About three weeks ago, several members of the Ethiopian LGBTQIA+ community and allies in the diaspora woke up to TikTok videos containing pictures of their smiling faces under an Amharic text declaring, “Let us expose and oppose homosexuals!!!” The voiceover beckons viewers to stand up and say that homosexuality is neither natural nor a right. Similar videos emerged over the next week with pictures of individuals who live in Ethiopia and may or may not identify as LGBTQIA+.
Popular TikTok accounts—individually or as part of live-streamed gatherings— began calling for violence—killings, burnings, and beatings—against those who have been “exposed”. Telegram accounts with large followings have also joined the campaign. Some of those alleged to be part of the community in Ethiopia have been physically assaulted whereas others have been forced into hiding after receiving death threats.
The leaders of this hate campaign have been pressuring others to either get on board or fall under suspicion of supporting homosexuality. Together with TikTok’s refusal to remove the videos, this tactic has been the main driver of hate speech. The original videos and new ones calling for violence against LGBTQIA+ are spreading at an alarming rate, creating a sense of competition among posters who are beginning to see this hate campaign as a path to stardom.
Bragging about being action-oriented unlike those who just talk about their opposition to homosexuality, a few days ago, two men posted videos of a guest house that they accused of frequently hosting queer events. The next day, state-owned broadcasters reported that the government has shut down the venue.
The scope of violence that is being encouraged has also been expanding. During one of the live TikTok events organized around this issue, a participant called for the killing and burning of Ethiopia-based families of queer folk living in the diaspora. His logic? Those of us in the diaspora are inflicting “deep shame” upon Ethiopians through our outspokenness, so our families in Ethiopia must be made to feel the same pain. In one viral video, an Ethiopian man declares that earrings are now forbidden for men, and women are no longer allowed belly and septum piercings.
The Ethiopian government has recently joined the conversation, but not to fulfill its duty to protect citizens from mob violence. A statement from Addis Abeba police invited the public to report business establishments that allow “homosexual activities.” After all, the government is not immune to the sense of competition the hate campaigners are cultivating for “who is the most anti-gay” because whoever “owns” this issue stands to benefit politically.
As with other African countries, these events are not happening in a vacuum. This moment is a culmination of several years of campaigning by hate groups.
In Ethiopia, it began about a decade ago with an American evangelical-funded effort to persuade the Ethiopian government to make homosexuality punishable by death. Since the government has not been receptive to these persuasions so far, the goal is to generate political pressure by radicalizing the population.
Ethiopian LGBTQIA+ activists in the diaspora have been undertaking various efforts to support those back home: documenting and reporting hate speech, bringing attention to ongoing events, and raising funds to help provide for those in immediate danger. But there is also a sense of helplessness as our resources at the moment are no match for the danger our siblings are facing.
We are also concerned about the larger implications of the ongoing situation. The traits that drive the violence against our community—the intolerance of difference, the rejection of basic human rights, the privileging of violence over debate, religious fanaticism, etc—are the same ones that fuel political violence in Ethiopia. We care about Ethiopia and all Ethiopians because we understand that our well-being is rooted in the well-being of our neighbours. We will mount a just defense of our community, but we refuse to let the violence of oppression displace our humanity.
House of Guramayle is a community-led advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ people in Ethiopia and the diaspora.