continues Crackdown on LGBT Communities

By Amy Fallon

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – “I’m an African woman,” declares Queen M, as the part-time fashion designer struts around her backyard in a floaty chiffon dress she made herself. “I value my culture a lot.”

Already wearing her long hair extensions, Queen M says that once her makeup goes on she looks “100 percent like a woman.”

But the 28-year-old, who won’t reveal her real name, was born a male. And as a transsexual, she says she is now “fighting for my survival,” as the Tanzanian government’s latest crackdown on LGBT rights continues.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli (Photo courtesy of CGTN Africa)
Tanzanian President John Magufuli (Photo courtesy of CGTN Africa)

A 1945 criminal code passed by Britain when Tanzania was under its administration prescribes between 30 years to life in jail for gay male sex. Lesbian sex isn’t against the law. Activists say that, despite the law, former president Jakaya Kikwete, who was in office from 2005 to 2015, mainly left LGBT people alone. But since his successor John Magufuli was elected, that tolerance has evaporated, they say. …

“[Magufuli] is religious and very traditional,” says Queen M. “The new government believes that sex work and homosexuality are Western-adopted behaviors and can easily be eradicated, and thus declared war on these communities.”

Neela Ghoshal, chercheuse de HRW
Neela Ghoshal, HRW researcher (Photo courtesy of HRW)

The backlash against the LGBT community, which began around March 2016, is “taking place in the context of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression and association in Tanzania,” with civil society and journalists also being targeted, says Neela Ghoshal, a researcher in the LGBT rights division of Human Rights Watch. For LGBT people, the situation is “clearly deteriorating,” she says.

In one of the government’s latest moves, health minister Ummy Mwalimu in February announced a ban on HIV/AIDS services at 40 drop-in centers that cater to “key populations” – including gay men, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers – saying they had been “promoting homosexuality.” A program supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and implemented by Save the Children, which was meant to help key populations get HIV treatment, has also been postponed, a Global Fund spokesperson confirms. …

Location of Tanzania in East Africa.
Location of Tanzania in East Africa.

“I think it’s getting worse,” says Queen M of the climate of intolerance, adding that LGBT people are encountering “homophobic and transphobic threats, harassment, violence and torture from both the government and the public … I’m very scared.”

Alongside designing fashion, Queen M is a sex worker and volunteers with a group she launched that’s aimed at empowering trans women, including trans female sex workers. (She asked that the group not be named “due to the sensitivity of the current situation.”) She says she has experienced the consequences of the crackdown first hand. Last May, a friend of hers, a trans sex worker, was arrested after appearing on a talk show.

A few weeks later, Queen M was leaving a club wearing “a short dress and nice kinky shoes” when the police stopped her.

“They said, ‘You’re a man, why are you dressed like a woman?’” she says. “I told them, ‘What makes you say I’m a man?’”

Queen M says she was taken to a police station where the police tried to extort money from her, but since she didn’t have any on her, she was forced to perform a sex act on the officers in order to be released.

She left the police station as the sun was rising. “Everyone could see me and people were shouting at me,” she says. “I couldn’t tell anyone, but I can’t forget it.”

Now, Queen M only goes to “safe places, places where I won’t be judged or violated.” …

Getting access to treatment for health issues related to sex work is becoming increasingly difficult.

According to Queen M, sex workers, trans women and gay men face “stigma and discrimination” from health workers. “They’re like, ‘No, we don’t treat such people, it’s against our religion. Please go away,’” she says. “Imagine you have an STI [sexually transmitted infection]. What do you do? Many of the girls are suffering. The only option you have is to maybe bribe the doctor.” …

For more information, read the full article, “Tanzania Continues Crackdown on LGBT Communities” in News Deeply.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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