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Danilo da Silva, the executive director of LAMBDA, and a founding member of the first LGBT organization in Mozambique, says that 'some people still think it’s criminal to be gay and the police officers explain to them that there’s nothing criminal about it.'

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On the first day of their training sessions, Mozambique’s police officers often express homophobic prejudices. That’s the grim reality of a continent where same-sex relations are still illegal in most countries.

But by the second day of their training on sexuality issues, a remarkable transformation begins. “They change, they listen,” said Danilo da Silva, executive director of Lambda, the country’s leading LGBTQ rights group. “By the last day, they empathize. Most of them by the last day become kind of activists.”

Mozambique, which approved legislation in 2015 to decriminalize homosexuality, is one of a small handful of African countries where anti-gay laws have been removed or overturned in recent years.

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Parents or neighbours still occasionally bring gay Mozambicans to local police stations, demanding their arrest. But after their training, the police usually refuse.

“Some people still think it’s criminal to be gay and the police officers explain to them that there’s nothing criminal about it,” Mr. da Silva told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

It’s a small sign of hope for gay Africans, who still suffer arrest and harassment in many countries. Of the 54 countries in Africa, at least 30 have laws that criminalize homosexuality, allowing authorities to detain and prosecute people, often with humiliating physical examinations.

In Uganda, for example, there are frequent police raids on bars or homes where gays gather. In November, police arrested 125 members of the LGBTQ community at a bar in Kampala, throwing them into police trucks and charging them with “common nuisance” crimes. Most were kept in prison for several days before being released on bail.

A few weeks earlier, Ugandan police arrested 16 LGBTQ activists and forced them to undergo anal examinations – a violation of international laws against torture, according to human-rights groups. The police confiscated condoms and HIV medicine as evidence against them and charged them with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Under Uganda’s laws, homosexuality is punishable by up to life imprisonment.

In Nigeria, 47 men are standing trial on charges of displaying “same-sex amorous relationships” after a police raid on a birthday party at a Lagos hotel. The police paraded them on television, resulting in homophobic attacks against them. The arrests were in 2018, but the charges are still being pursued today and the defendants have been ordered to return to court next month. Under Nigerian law, same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

In Zambia, two gay men were sentenced to 15 years in prison in November for “crimes against the order of nature.” When U.S. Ambassador Daniel Foote said he was “horrified” by their imprisonment, the Zambian government announced that his status was “no longer tenable” – forcing him to leave the country. President Edgar Lungu defended the anti-gay laws, saying homosexuality was “unbiblical.”

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Yet, while the persecution continues in much of the continent and in dozens of other countries worldwide, there are glimmers of progress in a few African countries.

In Angola, by an overwhelming 155 to 1 vote, the National Assembly decided last January to abolish a colonial-era law that criminalized “acts against nature” – traditionally interpreted as homosexuality. It also prohibited discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation.

In Botswana last June, the High Court overturned a law criminalizing same-sex relations, calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional. The colonial-era law had authorized jail terms of up to seven years for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” The government has appealed the ruling.

While legislation and court rulings are important, much of the battle is waged at the grassroots level. The Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation, for example, supports 16 African LGBTQ organizations that fight against harassment and discrimination in Uganda and four other African countries.

In Mozambique, harassment of gays has become less common since the 2015 decriminalization, which revised the penal code to eliminate a colonial-era clause outlawing “vices against nature.” But much of the improvement is due to Lambda, the LGBTQ organization that was founded in 2008 and has worked to educate the police and other officials.

“At least people aren’t arrested for their sexuality now, but it doesn’t solve people’s everyday problems,” said Mr. da Silva, a 39-year-old engineer who co-founded Lambda.

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While Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, is liberal enough to allow gay people to live openly, there is less tolerance in smaller towns and rural areas. Male schoolchildren are still bullied or assaulted if they “look feminine” and teachers often do nothing to stop it, Mr. da Silva said.

In a worrying example of government intolerance, Mozambique’s justice ministry has refused to register Lambda as a legal entity, despite repeated requests since 2008. The government has never given a reason for this, although Mr. da Silva believes it is because of conservative cultural and religious beliefs.

This has made it difficult for Lambda to hire staff, rent space, create a bank account or receive funds. “We can’t even place an advertisement on TV,” Mr. da Silva said. “Some cabinet ministers won’t even meet us.”

When Lambda went to court to challenge the refusal, the government did not respond and the court shelved the case.

But while the justice ministry refuses to register it, the health ministry allows Lambda to train health workers on HIV issues. “We’re recognized as a key part of the response,” Mr. da Silva said. “We could do so much more if we were registered.”

The United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, has urged Mozambique to register Lambda. “I am convinced that through its work, Lambda has saved many lives,” he said in a statement.

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Mr. Madrigal-Borloz visited Mozambique for a week in late 2018 and praised the country as a “model” for its “high level of tolerance.” But he also concluded that LGBTQ people still face “discrimination and violence at home, at school, at work, within their religious communities, when accessing health services or seeking protection from the police.”

He quoted a member of the National Assembly who told him: “Homosexuality is not forbidden in Mozambique, but it is also not permitted.”

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