Forward Movement: LGBT Rights in Cameroon

Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon's major port and commercial center
Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon’s major port and commercial center

In response to this week’s Photo Challenge: Forward, I thought I would simply post this photo, taken two weeks ago today, of motorcycle taxis speeding towards Douala, Cameroon.  But there is another kind of movement going on right now in Douala, one that is attempting to move the country forward towards acceptance of the rights of LGBT persons.  These courageous activists, who are risking their lives to end discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Cameroon, deserve more than a photo.  They deserve to have their stories told.

In Cameroon, people who are LGBT face pervasive societal stigma, discrimination,and  harassment.  They also face the possibility of imprisonment – Article 347 of the Cameroonian penal code criminalizes “sexual relations with a person of the same sex”.  At least 28 people have been prosecuted under the law since 2010. One of them is Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was arrested and convicted of homosexuality in March 2011 after sending another man a text message reading, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”  In December 2012, the Cameroonian court of appeals upheld the conviction and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have a high risk of HIV/AIDS infection.  They are often rejected by their families, who force them out of the home.  When targeted by law enforcement, they have more difficulty in obtaining legal protection.Due to the social stigma and intense climate of fear, most LGBT people are forced to live out their lives in secrecy.  Yet there are several impressive non-governmental organizations  – Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights (ADEFHO), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and Evolve, to name a fewwhich are working hard to raise awareness about and provide services to the LGBT community.

When I was in Douala, I was able to visit Alternatives-Cameroun.  Security is, understandably, a big concern.  There is no sign that marks their center on boulevard de la Liberté, and when you arrive, you have to sign in and show your ID.  Alternatives-Cameroun has one doctor at the center who provides HIV/AIDS treatment and medical services to approximately 75 patients.  In addition, Alternatives-Cameroun provides a small community pharmacy, as well as safe, confidential and free HIV testing.  In 2012, they provided 720 HIV tests.

Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala
Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala

Equally important are the services provided by a psychologist and two social workers.  Alternatives-Cameroun also provides public education and outreach, both at the center and through peer educators.  On the day I visited, all of the peer educators were at work out “in the field” in Douala.

What touched me most, though, was the real sense of community that is provided by Alternatives-Cameroun.  I saw a small group of young people sitting on plastic chairs around a table in “William’s Hall” (named after one of the organization’s founders, who died in the Kenya Air plane crash).  I could feel that they were providing each other with comfort and support, a feeling so strong that I could see the connection between them almost as clearly as I could see the young man holding the hand of the woman beside him.

As a way to join the community and to connect with the neighbors around them, Alternatives-Cameroun started a small restaurant that serves a very inexpensive daily lunch. This anti-discriminatory gambit has paid off; the neighbors now come to the restaurant to eat and talk together with the staff and patients.  Often the patients are very poor, so the restaurant means they can offer them a meal or two a day.  The restaurant also provides meals for LGBT detainees in prison.  Prison conditions in Cameroon are notoriously bad, with severe overcrowding and inadequate food.  Most detainees rely on family members to bring them meals.  As LGBT detainees have often been rejected by their families, they have no other access to food.

Restaurant

Activists working on LGBT issues in Cameroon told me that one of their main needs is for more lawyers. One of the very few Cameroonian lawyers who is willing to take on these “homosexuality” cases is Alice Nkom.  The first black woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, Alice has been courageously fighting for the rights of LGBT Cameroonians for many years.  In spite of serious death threats, Alice Nkom continues her work.  “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue,” said Nkom.

with alice in douala

Cameroon has been receiving a lot of criticism recently from the international community, particularly the European Union. The issues of LGBT rights will certainly come up again at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon this spring.  On January 31, Cameroonian President Paul Biya told reporters that attitudes are changing in his country about the criminalisation of homosexuality.  “Now I can say that discussions are under way. People are talking, minds can change one way or another but currently it’s a crime.”  

The government of Cameroon must do more than discuss.  The government must protect the rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. And when things do change, as they will one day, the credit will go to the brave men and women who have put their heart and souls – not to mention their lives – into moving their country forward on LGBT rights.

To read more about LGBT rights in Cameroon:

Human Rights Watch, Criminalizing Identities (2010)

Joint Stakeholder Submission on LGBT Rights for the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon (2012)

International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Cameroon

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Hockey Moms

My 10 year old son comes out of the ice arena, swaggering despite the heavy hockey bag that he carries like a giant backpack. His hockey stick and waterbottle he wields before him like a rod and staff.  I’m sitting on a picnic table in the sun and, yes, I am facebooking on my iPhone. His cheeks are flushed, his bright ginger hair is damp-dark with sweat.  He has an announcement to make.

“I’ve got everyone but one kid on my team to be in favor of same-sex marriage.  AND two of the coaches.”

He beams at me. I can feel my jaw as it drops.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible hockey mom.  I hate almost everything about the sport.  I’ve got two sons who play, so I did put a decent amount of effort into learning the basic rules and terminology.  I know what a “hat trick” is; I understand what it means when the refs call “icing” (and even the circumstances under which you would want to ice the puck).  But hockey is like an onion – and not just because the pungent smell of the hockey gear makes your eyes water. As you peel back the layers of hockey, you find kids shunted into the penalty box for obscure rules and quotes from Herb Brooks’  Miracle on Ice speech.

My biggest problem is that I grew up in the Deep South, so my natural impulse when winter strikes is to hibernate.  The whole concept of driving – in the cold – to sit – in the cold – to watch a sport played – on ice, in the cold – boggles my mind.  People always talk about the crazy ice times, but that has not been our experience so far. Checking is not allowed yet, and fighting is against the rules. Besides the expense, though, my biggest annoyance has been the hockey moms.

Let me be clear – I LIKE the hockey moms on my sons’ teams.  They are all urban Minneapolis moms like me who yell “Good job!” and “Nice try!” and “Better luck next time!”  My only problem with them is that they look more stylish than me in their cold weather attire, as I tend to focus more on function over style when it comes to winter.  It is the other teams’ hockey moms that bug me when, dressed from head to toe in team gear, they are yelling things like “Take him out!” and “Kill him!” or  applauding a player who sneaks in an illegal check. I see them almost always wrapped in team logo polarfleece blankets with one or more little shivering siblings clinging to them, each with their own garishly custom spray-painted cap that says “I don’t have a life! My brother plays hockey.”

Going inside to watch hockey on a cold winter day is one thing.  Going inside to watch hockey on a beautiful summer day is completely inconceivable to me.  But here in Minnesota, hockey is a year round sport.  Serious players play AAA from April to September and, unlike the regular season, players are not required to play where they live.  There are kids on my 10 year old’s team from throughout the Twin Cities Metro and  (more of the onion that is hockey culture) some kids who travel here for the weekend practices and games from Wisconsin (which isn’t so crazy) and Florida and Texas (which is absolutely nuts!)

But my two sons are way, way into hockey.  They LOVE this sport!  I respect that, so I suck it up and wash their stinky gear and drive them to the rink.

From Mini-Mites up until last winter, I went into the locker room when I took my boys to hockey – even though I have been banned from years from tying their skates because I “don’t do it right.”  I stopped when my oldest son moved up to PeeWees  – after the unfortunate incident when I burst into the locker room, my 6 year old daughter (with her pink jacket and sparkle ballet flats) in tow, only to find a gaggle of 12 year-olds in their underwear listening to loud music and talking trash.   “Mom!” my son hissed, “I’m good.”

I accidentally wandered into the locker room once this summer.  I was only there a moment, but I heard at least 6 of the 10 year old Squirts claim credit for the same goal.  Who needs that level of testosterone in their lives?

Given my locker room abdication, I was completely floored to hear that the hockey team was having a discussion about same-sex marriage. Here is the story, from the perspective of my 10 year old:  “One kid brought it up. He said it was gross, a man with a man or a woman with a woman.”  I said,

 “ARE YOU CRAZY?  That’s their choice who they love. It doesn’t affect you. Why does it matter to you? No one can tell you who to love.”

That launched the discussion which later led to the purported locker room conversions.  It is a timely discussion in Minnesota, where there is a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot:  “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in Minnesota?”   VOTE NO signs have sprouted throughout our neighborhood; they line the roads on the way to the hockey rink.

To be clear, there is already a Minnesota state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  Most of the lesbian and gay couples that we know have to go down to Iowa or another state that recognizes same-sex marriage if they want to get married.  But a law can be changed, hence the purported necessity of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Simon had been late getting to practice (my fault – more evidence for the Worst Hockey Mom title). A coach came in to hurry along the stragglers and Simon asked, “You’re voting no on the marriage amendment, right?”  “I don’t know yet,” he admitted.  Simon laid out his arguments again, to which the coach said, “You make a good point.  I think I probably will vote No.  Now get out on the ice.”

My son can be like a dog with a bone, so he brought it up again at the next practice.  This time he was on time and so when he brought it up in the locker room when everyone was there.  One kid, a player who Simon describes as a “tough guy” got really upset when the other kid described same-sex marriage as “gross”.  He stood up, half his gear on, and said,
“That’s my family you are talking about! I have two moms and they are married.  It hurts my feelings when you say that my family is gross!”
Well, that sure got the team’s attention. According to Simon, he was too emotional to say much more but Simon was able to pick up where he left off.
See?  He’s got two moms.  So what? Why should his family be treated any differently than yours?

Turns out that my 10 year old son is way smarter than I am.  It is all about having the conversation.  According to Minnesotans United for Families, sixty-seven percent of people with gay and lesbian friends VOTE NO if we talk to them about marriage.

This means that the single most important action you can take to defeat this hurtful amendment is to start conversations about the freedom to marry with your friends, family, and the people you see every day.

So maybe it is time that I reassess my thinking on hockey.  Maybe I should admit that I don’t know a thing about those other hockey moms. Maybe I should spend a little less time blogging during hockey practice

or running laps before hockey games while the other moms sit around and talk.

Maybe it is time that I dispense with my arrogance, overcome my disdain.  Maybe I need to step outside of my comfort zone and start engaging other parents in conversation.

I know there are at least a couple of hockey moms in the ice arena who would probably appreciate it if their marriage were legally recognized in the state of Minnesota.