On Monday, the Court of Appeals in Dakar, Senegal, took an encouraging but surprising decision to overturn the convictions of “same-sex” conduct for nine men arrested in December 2008 and sentenced to eight years in prison earlier this year. While we celebrate the court’s order to release these men who were wrongly detained, this case warrants serious consideration of how many nations continue to criminalize homosexuality and propagate already-entrenched homophobia.
Like many other places, homosexuality is a crime in Senegal, and a single charge carries a maximum sentence of five years. The nine men arrested in December were charged with “acts against nature” and the “creation of an association of criminals.” The criminal association charge comes from the fact that these men are also members of AIDES Senegal, an organization devoted to providing condoms and antiretroviral treatment to men-who-have-sex-with-men in Senegal. It was their association with this group—they were arrested in the founder’s living room—that bumped their sentences up to eight years.
Internationally, this caused something of a stir. LGBTQQI advocacy groups sent out action alerts. European governments released statements condemning the convictions. The United Nations (UN) got involved: UNAIDS worked with a broad coalition on the appeal. And it was successful—these men are now free to return to their lives, or what remains thereof.
But the underlying problem remains. Too many men and women face stigma, discrimination, violence, and the threat of imprisonment for having sex with another consenting adult. In much of the world, a minority sexual orientation or gender identity can be a death sentence. In December, Argentina read a statement promoting defending human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity at the General Assembly of the UN . It was signed by 66 nations; the United States signed on later. Yet:
• More than 80 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality or sodomy and,
• 59 countries signed a UN counterstatement rejecting the idea that gender identity or sexual orientation deserved protection. Senegal was one of them.
So now what? We need to redouble our efforts to demand that sexual rights are universally recognized as human rights. The UN Statement, while landmark, is non-binding. Sexual orientation and gender identity must be recognized and protected in the international halls of power and at the national, state, and local levels. We need to continue to support those activists who devote their lives, often at great personal risk, to advocate with and on behalf of LGBTQQI communities. Countries MUST decriminalize homosexuality. We need to stop homophobia in its tracks and use education, community awareness, and responsible media coverage to address the stigmatization of LGBTQQI people. I congratulate the newly released advocates in Senegal, and those who worked for and with them, and I hope your progress is progress for us all.