Ethiopia’s Moral Panic: What Gay Marriage When We are Running for Our Lives? 

Amid civil strife and famine in various regions, Ethiopia finds itself grappling with an unexpected foe: the specter of gay marriage. Yes, you read that correctly. In a country where more than half of the population has faced conflict, fighting, and displacement in the last three years, and millions are facing severe humanitarian crises, our fractured society seems to have found one uniting concern: who is saying, “I do.”

There’s a bizarre phenomenon where countries in a national identity crisis weaponize LGBTQ+ rights to distract from or justify critical social and political questions of the day.  This is a typical attempt by nationalists (or those who pretend to be) to “forge a connection between nationality and sexuality (the lack of any prior relationship notwithstanding)” The aim of our nationalists is to reinforce the supposed heterosexuality of the nation to legitimise the marginalisation of and violence towards sexual minorities.  

This instrumentalisation of homosexuality, using nonnormative sexuality as a lightning rod to divert attention away from economic and political problems, all in the name of defending the nation, is usually quickly taken up by populations in a moral panic.

In Ethiopia, this is taking on a whole new level of absurdity. It is an undeniable fact that, similar to other African countries, the queer community in Ethiopia is not recognized, and deliberate invisibilization is the default of the state. Often, institutions use the idea of the “holiness of Ethiopia” as unifying moral discourse. Even though the queer population, as citizens, have no equal rights and don’t have access to health and human dignity, the leaders continue to evoke national unity by rallying around hatred and homophobic rhetoric against the LGBT community.

We, the queer community, are accused of bringing Western ideals, moral decay, and deviance that are unknown to Ethiopia. One has to wonder how the White man owns the concept of love. They have also accused us of being used as puppets by the West, while at the same time, their governing elite, system and structures continue to aspire to Western models and are also dependent on the Western world in a way that threatens the country’s sovereignty. Since when knowing whom to love and be in a relationship with is a Western idea?

What is unfortunate and depressing here is the fact that religious institutions, political leaders, and government officials are so detached from the reality of citizens, who are seriously damaged by war and conflict from every corner with ethno-centric hatred that is claiming citizens’ lives daily. So much is going on; the devastating famine continues to claim lives and increase the suffering of millions of internally displaced citizens, women and girls who are rape survivors have not seen any support, orphaned children from the war still languishing in poverty and trauma, a national economy on the verge of collapse, a failed regional diplomacy that is threatening civil war in the East African region, and international diplomatic relationships that have positioned Ethiopia in the most vulnerable condition.  Yet amidst all these crises in Ethiopia, for the last few weeks, Ethiopian religious leaders have been focused on and spreading public paranoia about queerness as a threatening factor for the nation.

They say they are worried about the Samoa agreement- a framework for EU relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries that the Ethiopian government signed and has the word “inclusive”.  It has been signed by 48 African, 16 Caribbean and 15 Pacific countries and “covers areas including democracy and human rights, sustainable economic growth and development, climate change, human and social development, peace and security, migration and mobility.” Of the concerns around such agreements between the formerly colonised and the colonisers we should be mindful of, the hysteria in Ethiopia is around the word – ‘inclusive’. 

This is a new low.  If churches and mosques are worried about being inclusive, what purpose do they have today?  How do we live at a time when officials are busy drafting legislation against imagined same-sex unions while the sound of gunfire and drones echoes in the backyards, taking away lives and destroying communities? But hey, in these chambers, all groups are busy with “we must protect our traditional values.” 

To them, queer love and being are somehow more threatening than state violence and hunger. 

We see leaders telling starving communities that somehow the top concern is their neighbour might marry a person they disapprove of. A state is productively manufacturing new and imported homophobic ideologies in the name of strengthening our culture and unity at a time when it is most fractured. What culture are we talking about here? What unity?

It’s as if Ethiopia, amid chaos, has decided to play a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” but instead of moles, it’s issues, and instead of a mallet, it’s misguided priorities. One can’t help but wonder what’s next on Ethiopia’s list of distractions. Perhaps a ban on dancing to keep the rhythm of dissent at bay or a prohibition on smiling to combat anything left of our joy in times of strife.

In Ethiopia, the LGBT+ community grapples with profound challenges, from institutionalized persecution to societal violence, fueled by the government’s longstanding failure to address or mitigate stigmatization. Even trivial signs of nonconformity—like wearing skinny jeans or having colored hair—can trigger misperceptions of being gay, leading to social ostracization and physical violence. Many face doxxing, with their identities exposed online, resulting in home raids and assaults, forcing some to flee for their lives. Amid this hostile climate, discussions on civil unions are tone-deaf to the urgent need to protect LGBT+ Ethiopians from mob attacks and systemic discrimination. These issues, often supported implicitly by entities such as the Addis Ababa Police and certain civil organizations, signify a dangerous escalation in hostility, compromising the community’s access to healthcare, legal recognition, and the fundamental right to safety and dignity.

I write this as a reminder of the all-too-common practice of oversimplifying complex societal issues by casting vulnerable communities as scapegoats. This tactic, deployed by governments and systems that lack genuine solutions, aims to distract from their shortcomings by fostering division and hostility among citizens. It is disheartening to witness the situation in Ethiopia, where numerous entities target these communities instead of addressing the root causes of the country’s economic and security upheavals. 

In these critical times, we must resist the temptation to be swayed by divisive narratives. Let us instead embrace solidarity, extending our support to those who are marginalised amidst all the carnage that surrounds us daily. By doing so, we side with the universal quest for human rights and protections that every individual rightfully deserves. Only through collective action and empathy can we dismantle the barriers of injustice and build a more equitable society for all.

Ethiopia’s foray into the realm of thumping up anti-LGBTIQ hatred serves as a reminder of the absurdity that can ensue when a country loses sight of its true priorities. We might as well tell them, “Don’t bring a marriage certificate to a famine fight.”

Featured illustration from Doundou report by Initiative Sankofa d’Afrique de l’Ouest  


Bahiru Shewaye is a cofounder at House of Guramayle and a full-time raging homosexual. 

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.