Life has been a real struggle for Umutesi*, a Kigali-based lesbian in her mid-30s. The dreadlocked woman has been insulted, castigated and discriminated against for her sexual orientation since she was a teenager.
When she was 14, Ms Umutesi’s parents deliberately married her off in an effort to alter her sexuality.
The marriage, of course, did not work, and it was obvious to her then that her sexual orientation would never fit in the “straight people” box. And her life, she says, has since been a torment that she has had to endure with astonishing patience.
“I am glad the man I was forced to marry did not infect me with HIV. I think I would be dead by now,” she told lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups that converged on the Goethe Institut in Kiyovu, Kigali, on May 16 to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia.
“I am a very beautiful woman with very attractive legs,” Ms Umutesi added. “But this is how I was created; there is nothing I can do about it.”
Even though Rwanda doesn’t have an outright anti-gay law, Ms Umutesi and some other homosexuals interviewed for this story asked to be assigned pseudonyms for fear that coming out to profess their sexual orientation would only attract more homophobia.
Despite persevering the brunt of homophobia directed at her, however, Ms Umutesi had no harsh words for her tormentors, saying: “I know it’s difficult for most people to accept the way we [lesbians] were born.
“What we need is love, freedom and space — just like other human beings. Discriminating against us is not different from discrimination by ethnicity.
“But even if you dislike and disrespect us, we, on the other hand, love you.”
Claude Hakizimana*, a visual artist and musician, has had a somewhat similar experience.
“Many people think we are useless — that we went into this just for the love of money,” Mr Hakizimana said. “Some of us cannot even get jobs just because of our sexuality.”
Displaying some of his paintings, he added: “But I thank God I have personally built a successful career in painting.
“My paintings are extremely popular with bazungu [Whites]. The only challenge is that most people underestimate us once they find out that we are gay.
“I am spreading my message through visual art and music.”
Dr Stefan Jansen, a senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda who has researched extensively on homosexuality, says stigmatisation of gays and lesbians is sadly “normal” in Rwanda because “most children grow up being told that the act is abnormal.”
Being gay or lesbian in Rwanda and most African countries has long meant hiding in the shadows of society, but stigmatisation of the country’s gay community has grown markedly since 2009 when some Members of Parliament condemned and proposed criminalising the act,” Dr Jansen said.
“Stigmatisation of homosexuals causes a lot of suffering to many Rwandan families because the prevalence rate of homosexuality in the country stands at about 3.5 per cent, meaning at least one in four families has an LGBTI.”
Even though there are a few Rwandans who choose to understand and accept homosexuality rather than mock it, most people — even the educated and progressive ones — simply do not believe that a person can actually be born gay.
“God created a man to be attracted to a woman and vice-versa,” said Ruth, a local radio personality who, like a majority of Rwandans, draws her intolerance of gays and lesbians from religious and cultural traditions. She considers the act to be out of Western influence.
(*Not real name)