A Lone Activist Crusades for Change in Cameroon
November 28 2011 6:00 AM ET
The State Department also is ramping up support for NGOs that address LGBT rights issues as part of their missions. It has already created an emergency fund for such groups and will, over the next year, provide grants to better document LGBT human rights abuses, as well as establish organizational networks across borders, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world. “As you might expect, these groups are often themselves marginalized and left out, even by other human rights NGOs, so our engagement can be a lifeline of moral support,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said last month in a keynote address to the Compass to Compassion Conference in New York City.
Baer, who spoke on a UN Human Rights Council panel with Nkom last year, indicated that the civil rights attorney fits the mold of an international LGBT activist worthy of State Department support. “She’s the person who will go to the prisons and serve as an advocate when no one else will,” Baer told The Advocate of Nkom. “Her role is extremely crucial.”
Emphasizing that homophobic policy is incompatible with American aid programs may be another avenue for change. For example, “ruling justly” and respecting human and civil rights are among the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s criteria for grants. Cameroon is still in the early stages of applying for a Millennium compact — a multiyear process — though it received failing grades for all human rights criteria in its most recent audit.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Baer indicated that Cameroon’s record on LGBT rights will continue to affect its poor ratings. “We’ve made clear that as a matter of policy, we don’t consider discriminating against people for who they are and whom they love to be consistent with good governance,” Baer says.
Other countries that are major sources of African aid have been more blunt in their opposition to antiquated antigay laws and modern legislative attempts to enhance them. In an interview last month, United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron said that Commonwealth nations that criminalize homosexuality could see cuts in bilateral aid as a result. The move quickly led to charges of Western officiousness by African nations: Ugandan officials slammed the PM’s stance as a “bullying mentality,” while Ghana’s president, John Evans Attah Mills, said he would “never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality.”
International pressure has yet to effect any substantive change in Cameroon, Nkom says. In fact, lawmakers appear to be emboldened: A bill to strengthen the penal code section criminalizing homosexuality has been offered in the national assembly, a move that Nkom has blasted as unconstitutional. “We’ve seen support for [LGBT rights] but it’s not as much as I’d like to see. Gays here feel completely abandoned by the community.”
Despite the EU grant, Nkom says she makes less and less money and continues the advocacy work she began eight years ago in near isolation. "Even Lawyers Without Borders is too intimidated to do this work. … But I can’t ask my clients for money. I am assisted by people around me. If I need to get somewhere, I ask someone for a ride.”
Sadly, she says, “I am better off than the people I help.”
For more information on Nkom’s work, visit AllOut.org.