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Senegalese Debate S. Africa's Same-Sex Marriage Bill


This Friday, South Africa will become the first African country, and the sixth in the world, to legalize same sex marriages if President Mbeki signs the civil union bill into law. Other countries on the continent seem far removed from these legal developments. VOA's Phuong Tran reports from Dakar on the debate regarding same sex marriages. Support for the bill is largely muted in the primarily Muslim country of Senegal, where homosexuality is considered a moral crime. But privately, some voice their support.

In Senegal, almost everyone identifies with a faith that forbids same sex relationships. It is no surprise, then, that public Senegalese response to South Africa's same sex marriage bill is almost uniformly negative. But a number of private conversations reveal a more nuanced reaction.

In public, groups of men wash their feet, hands and faces as they prepare to enter a mosque for their evening prayers. In public, religious leaders will explain how their faiths all forbid same sex relationships. In public, the law treats homosexuality as a moral crime punishable by up to five years of prison and a $3,000 fine. But in private, Serfi, who identifies himself as a homosexual, supports the bill. He uses a pseudonym for privacy.

Serfi says that seeing his African counterparts have the courage to fight for the right to marry, and for homosexuality to be decriminalized, gives him hope. He says that South Africa offers a lesson that one day, Senegal will be able to follow its example.

In Senegal, it was only six years ago when a local university conducted the first large scale study of male homosexuals. Gary Engelberg, co-director of ACI Consultants, an American NGO based in Dakar, participated in the study's working group.

"Senegal woke up to the fact that there is, in fact, a gay community operating in Senegal on a mostly hidden and clandestine basis because of fear of reprisal in a basically homophobic, very religious society," he noted.

Imam Amadou Kanté, a Muslim leader of several mosques in Dakar, acknowledges this gay community, but strongly opposes public recognition of same sex unions because of his faith.

He says it would be impossible to have a homosexual couple marry in public. He says that everyone has their private life. He compares homosexuality to public drunkenness. It is okay, he says, to be drunk in private, but not in public. But he is clear to note that in private or public, Islam does not sanction homosexuality.

While Kanté is clear about how Islam regards homosexuality now, he says that religion and its lessons are human interpretations, which can change over time. Perhaps in 10 to 15 years, Senegal may have same sex marriages, he says.

For Alioune Tine, the Secretary General of a Senegalese human rights organization, RADDHO, the issue of public recognition of same-sex marriages is a human rights issue.

"Gays exist in Africa, Senegal, everywhere in the world," he noted. "I think they are free to see the kind of contract they can have to live together. It is not the role of the state to decide what way people can live their life. People are free to have their own life."

On the streets of Dakar, one taxi cab driver disagrees.

The driver asks himself why a man would not act like a man, and why he would act like a woman, wanting to have relations with another man?

"When men start having relations with other men, this can cause disease," he said. He concludes by saying that homosexuality is bad, and that if he saw a homosexual hailing a cab, he would refuse to pick up that person.

While some analyze South Africa's pending same sex marriage bill as a moral concept, for Serfi, a homosexual Senegalese man, it offers a concrete hope.

He says he feels the weight of belonging to society, but not being given the same rights. He says he dreams of one day being able to marry, to be able to go out with his partner, walking arm in arm, and, he says, to cry out that homosexuals are liberated on this continent.

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