Cameroon is a nation deeply rooted in tradition; wearing the wrong shirt, humming the wrong song, or smiling at the wrong person can get you a five-year prison sentence.
LGBT citizens are viewed as criminals, and remain underneath the feet of their own government. Cameroon is one of 38 African countries that criminalize homosexuality, according to Amnesty International. But this Central African nation manages to arrest more homosexuals on the basis of their sexual orientation than anywhere else in the entire world.
The 41-year-old article 347a of the penal code established the illegality of “sexual relations with a person of the same sex.” The law has resulted in at least 51 prosecutions, and countless acts of police brutality since 2005, reported Amnesty. Often, LGBT Cameroonians are accused of violating the law with no evidence to prove the allegations, sparking a never-ending witch hunt inside the villages.
But one woman is fighting back. Human rights defender Alice Nkom is a lead activist in this part of the world, taking on the task of defending LGBT Cameroonians. She and her colleague, Michael Togue, have appealed many cases in an effort to change the Cameroonian law through the Supreme Court.
“I wanted to add this human rights dimension to my work because I’m just like a mother,” Nkom said in the documentary Born This Way. “When you have two kids who are different and one of them is vulnerable, you have to take care. You have to love them. You have to help them. This is why I do it.”
Defenders like Nkom and Togue (who isn’t featured in the film) receive regular death threats due to their work. Last month, Togue’s office was robbed of a laptop, flash drives, legal files, and his passport, leaving behind a large sum of money. Togue’s wife and children have fled the country.
“It is very difficult because Cameroon is a very hostile environment, very aggressive, and very oppressive," Nkom continued. "We receive threats of death and of violence because we defend things they don’t understand. When you’re in an environment where you don’t have democracy, you don’t have human rights. What can you expect from that?”
Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann’s documentary, which was recently screened for the U.S. State Department and the LGBT Caucus in Washington, D.C., explores what it means to be LGBT in Cameroon by highlighting the experiences of two gay citizens. Born This Way also features never-before-seen footage inside a Cameroonian courtroom, as Nkom defends a lesbian couple on trial for homosexuality against a prosecutor who compares their act to pedophilia and rape. The judge ultimately decided against the couple — a ruling that is far too common.
Some Cameroonians don’t even get the right to defend themselves in court. Jean-Claude Roger Mbede was sentenced on the basis of a simple text message to another man – the first time a person has ever been convicted with such an accusation, according to Amnesty. In cases like this, it is not uncommon for doctors to perform judicially ordered anal examinations in an attempt to “prove” that one is homosexual by testing the elasticity of the anus — even though these techniques are illegal under international law, not to mention unscientific. Many people who have been in Mbede’s situation are imprisoned for up to three years, without ever being charged or tried.
In another case, three men went to the police for help in resolving a dispute over money. After a policeman asked them a few questions, the men were accused of being gay, and arrested on the spot.
“There have been no cases where any men have been caught in the act,” Togue said in a 2011 Amnesty Interational report. “The homophobia of [Cameroonian] judges is a real problem. A regular argument by the prosecuting lawyers is that the men were ‘caught in the act,’ but the court does not want to read the file in detail to see if this is true.”
Just as the government is armed with judges who fail to provide a fair trial, the Cameroonian media often fails to shed a fair light on this national problem because, Nkom says, the government controls the media. TV and radio stations are often fearful of the repercussions they might experience by publicizing what the nation considers “treasonous topics.” Other national leaders have tried to keep a close eye, but can only do so much when a country refuses to change legislation. Such was the case with President Barack Obama’s June 27 visit to Senegal.
"When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally," Obama said at a news conference in the West African nation.
Senegalese president Macky Sall replied that his country is very tolerant, but is still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality, according to the Associated Press.
His rebuttal is bolstered by Pew Research Center polls in the African countries that criminalize homosexuality, where more than 90% of citizens say gay people don't belong in society. With LGBT citizens tied down by political chains held by local authorities, who, then is protecting their rights?