Picture this: A neighbor decides he doesn’t like your hairstyle. He figures it’s cut in a way that must mean you are gay. He calls the police. You are arrested for violating the law that criminalizes homosexuality.
You’re rushed through a court packed with anti-gay religious zealots, shouting insults, demanding conviction. You are convicted and now face five years in prison.
And that’s only the beginning. What you face inside makes life outside of prison look like a cake walk.
Is it only a bad dream?
Unfortunately it’s real life for gay men and lesbians in Cameroon. The French-speaking country on Africa’s west coast has managed to avoid the bad publicity that has greeted Nigeria and Uganda’s harsh treatment of their gay and lesbian citizens, perhaps because it possesses nothing coveted by the West — such as oil, as does next-door Nigeria. Cameroon has been arresting, imprisoning and ruining the lives of gay men and lesbians with impunity. It’s one of the world’s 79 countries that criminalize homosexuality.
A 2015 report from the International Federation for Human Rights concludes that Cameroon’s government, the police and judiciary are all “accomplices in arbitrary arrests and ignoring complaints against the perpetrators of violations of the rights of the defenders of LGBTI persons’ rights.” To ensure maximum repression, the government can even arrest, convict and imprison someone simply for standing up publicly for a gay friend — even if that person isn’t gay.
The report notes that any person can be targeted, “whether a lawyer, activist, academic, intellectual, religious leader, trade unionist, journalist, community leader, public officer or a member of an NGO or an association” for peacefully protesting against violations of the rights of LGBTI persons. “Their actions are criminalized and their freedom of speech, association and assembly impeded.”
If it’s hard to picture such blatant, legalized anti-gay witchunting and its impact on your life as you go about your business in Cameroon, I urge you to watch an exceptional film called Born This Way. The documentary follows Cedric, a young gay man determined to stay in his home even as his neighbors threaten to kill him, and Gertrude, a young lesbian struggling to come out to the nun who, she says, is more like a mother to her than her actual mother.
For his part, Cedric doesn’t want to come out to his mother. “My mother is everything to me,” he says. “But telling her I’m gay would be a shock for her.” He explains that “family is everything” and he is not willing to risk losing his family’s affection.
Gertrude works at Alternatives Cameroon, a human rights center that offers counseling, legal counseling for men and women incarcerated for homosexuality and even HIV prevention and testing. The organization’s important role in the local LGBTI community is an example of how HIV/AIDS programs in developing countries frequently also serve as vital resources for political and social organizing.
All of us who have struggled to come out to a parent or other revered figure in our lives will see ourselves in the look of dread on Gertrude’s face as she is about to come out to the Mother Superior she adores, the stumbling effort to share her truth and the palpable relief after she does so. Those of us fortunate to have found a loving response, rather than rejection, will share Gertrude’s relief when the nun responds, “It’s something so profound, so personal and it’s often difficult to take on. But when you’re like that, you’re like that. So it’s something you take on. Now how will you live it? That’s your responsibility. Understand?”
“The affection she had for me is still there,” says Gertrude. “I won’t forget that. She took time to understand me. That takes love.”
The film — winner of a number of awards including the 2013 Outfest (Los Angeles) Grand Jury Documentary — also highlights the brave work of Cameroonian human rights lawyer Alice Nkom, based in Douala, one of the few lawyers in the country willing to represent men and women accused of homosexual conduct.
The most dramatic moments in Born This Way come by way of a hidden camera brought into a packed courtroom where Ms. Nkom is representing two women, Esther and Pascaline, arrested for being lesbians. The women lost their jobs and had to move. Ms. Nkom argued the judge should throw out the case because Article 347 of the Penal Code, the law used to persecute and prosecute gay and lesbian people, is invalid as it is contrary to Cameroon’s constitution. The judge rejected Ms. Nkom’s argument, convicted and sentenced the two women to five years in prison. While the women await their appeal to the country’s supreme court, they have become outspoken LGBT activists in Cameroon.
Cedric and Gertrude’s stories have happier outcomes, as both of them ultimately receive asylum and relocate to the United States. “I’m very happy to be here,” says Cedric. “It’s a big relief to be rid of those people.”
Over footage showing her receiving communion from the Mother Superior, Gertrude says, “Before, if I’d go by a Catholic church, I’d just go in and cry and cry. I still cry, but not like before.”
The bright smiles, happy dancing and joyful music shared by men and women at an Alternatives Cameroon gathering will be familiar to anyone who has attended an LGBT Pride event. But so will the stories, like Cedric’s and Gertrude’s, and the private fears and tears behind the smiling, dancing and joy.