Jean Elie Gasana (43) is a Christian LGBTI activist from Rwanda. A co-founder of the LGBTI organization Other Sheep Rwanda, he works for human rights in his homeland, especially those of LGBTI people in Rwanda and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Jean Elie Gasana was born in a rural part of the small African country of Rwanda in 1978. “I’m the fourth child of my parents, and we are now five sisters and five brothers,” he says. “At the age of 12 I knew I was gay, and came out three years later. My friend gave me a brochure about Christianity and homosexuality, which helped me. I was also able to talk with some pastors and bishops about my sexuality. We discussed Christianity and homosexuality, and how the world can be changed with inclusive Gospel.”
When Gasana came out in 1993, the reactions of his parents, siblings, friends and neighbours were on the negative side. His family thought the young man had a mental disorder and his parents wanted to take him to the hospital. But with time, they came to accept him as he is. Gasana was rejected and isolated by his church community. “They told me homosexuality is un-African, un-Christian, and against nature, and that homosexuals are people of the devil.” He did his best to dialogue with these people, including lay leaders, but was usually rebuffed. Some pastors, however, were open and understanding and ultimately accepted him. Gasana attends church services in his parish, but may not take an active role in the liturgy.
Actively resisting discrimination
Gasana became an activist in 2004. He found it unacceptable that LGBTI people were denied healthcare, and that the two-class system throughout Rwandan society also excluded their access to treatment and medicine. He felt called to become an advocate. The constant humiliation, stigmatization, disparagement and rejection of people solely on the basis of inborn qualities affected him deeply. “Despite the fact that Rwanda does not criminalize sexual orientation or gender identity and the law guarantees freedom of association, LGBTI individuals and organizations in Rwanda continue to face discrimination,” he says. “There’s inadequate protection and a lack of respect for our fundamental rights.”
Gasana enjoyed a good education and earned a degree in economics along with certificates in human rights, project management and theology. He continues to study the Bible intensively, and to discuss it with colleagues. They also discuss every other topic under the sun, and do sports together. “We have a bishop who’s our ally,” he says. “He meets with us and the members of our Other Sheep organization once a month and we talk with him about scripture.” Gasana places a priority on advocacy “for his people”, by which he means the Rwandan LGBTI community in general and especially the members of Other Sheep Rwanda.
In 1994, following the genocide in the country, Gasana knew he had to take action to work for greater tolerance, and especially for more acceptance of LGBTI people. “Before 1994 there was segregation and discrimination among the different ethnicities, in part because of deficient leadership which was one reason for the genocide. These experiences and the stigmatization of LGBTI people made me an activist,” he says. He took the initiative, co-founded Other Sheep Rwanda, and has since been reaching out to opinion leaders in civil society, churches, government, diplomacy and business.
Other Sheep Rwanda has become Gasana’s new family. He lives together with other members of the organization. They work for the common good, both inside and outside the organization, but especially for LGBTI and other vulnerable groups. They pray together and earn money to ensure the community’s livelihood. “When I’m with friends and colleagues from Other Sheep Rwanda, I feel at home,” he says.
His most joyful experience as an activist is seeing the love, solidarity and teamwork among LGBTI people, for example when they prepare and run the annual IDAHOT events on May 17, or when Rwandan LGBTI groups jointly organize the “Together Forward” conferences. “We invite activists, our allies from churches, human rights organizations, parents of LGBTI individuals, diplomats and local officials to talk about a special topic at each conference. We’ve now held three of these ‘Together Forward’ conferences,” he says.
Other Sheep Rwanda was founded in 2008. It works to strengthen human rights for everyone, and especially for LGBTI people in Rwanda and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It lobbies for LGBTI religious communities to be able to live their faith and not face stigma and violence. “Other Sheep Rwanda is not a church, but rather an LGBTI organization for religious and non-religious people who support the human rights and well-being of LGBTI people. I am a lay Christian and an activist,” he says.
The organization has 33 active members, and Gasana is its executive director. Its vision is for LGBTI communities to lead peaceful lives, free from exclusion and hostility. Gasana guides the team and sorts out everyday problems. He writes project proposals and raises funds to enable the community to be self-reliant. It needs support for everyday needs, food, medicines, masks and other resources to combat the Covid pandemic, and also for a very special plan. “We want to launch a small project that enables qualified LGBTI people to support themselves, maybe with a small pig or chicken-breeding farm, a tailoring shop, bakery or something similar, but we don’t have the funding for these types of projects,” he says. Covid-19 has posed huge challenges to the already impoverished country of Rwanda. And the pandemic has hit the LGBTI community hard, because exclusion and isolation are a double burden.
Other Sheep Rwanda works closely together with other human rights organizations and with some religious leaders who view it favourably. It also engages in international networks, such as the Global Interfaith Network, UHAI EASHRI, and the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). It works with European organizations like the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD) and the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation, RFSL (Sweden), Hivos (Netherlands) and some embassies in Kigali. This international collaboration also secures support for some of its projects. The Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation is supporting Other Sheep Rwanda in 2021 with its Covid-19 Africa emergency assistance fund.
In autumn 2013 Gasana and other LGBTI activists from Africa came to Germany for an event on homosexuality and religion organized by the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation. With funding from the German Foreign Office, the foundation invited twelve colleagues from sub-Saharan Africa for an intensive week-long programme with workshops and talks in Berlin. During this visit Gasana raised awareness for the very difficult conditions faced by LGBTI people from Uganda seeking refuge in Rwanda from repression in their homeland.
At the conference entitled “Pride & Prejudice: Homosexuality and Religion in sub-Saharan Africa”, held jointly by the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation and the German Foreign Office, Gasana had the chance to report extensively on the situation of LGBTI people in Rwanda and on his work. He spoke of social exclusion, huge taboos against sexuality, and the deeply rooted hostility toward LGBTI people in his homeland. His dream for the future is for a Rwanda without discrimination, and for a world in which all people are treated equally. Gasana is a committed advocate for the concerns of our Rwandan friends.
15 Portraits of LGBTIQ+ Human Rights Defenders:
|Cesnabmihilo Dorothy |
|Mauri Balanta Jaramillo|
|Jean Elie Gasana|
|José Ignacio López|