Although members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community still face stigma and discrimination at the family and society level in Rwanda, they are appreciative of all the government has done to protect them.
Since the removal of the provision that criminalised homosexuality in 2010, the LGBTI community has been granted several rights like freedom of association and worship.
Due to the deeply entrenched stigma about the LGBTI, many of them were foregoing these freedoms.
Many for instance could not go to worship in any religious denomination, but this has changed, especially for Christian members of the LGBTI community, after an inclusive church called Church of God Rwanda, was established in Nyamirambo.
“A lot has been achieved. The biggest challenge has been stigma, but this is slowly being curbed and there is no law that punishes us, which has helped,” said Kalisa Geoffrey, the vice president of Amahoro, an organisation promoting LGBTI rights.
Kalisa who is also a pastor in the Church of God Rwanda — whose central theme is advancing the gospel of inclusiveness — said beyond spiritual growth, the church is becoming a nucleus for positive change among young members, many of whom were hopeless and drug abusers.
“They come to church and experience these freedoms. There are still problems in the wider community, but at least what they get from there is helping them live positively.
“We give credit to our government which is fighting all forms of discrimination,” he said.
Mr Kalisa said hiding their sexual orientation was hampering their well-being and limiting their access to health services, especially those infected with HIV/Aids.
Rwanda was one of the first countries in Africa to sign the UN resolutions on sexual orientation and gender identity, which among other things works to eradicate violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, such as hate crimes, criminalisation of homosexuality and discrimination.
Only 10 African countries have signed it so far.
During a Rwanda Cultural Day event in San Francisco, California in 2016, President Paul Kagame was asked if Rwanda is committed to providing a safe space for the LGBTI community, to which he responded: “It hasn’t been our problem. And we don’t intend to make it our problem.”
The country still outlaws same sex marriage, according to article Article 26 of the country’s Constitution, where only civil monogamous marriages between men and women are recognised. However, this does not hamper homosexual relationships or cohabitation.
“Society has been intolerant about homosexuality and this extends to the family level, but there have been some major strides as they can now freely relate and associate,” said Louis Busingye, a lawyer and programs co-ordinator at Human Rights First Rwanda.
He said that although legal obstructions to the rights of LGBTI members have been dealt with, serious problems still exist especially at the family level.
“There are parents who strip away inheritances from their homosexual children, while some have stopped paying school fees,” he said.
He said it is also still cumbersome for them to register organisations or associations, because their intended activities are often categorised as unacceptable.
Despite these pitfalls, Rwanda is still seen to be ahead of its East African partner states when it comes to providing a tolerant environment for the LGBTI. Some members who’ve been persecuted in Uganda and Kenya have sought refuge in Rwanda.
Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, a famous lesbian couple, were recently in Rwanda to launch a gorilla conservation project and they met with President Kagame, something that was interpreted as being a gesture of tolerance to members of the LGBTI community.