Friends of Albert Nabonibo, a well-known gospel singer in Rwanda who recently came out as a gay man, do not want their names revealed. It is too shameful, one says. Another says he is anguished because his family knows he often used to socialize with Nabonibo.
The singer shocked many Rwandans in August when he revealed in an interview with a Christian YouTube channel that he is gay, in a country where such a public assertion of homosexuality is unheard of. Although the central African nation has been relatively free of the anti-gay rhetoric commonly heard in some other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, homosexuality is still widely despised, and LGBT people keep a low profile.
Nabonibo told The Associated Press that he came out in order to live normally. Yet the reaction he has received, from family and friends to strangers, has been mostly “horrible,” underscoring the intolerance faced by LGBT people in many parts of Africa. “But there is no going back, because I have to live my real life,” Nabonibo said in an interview in the capital, Kigali. “It’s so sad to see people you know abusing you.”
Nabonibo, who is 35 and also a qualified accountant, said he had become an outcast at his workplace as friends isolate him. He is worried he could lose his job. Even at home, news of his homosexuality shocked many relatives, although some have been acting tolerant, he said.
Although Rwanda’s penal code does not explicitly proscribe gay sex, same-sex marriage is banned. This means that many homosexuals are forced to live underground lifestyles in order to avoid the harsh judgment of society. Nabonibo said he was compelled to come out because he could no longer “live in denial.”
“There is a long list of them (gays) in your midst and they include pastors or churchgoers,” he said. “This pretense encouraged me to speak out.”
William Ntwali, a Rwandan human rights activist, said society in the country still stigmatizes gay people even when they are safe under the law. “If you are gay, members of your community ostracize you,” he said. “People think you are not normal, and they look at it as an abomination.”
Some of Nabonibo’s best friends who spoke to the AP said they were too embarrassed even to talk about him. They requested anonymity for their own privacy. “This is crazy. I don’t understand why he thinks this is normal,” said one friend, shaking his head.
Another friend, a man who attends the same church as Nabonibo, said he was in a state of “agony” since the rest of his family knows he used to hang out with Nabonibo. Now he has blocked Nabonibo from all phone contact, saying he wants to “keep safe.”
There has been a similar reaction on social media, with many Rwandans questioning Nabonibo’s intentions and others condemning him. One wondered on Twitter: “How can a gospel singer be gay?”
A senior government official, however, expressed support for Nabonibo, saying he is protected under the law and urging the singer to continue his worship ministry. “All Rwandans are born and remain equal in rights and freedoms,” Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s state minister for foreign affairs, said on Twitter.
According to Human Rights Watch, 32 African nations have varying laws criminalizing homosexuality. In many cases most of the anti-gay laws are left over from the colonial era, one reason gay rights activists have fought vigorously to have the laws jettisoned.
In June, the gay rights movement in Africa scored a victory when a court in Botswana, upholding the rights of LGBT people, overturned laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations. But there have been some setbacks.
In 2017, Chad enacted legislation criminalizing same-sex relations for the first time in the country’s history. In May, a court in Kenya ruled against overturning a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults. Activists there who had challenged the law in court said they faced discrimination and threats to their dignity.
And in neighboring Uganda, a government minister in charge of ethics is threatening to introduce another version of an anti-gay law passed in 2014, and subsequently voided by the country’s constitutional court, that provided for jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. The original version of that bill, first introduced in 2009, had included the death penalty for what it called aggravated acts of homosexuality.
In Rwanda, the way ahead can be challenging, Nabonibo said. Some neighborhoods in Kigali are filled with gossip about how a certain gay man might spoil other citizens, he said.
“Criticism and sadness. What does it matter? What’s important is that I have taken my choice,” he said softly.