If It's Hard to Picture Legal Anti-Gay Witchunts, Watch This Movie About Cameroon

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John-Manuel Andriote



African American in Prison

African American in Prison


Picture this: A neighbor decides he doesn’t like your hairstyle. He figures it’s cut in a way that must mean you are gay. He calls the police. You are arrested for violating the law that criminalizes homosexuality.

You’re rushed through a court packed with anti-gay religious zealots, shouting insults, demanding conviction. You are convicted and now face five years in prison.

And that’s only the beginning. What you face inside makes life outside of prison look like a cake walk.

Is it only a bad dream?

Unfortunately it’s real life for gay men and lesbians in Cameroon. The French-speaking country on Africa’s west coast has managed to avoid the bad publicity that has greeted Nigeria and Uganda’s harsh treatment of their gay and lesbian citizens, perhaps because it possesses nothing coveted by the West — such as oil, as does next-door Nigeria. Cameroon has been arresting, imprisoning and ruining the lives of gay men and lesbians with impunity. It’s one of the world’s 79 countries that criminalize homosexuality.

A 2015 report from the International Federation for Human Rights concludes that Cameroon’s government, the police and judiciary are all “accomplices in arbitrary arrests and ignoring complaints against the perpetrators of violations of the rights of the defenders of LGBTI persons’ rights.” To ensure maximum repression, the government can even arrest, convict and imprison someone simply for standing up publicly for a gay friend — even if that person isn’t gay.

The report notes that any person can be targeted, “whether a lawyer, activist, academic, intellectual, religious leader, trade unionist, journalist, community leader, public officer or a member of an NGO or an association” for peacefully protesting against violations of the rights of LGBTI persons. “Their actions are criminalized and their freedom of speech, association and assembly impeded.”

If it’s hard to picture such blatant, legalized anti-gay witchunting and its impact on your life as you go about your business in Cameroon, I urge you to watch an exceptional film called Born This Way. The documentary follows Cedric, a young gay man determined to stay in his home even as his neighbors threaten to kill him, and Gertrude, a young lesbian struggling to come out to the nun who, she says, is more like a mother to her than her actual mother.

For his part, Cedric doesn’t want to come out to his mother. “My mother is everything to me,” he says. “But telling her I’m gay would be a shock for her.” He explains that “family is everything” and he is not willing to risk losing his family’s affection.

Gertrude works at Alternatives Cameroon, a human rights center that offers counseling, legal counseling for men and women incarcerated for homosexuality and even HIV prevention and testing. The organization’s important role in the local LGBTI community is an example of how HIV/AIDS programs in developing countries frequently also serve as vital resources for political and social organizing.

All of us who have struggled to come out to a parent or other revered figure in our lives will see ourselves in the look of dread on Gertrude’s face as she is about to come out to the Mother Superior she adores, the stumbling effort to share her truth and the palpable relief after she does so. Those of us fortunate to have found a loving response, rather than rejection, will share Gertrude’s relief when the nun responds, “It’s something so profound, so personal and it’s often difficult to take on. But when you’re like that, you’re like that. So it’s something you take on. Now how will you live it? That’s your responsibility. Understand?”

“The affection she had for me is still there,” says Gertrude. “I won’t forget that. She took time to understand me. That takes love.”

The film — winner of a number of awards including the 2013 Outfest (Los Angeles) Grand Jury Documentary — also highlights the brave work of Cameroonian human rights lawyer Alice Nkom, based in Douala, one of the few lawyers in the country willing to represent men and women accused of homosexual conduct.

The most dramatic moments in Born This Way come by way of a hidden camera brought into a packed courtroom where Ms. Nkom is representing two women, Esther and Pascaline, arrested for being lesbians. The women lost their jobs and had to move. Ms. Nkom argued the judge should throw out the case because Article 347 of the Penal Code, the law used to persecute and prosecute gay and lesbian people, is invalid as it is contrary to Cameroon’s constitution. The judge rejected Ms. Nkom’s argument, convicted and sentenced the two women to five years in prison. While the women await their appeal to the country’s supreme court, they have become outspoken LGBT activists in Cameroon.

Cedric and Gertrude’s stories have happier outcomes, as both of them ultimately receive asylum and relocate to the United States. “I’m very happy to be here,” says Cedric. “It’s a big relief to be rid of those people.”

Over footage showing her receiving communion from the Mother Superior, Gertrude says, “Before, if I’d go by a Catholic church, I’d just go in and cry and cry. I still cry, but not like before.”

The bright smiles, happy dancing and joyful music shared by men and women at an Alternatives Cameroon gathering will be familiar to anyone who has attended an LGBT Pride event. But so will the stories, like Cedric’s and Gertrude’s, and the private fears and tears behind the smiling, dancing and joy.



Tel Aviv's Gay Holocaust Victims Memorial Unveiled

By ARON HELLER 01/10/14 11:49 AM ET EST AP

tel aviv gay holocaust memorial

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s cultural and financial capital unveiled a memorial Friday honoring gays and lesbians persecuted by the Nazis, the first specific recognition in Israel for non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Tucked away in a Tel Aviv park, a concrete, triangle-shaped plaque details the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. It resembles the pink triangles Nazis forced gays to wear in concentration camps during World War II and states in English, Hebrew and German: “In memory of those persecuted by the Nazi regime for their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The landmark joins similar memorials in Amsterdam, Berlin, San Francisco and Sydney dedicated to gay victims of the Holocaust. While Israel has scores of monuments for the genocide, the Tel Aviv memorial is the first that deals universally with Jewish and non-Jewish victims alike and highlights the Jewish state’s rise as one of the world’s most progressive countries for gay rights.

“I think in Israel today it is very important to show that a human being is a human being is a human being,” Mayor Ron Huldai said at the dedication ceremony, where a rainbow flag waved alongside Israel’s blue-and-white flag. “It shows that we are not only caring for ourselves but for everybody who suffered. These are our values — to see everyone as a human being.”

Israel was born out of the Holocaust and its 6 million Jewish victims remains seared in the country’s psyche. Israel holds an annual memorial day where sirens stop traffic across the nation, it sends soldiers and youth on trips to concentration camp sites and often cites the Holocaust as justification for an independent Jewish state so Jews will “never again” be defenseless.

But after 70 years, Tel Aviv councilman Eran Lev thought it was time to add a universal element to the commemoration. Lev is one of many gays elected to public office in Tel Aviv, a city with a vibrant gay scene that has emerged as a top international destination for gay tourism.

“The significance here is that we are recognizing that there were other victims of the Holocaust, not just Jews,” said Lev, who initiated the project during his brief term in office.

As part of their persecution of gays, the Nazis kept files on 100,000 people, mostly men. About 15,000 were sent to camps and at least half were killed. Other Nazi targets included communists, Slavs, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unlike their persecution of Jews, however, there was no grand Nazi plan to exterminate gays. Nazis viewed being gay as a “public health problem” since those German men did not produce children, said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“The idea was to change their behavior, not to eradicate them, not to murder them,” Dwork said.

The policy was far from sweeping — as evidenced by the rampant homosexuality among the ranks of the Nazi Party’s SA paramilitary wing, which helped pave Hitler’s path to power. The most famous gay Nazi was Ernst Röhm, one of the most powerful men in the party before Hitler had him executed in 1934.

Later, the Nazis outlawed homosexuality and the Gestapo set up a special unit targeting homosexuality. In the Buchenwald concentration camp, the Nazis carried out experiments to try and “cure” homosexuality. Those sent to the camps were forced to wear pink triangles, compared to the yellow stars that Jews bore on their clothing. Gay Jews wore an emblem that combined the two colors.

Today, Israel is one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of gay rights. Gays serve openly in Israel’s military and parliament. The Supreme Court grants a variety of family rights such as inheritance and survivors’ benefits. Gays, lesbians and a transsexual are among the country’s most popular musicians and actors.

Moshe Zimmermann, a professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the memorial project’s historical adviser, said the Tel Aviv monument marked a big step in Israel by ridding itself from what he called a monopoly of victim hood.

“We are finally shedding the load of being the lone and ultimate victim,” he said. “We can learn from this that by recognizing the victimhood of others, it does not diminish the uniqueness of your own victim hood.”


Further reading:


  1. Original Article – Huffington Post
  2. BBC News Article
  3. BN&S Commentary
  4. The Gay Holocaust Lagers