The frantic WhatsApp messages start pouring in one night, ‘help me my father found out I’m gay’.
‘I’m worried he’s going to kill me,’ one reads.
‘He says he doesn’t want me in the house, he thinks I’m a demon for choosing to be gay,’ writes Nathaniel in the messages.
Nathaniel, 25, lives in Bukavu a city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country in central Africa. Until recently he lived with his family who began to bully and threaten him. Nathaniel’s father says he brings a curse to the family because he is gay. His mother remains silent.
The obvious solution might be to pack a bag and find somewhere else to live. But it’s not so simple for Nathaniel.
Firstly, he doesn’t have any money.
He did in fact, pack a suitcase when the abuse started and stood in the busy streets of Bukavu desperate for refuge.
But he can’t just move to a new place, because the locals want him out of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood leader has threatened Nathaniel’s family, saying if he doesn’t get out of town, they will drive out his whole family.
‘He said if I don’t leave they will set us on fire and we’ll be sent to central prison to die,’ Nathaniel tells Gay Star News.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The war ravaged DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and is in a fragile phase of reconstruction after decades of civil war.
Human Rights Watch reports intensifying violent conflicts ‘as numerous armed groups, and in some cases government security forces, attack civilians’.
DRC has a very underfunded health system and the country’s problems leave very little time to worry about the rights of minority groups such as the LGBTI community.
Kashindi Shabani Gady runs the only LGBTI support group in the entire DRC. The Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko organization runs a specialized sexual health clinic for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.
It also works to mobilize LGBTI people into activism to reduce discrimination. Rainbow Sunrise also provides counselling, training courses to help find employment and English language classes.
Kashindi said DRC’s ongoing problems and the effects of decades of war have made the general population more intolerant of the LGBTI community.
‘People are suffering from that (war) and they suffer from the taboo of being LGBTI,’ he said.
Even though HIV numbers have dropped in DRC, MSM, trans people and sex workers are disapprotianetly represented in new diagnoses.
Being LGBTI in the DRC
While a number of African countries criminalize homosexuality, the DRC is one where gay sex is legal. The age of consent is also on par with heterosexual sex.
The government tried, but failed to criminalize homosexuality in 2016.
But that hasn’t stopped the unrelenting persecution of LGBTI people. Police often use decency laws to arrest and prosecute members of the community.
There are also no laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination.
Rampant homophobia and transphobia stop LGBTI people from accessing employment and education. Some activists have reported universities and schools turning away LGBTI people from their institutions because of their sexual and/or gender identity.
The dangers for LGBTI people are so extreme, many are often too scared to leave their house.
Multiple LGBTI people often wind up living together, often about five to a small room. They live together after their families have shunned them.
‘I live with several LGBTI who have been chased from their family because of their sexual orientation,’ said LGBTI activist, Raoul*.
‘The human rights of LGBTI people are serious violated; arbitrary arrests based on illegitimate offences, corrective rape for lesbian women, family rejection, discrimination, stigmatization and lack of access to health.’
Kashindi and Rainbow Sunrise try to help as many people who turn up on their doorstep. But Rainbow Sunrise has virtually no money.
‘Their life is misery,’ he says of the LGBTI community.
‘Some of us are stay inside the house, they can’t go outside, they’re scared to go out.
‘Last time we did a HIV information session, some people were scared to go out on the street because they might have stones thrown at them.’
The situation is dire. Many LGBTI people have little to no money, they don’t go to school, they can’t buy food or they’re homeless.
Living on the streets, drugs and sex work
Nathaniel has worked with Rainbow Sunrise for more than five years.
He explains many LGBTI people are forced into sex work to make a living. They also have higher rates of drug use which Nathaniel says is a way of coping with rejection.
‘We are treated like animals, people say that we are demons and we can not live in the community,’ he says.
‘We may even want to bring us to a country where we will be as free as so many others, really we LGBTI people we suffer a lot in the DRC.’
Gloria* is a young artist who fled from Bukavu after vigilantes broke down her door and window.
‘I was beaten by a group of young people who said that I should not be allowed in the country,’ she says.
‘But then I fled Bukavu for six months because the community heard of my assault and they came to menace me, they broke the door and and window of my house.
‘But by grace I managed to escape.’
Gloria is succinct when she describes life for LGBTI people in the DRC.
‘In a nutshell LGBTI people are persecuted and are hunted like dogs by the community because of their sexual orientation,’ she says.
The 25-year-old has managed to find temporary shelter in a shed behind a house. He sleeps on a dirt floor with a thin blanket. But he can’t stay there for very long. Rain has started leaking into his makeshift home.
He also can’t stay there much longer because his community want him gone and the threat of violence is imminent. Kashindi and Rainbow Sunrise can’t help him because they don’t have any money.
They set up a crowdfunding campaign to help Nathaniel escape, but they need much more money and support to help thousands more like him.
‘It will be very good for people to know what’s happening because once people know what’s happening they can give us support, they can be on our side,’ Kashindi says.
You can donate to Nathaniel’s crowdfunding campaign here.
*Names changed to protect their safety.