LGBTI Africa: Cameroon’s “Gay Scare”

Source: Indypendent

Editor’s note: We are saddened to report that the author of this article, Eric O. Lembembe, was violently murdered and found dead in his home in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé on Monday, July 15, just one day after The Indypendent went to press. This piece is one of the last ones that Eric wrote before his death.

Human Rights Watch reports that Eric’s friends discovered his body after being unable to reach him over the weekend. According to one friend, Eric’s body showed signs of torture: his neck and feet appeared to have been broken, and his face, hands, and feet had been burned with a clothes iron.

Eric was one of Cameroon’s most prominent LGBTI rights activists and the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS). His organization assiduously documented arrests, violence, and blackmail against LGBTI people in Cameroon. He was also a journalist, a contributor to the blog “Erasing 76 Crimes” (which documents the LGBTI rights struggle in the 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized) and the author of several chapters in a book on LGBTI rights around the world, From Wrongs to Gay Rights.

His killing follows a spate of attacks against LGBTI and human rights defenders in Cameroon.

The Indypendent sends its deepest condolences to Eric’s family, friends and comrades. We will continue to follow this story that Eric so bravely helped to bring to light.

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — Bruno E. and Marc Henri B. were arrested in September 2010, during a police search in their apartment for a stolen laptop. On October 7, 2010, they were accused before a judge of “being caught in the act of homosexual conduct.” That same night, the two friends were thrown in prison to serve out a term of six months. This happened solely because when police were searching their apartment, they found dozens of condoms — some bearing slogans in French like “glisse entre mecs” (“slide between guys”).

On January 7, 2013, Jonas K. and Franky D., two young transgender women who had been sentenced in 2011 to five years in prison for alleged homosexual conduct, were finally acquitted by an appeals court. They had been arrested for allegedly having sex in a vehicle. According to the police report, the occupants of the vehicle were “groping” each other, which the police considered to be a form of “homosexual sex.” The appeals court ruled that there was no evidence to support the conviction. However, the state prosecutor’s office refuses to let the case go and has appealed it to the Supreme Court.

Another extraordinary case, which has captured the attention of the media in Cameroon and abroad, is that of Roger M., a philosophy student at the University of Yaoundé who was arrested and convicted of homosexual conduct in March 2011 after sending another man several text messages, including one that read, “I’ve fallen in love with you.” On April 28, 2011, this 33-year-old Cameroonian was sentenced to three years in prison for “homosexual conduct.” His lawyers, Alice Nkom and Michel Togué, immediately appealed the decision and filed a motion to release Roger on bail, which the court rejected. Thanks to the tenacity of the lawyers, after a dozen more attempts, the bail motion was finally accepted in June 2012. Roger was “provisionally released” after more than 16 months in prison. Unfortunately, defying all expectations, the Central Appeals Court upheld his conviction and three-year prison sentence in a December 2012 ruling, and ordered his re-arrest. He has lived in hiding ever since.

Penal Code

Cameroon has stacked up 30 or more cases in which people are arrested on the basis of mere accusations and convicted for “homosexual conduct” in the absence of limited or nonexistent proof. All of these cases against alleged gays and lesbians fall under the scope of Article 347 bis of the Penal Code, which mandates prison terms of up to five years for “sexual relations between persons of the same sex.”

This article was added to the Penal Code in 1972 by means of a presidential ordinance, issued by then-president Ahmadou Ahidjo with no public consultation. Most human rights defenders in Cameroon consider the law unconstitutional. Nonetheless, it is enforced with such severity that Cameroon has become known as a country where people accused of same-sex conduct are prosecuted more rigorously than almost anywhere else in the world.

Outside of the courtroom, homophobic voices on the ground are also becoming stronger. As gays and lesbians begin to speak out and as the topic of homosexuality increasingly becomes a subject of public debate both in Cameroon and internationally, some Cameroonian journalists, preachers and politicians are seizing on the opportunity for self-promotion. They sensationalize the issue in order to whip the public into a frenzy, taking advantage of Cameroonians’ fear of the unknown to create a “Gay Scare” that will sell newspapers and draw the public to certain churches or political parties.

It is difficult to spend a day or even an hour in the streets, markets, offices, churches and public taxis of Yaoundé and Douala, or to listen to interactive radio programs or television debates, without hearing the conversations turn to homosexual “deviance.” Critics firmly condemn what they call the “practice” of homosexuality, which they deem “moral decadence,” “unnatural,” “unacceptable” and “satanic.”

Some observers say that all of this agitation has brought homosexuality “out of the closet” by making it the subject of debate in the public sphere. Further, the public debate leaves no doubt that gays exist, and that they have serious concerns.

For more on LGBT struggles in Africa and around the world, see:

Africa’s Small Step Toward LGBTI Equality, by Neela Ghoshal

LGBTI Africa: A Trans Woman in Uganda, by Cleo Kambugu

Gay Marriage in France, by Anna Polonyi