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Gays under threat in Senegal

Local youth leader: "The homosexuals will not escape lynching. They will be fish food."

Hostility towards homosexuality is nothing new in Senegal. Photos of an underground gay wedding published by a Senegalese magazine last year spurred arrests and violence against gay men. Many have said the harsh eight-year sentences dolled out by the first judge not only reflected his personal prejudices but were also meant to serve as a warning for others.

Despite the men’s release, health and human rights groups are concerned about what the case could mean for the future of HIV/AIDS prevention work in Senegal, particularly in the homosexual community, one of the hardest hit by the disease.

“This has created a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, threats against the activists in the community. It will take time to build that back up, so that they can ... be certain that they can go about their AIDS prevention work in safe conditions,” said Daouda Diouf, head of the HIV/AIDS community response team at Enda Tiers Monde, a nonprofit organization.

As part of the team advocating for the men’s release and helping them seek refuge since then, Diouf and his organization have also been the targets of public rage. Getting the men out of Senegal will be difficult, not only for financial reasons but also because it must be done in secret — homophobia pervades even police and airport staff, Diouf said.

“They are in danger,” Diouf said. “It’s hard to hear people say such horrible things, such hate, but we [Enda] are still committed.”

Sensationalism in the media created confusion about the details of the case and fanned the flames of religious fervor and public hostility, Diouf said. Though acceptance of homosexuality is still many years away, he is optimistic it will come to Senegal, as it has to other countries.

“The question of homosexuality is a taboo question in Senegal,” Diouf said. “We will certainly have to take into consideration the realities of Senegalese society when we talk about [it]. There’s no question that we must confront this issue.”

Still, religious leaders like Niang insist the issue is not negotiable.

“This liberation has angered Senegalese,” Niang said. “It’s not wise to force an acceptance of homosexuality in Senegal. That risks inciting Senegalese to take the law into their own hands when faced with the failure of state justice.

“Believe me that the population is going to seek its own justice and that that justice will be much harsher," Niang said.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Senegal:

Senegal avoids human rights trial

Dakar hit by shortage of cooking gas

Senegalese press: oppressed or out of control?