Ninety-six percent of Cameroonians agreed that homosexuals should not be accepted by society, according to the Pew poll, but “there is no reason to despair," said President Paul Biya in January. "Minds are changing."
A month later, American ambassador Robert P. Jackson invited Biya to the premiere of Born This Way. He didn’t attend.
Alternatives-Cameroon, the first LGBT center in the country, has been one of the sanctuaries for queer people to call home. Founded by Steave Nemande, the center is featured heavily in the film and has recently caught the attention of antigay hate groups.
On June 26, unidentified assailants set the center on fire. The blaze destroyed most of the organization’s medical records of clients getting tested for HIV, as well as computers and office furniture; all of which help the workers at Alternatives-Cameroon maintain a safe environment for counseling, testing, and media advocacy. This act was only the latest of three recent attacks on human rights advocates — the others being the burglaries of Togue’s office, and burglaries at REDHAC, a coalition of human rights defenders in eight countries.
Centers like these offer Cameroonians a free place to get the medical attention they need when dealing with HIV and AIDS, in a nation where it can be a battle just to get treated. In most cases, gay men living with STDs are more likely to be discriminated against in hospitals by doctors and nurses than are straight men. One case involved a patient who spent two weeks in the hospital while the staff refused to treat him, despite the pleas from his visitors. Doctors denied him medication, saying they were “busy.” The patient died two weeks later.
REDHAC’s executive director Maximilienne Ngo Mbe’s son was almost abducted from school in April, according to Human Rights Watch. Last year, Ngo Mbe’s niece was kidnapped and raped by men in security uniforms in what she believes was a targeted attack to punish her for her human rights work.
Most people involved in these centers understand the possibility of getting arrested and sent to prison at the drop of a dime. In a country where people can point their finger at you and cry “Gay!" life has become a silent battle.
In prison, LGBT people are persecuted even worse. Both inmates and police officers physically and verbally assault LGBT prisoners without fear of reprecussion. Women who are presumed to be lesbian often face “corrective rape” by inmates and prison guards.
Amnesty reported on a lesbian who was raped while she was walking home — the rapist's effort to “cure” her homosexuality. When the perpetrator was arrested, the police told her that the assailant had the right to rape her. Situations like these are not uncommon, but are rarely publicized, since the media in Cameroon hardly gives factual reports on LGBT issues.
"Being gay or lesbian is seen as inferior, even less than an animal or a dog," Nkom said in an Amnesty report.
Though most Cameroonian men will humor the idea of two women in a sexual relationship over the idea of two men, being a lesbian is still seen as a blatant act against a citizen’s reproductive duty. Girls suspected of being lesbians are expelled from school and face harassment from friends, church members, and are often fired from their jobs.
Underneath such bigotry, centers like Alternatives-Cameroon create a safety net for LGBT people to thrive — a gathering of “criminals,” separated by fear and misunderstanding, yet united by love, art, live music, and dance. Their “illegal acts against nature” involve counseling their brothers and sisters, and lending a helping hand to friends that need it. Their “witchcraft” includes brewing and barbequing to feed their friends with minimal income, offering a place to stay, and giving defenders like Nkom the opportunity to help.
The future of Cameroon’s antihomosexuality law lies with President Biya. If he follows 16 other African nations and abandons the antigay laws, the LGBT community in Cameroon can work to create an open dialogue to dispel common stereotypes that create such separation in their society.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Cameroonian culture is that despite such persecution, gay people have managed to stay strong by surrounding themselves with people who are like them. When every road is a dangerous one, all it takes is a friend to offer a reminder that they're not alone. With the help of some Western influence, small numbers of Cameroonians are beginning to accept gay people within the last few years — enough to where some LGBT people feel comfortable to live openly, though they are still criminals in the eyes of the law.
The LGBT community in Cameroon is slowly discovering its purpose through shared experiences. The line between religion and self-identity constricts queer Cameroonians from fulfilling their potential in life; But the very thing that society has yet to take from them is their heart. The LGBT people of Cameroon have found their identity, and it’s people like Alice Nkom who help them find their voice.
Catch Born This Way at Outfest Los Angeles on July 14.
Take a peek at the trailer below.