ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — It's nearly an hour before midnight in a street in one of Addis Ababa's bustling districts and less than a dozen young men can be spotted below the glow of half-lit street lights.
In near-slow motion, a handful of vehicles pass by over potholed roads while gay men and male prostitutes hold discreet conversations on cracked pavements.
In Piazza, one of the Ethiopian capital's oldest sections, narrow alleyways that buzz with stone-walled shops and cafes during daytime offer rare and safe rendezvous spots for homosexuals, considered no less than criminals in the conservative Horn of Africa nation.
"There is always the need for extra precaution as possibilities of arrest and harassment are usually high," a young gay mobile phone seller told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Laws against homosexuality are not unusual in Africa, where nearly three-quarters of the continent -- at least 38 countries -- have outlawed consensual gay sex.
Ethiopia is no exception. Under its penal code, the very act itself can bring three years behind bars. And if the offender "makes a profession of such activities" the penalty rises to up to five years.
The law also seeks a maximum sentence of up to ten years if any kind of coercion is involved.
Yet, there are calls for more stringent rules against the homosexual community whose exact size is impossible to determine due to fears of repression.
Recently, the heads of the Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as Islam, adopted a resolution urging lawmakers to amend the constitution to ban the sexual orientation, which they termed a "pinnacle of immorality".
"This is something very strange in Ethiopia, the land of the Bible that condemns this very strongly," said Abune Paolos, the patriarch of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church, the nation's largest religious denomination.
"For people to act in this manner they have to be dumb, stupid like animals," he said. "We strongly condemn this behaviour. They have to be disciplined and their acts discriminated, they have to be given a lesson."
Ethiopian culture is heavily influenced by Paolos' state-backed church, which urges conservative sexual practices.
The taboo is so extreme that even an association that works to help male sexual assault victims has been a victim of prejudice.
"We rarely receive any funding apart from UNAIDS and a number of other US-based organisations," Sultan Wuhe, a former homosexual prostitute and child rape victim, says of his NGO, the Bright for Children Voluntary Association.
"I have even encountered insults. One NGO president once labelled my organisation 'a bunch of faggots' and asked me to leave his office," he adds.
Apart from tight government restrictions, social stigma has driven homosexuals into virtual hiding.
For fear of arrest and humiliation, members usually switch from place to place and avoid revealing their identity at all costs.
As such, they have developed an elaborate way of distinguishing and communicating with each other.
"Members are always clean-shaved with some having red paint on their fingernails," one member said, while using his fingers to illustrate.
"After observing those characteristics, you either blink at one another or flip lip balm tubes to give signs."
Others find it easier to socialise with foreign expatriates in Addis Ababa, who usually feel sympathetic towards Ethiopian homosexuals.
Yet, rather paradoxically, the community has rarely experienced violence, but any possibility to decriminalise the orientation suffered a blow in 2006 when one homosexual sought to establish a legal association but was promptly turned down by the government.
Afterwards, NGO officials say the individual had to leave the country due to harassment.
Much of the government's reluctance relates to the increasing number of sexual assaults on minors.
Of the more than 10,000 rape cases last year, 22 percent involved young boys, some even as young as two, according to government figures.
Several westerners have also been implicated in such incidents during the past few years.
The most notorious occurred in the mid-1990s when dozens of young victims of Ethiopia's 1984 famine were sexually abused in an orphanage run by Swiss-based charity group Terre des Hommes.
"For years I've been struggling over my sexual identity and needed time to gain sanity," Wuhu says.
The 28-year-old says he was gang-raped by five of the NGO's foreign staff when he was 14, and worked as a prostitute providing services to men for three years after leaving the orphanage.
He adds he is aware that his main assailants have served time in jail in their respective countries.
"Homosexuality should be discouraged by whatever means and the government should do whatever it takes to stop it," he says.
"Many western countries have penalised those who spoke out against homosexuality. The reason for that is because they lost the opportunity to block its trend in the first place," says Daniel Ferede, a member of parliament. "We should tackle this scourge at all costs."
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