DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – “I’m an African woman,” declares Queen M, as the part-time fashion designer struts around her backyard in a floaty chiffon dress she made herself. “I value my culture a lot.”
Already wearing her long hair extensions, Queen M says that once her makeup goes on she looks “100 percent like a woman.”
But the 28 year old, who won’t reveal her real name, was born a male. And as a transsexual, she says she is now “fighting for my survival,” as the Tanzanian government’s latest crackdown on LGBT rights continues.
A 1945 criminal code passed by Britain when Tanzania was under its administration prescribes between 30 years to life in jail for gay male sex. Lesbian sex isn’t against the law. Activists say that, despite the law, former president Jakaya Kikwete, who was in office from 2005 to 2015, mainly left LGBT people alone. But since his successor John Magufuli was elected, that tolerance has evaporated, they say.
“[Magufuli] is religious and very traditional,” says Queen M. “The new government believes that sex work and homosexuality are Western-adopted behaviors and can easily be eradicated, and thus declared war on these communities.”
The backlash against the LGBT community, which began around March 2016, is “taking place in the context of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression and association in Tanzania,” with civil society and journalists also being targeted, says Neela Ghoshal, a researcher in the LGBT rights division of Human Rights Watch. For LGBT people, the situation is “clearly deteriorating,” she says.
In one of the government’s latest moves, health minister Ummy Mwalimu in February announced a ban on HIV/AIDS services at 40 drop-in centers that cater to “key populations” – including gay men, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers – saying they had been “promoting homosexuality.” A program supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and implemented by Save the Children, which was meant to help key populations get HIV treatment, has also been postponed, a Global Fund spokesperson confirms.
The import and sale of lubricants was banned in July 2016, a move Mwalimu said was aimed at curbing gay sex, among other measures.
And deputy health minister Dr. Hamisi Kigwangalla has been known to taunt gays and lesbians on social media, saying in one of his latest tweets on March 5: “The laws of our land, our culture, customs and traditions are against the #LGBT …” (Women & Girls contacted Kigwangalla’s office several times for comment, but received no reply.)
“I think it’s getting worse,” says Queen M of the climate of intolerance, adding that LGBT people are encountering “homophobic and transphobic threats, harassment, violence and torture from both the government and the public … I’m very scared.”
Alongside designing fashion, Queen M is a sex worker and volunteers with a group she launched that’s aimed at empowering trans women, including trans female sex workers. (She asked that the group not be named “due to the sensitivity of the current situation.”) She says she has experienced the consequences of the crackdown first hand. Last May, a friend of hers, a trans sex worker, was arrested after appearing on a talk show.
A few weeks later, Queen M was leaving a club wearing “a short dress and nice kinky shoes” when the police stopped her.
“They said, ‘You’re a man, why are you dressed like a woman?’” she says. “I told them, ‘What makes you say I’m a man?’”
Queen M says she was taken to a police station where the police tried to extort money from her, but since she didn’t have any on her, she was forced to perform a sex act on the officers in order to be released.
She left the police station as the sun was rising. “Everyone could see me and people were shouting at me,” she says. “I couldn’t tell anyone, but I can’t forget it.”
Now, Queen M only goes to “safe places, places where I won’t be judged or violated.”
And that could mean giving up her part-time work as a prostitute because “the environment is no longer safe to do sex work.” Queen M isn’t just referring to the arrests and physical attacks. Getting access to treatment for health issues related to sex work is becoming increasingly difficult.
According to Queen M, sex workers, trans women and gay men face “stigma and discrimination” from health workers. “They’re like, ‘No, we don’t treat such people, it’s against our religion. Please go away,’” she says. “Imagine you have an STI [sexually transmitted infection]. What do you do? Many of the girls are suffering. The only option you have is to maybe bribe the doctor.”
Queen M became a prostitute after she was outed in the local media, which activists say is hostile to LGBT people. Her parents, a Muslim father and a Christian mother, disowned her, and she turned to sex work “as a means of survival.”
Her parents later came around and sent Queen M to a fashion college in Kenya. She graduated in 2013 and returned to Tanzania, eventually founding the NGO where she currently volunteers
Now, even as her own government targets her community, Queen M chooses to be optimistic. At the rights group she started, she teaches trans female sex workers to sew, so they can have another skill to get by with, and she plans to keep educating people in Tanzania about transgender issues.
“People see us as evil, but we are like any other human being,” she says.