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?
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.