Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind (part 3/3)

Part 1: Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community

Part 2: Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon

Throughout this whole ordeal I felt extremely vulnerable yet insulated. On the one extreme I had committed a crime according to the laws of Cameroon by having sex with a man and feared punishment, while on the other I felt authorities would not risk the negative attention that could result from prosecuting an American citizen for homosexuality, due to already existing contentions between Cameroon and Western countries concerning Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality laws. However, prosecuting an American for homosexuality could be seen as a way to stand up to Western countries. Regardless of whether or not prosecution was a far-fetched scenario it was clear that any Cameroonian man I would date would always be in much more danger than me. Should our relationship be exposed I would always be able to leave but he wouldn’t and part of me feels selfish for putting anyone in a situation that could have had such inequitable consequences.

Despite what happened with Desmond and Clinton, the friendships I made within the Cameroonian gay community added richness to my time there. I was able to ‘come out’ and confide in a few close friends, that I still keep in touch with, who helped me better understand the day-to-day fears that many gay men around the world live with. One friend was lucky enough to move to Dubai where he has made friends within the gay expat community and sounds truly happy when I speak to him. Recently, another friend traveled to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa after fearing for his safety. Too afraid to return and risk further persecution, he made the difficult decision to seek asylum in the U.S. without knowing if he would ever be reunited with his partner he left behind. When we were in Cameroon he told me how he hoped to immigrate to a more accepting country where he could experience freedom before he was too old to enjoy it and that he hoped to get there through a merit-based job rather than resort to use his sexual orientation as grounds for asylum. When I learned he would stay in the U.S. my thoughts went to the group of younger gay men he left in Cameroon who he stepped up to befriend and support when no one else would, but I understood and supported his decision. Other friends I kept in touch with never had the chance to experience true freedom. Within the first few months of returning to the U.S. I learned that one friend had abruptly passed away after a series of illnesses while another unexpectedly committed suicide. Even though I only knew both these men a short time an overwhelming sadness struck me when I heard of their deaths and checked their Facebook pages hoping the news was wrong, only to discover posts left by Friends in mourning.

Serving in the Peace Corps truly changed my life’s trajectory. In addition to the long-lasting friendships I met my partner, a Cameroonian man, and we recently got married after he arrived in the U.S. following a yearlong visa journey. The Peace Corps offered me the space to learn, grow, reflect and build friendships that the rigors of a more formal development job abroad probably would not have allowed. Toward the end of my service I felt compelled to pursue a career in the field of human rights with the ultimate goal of working to correct the social injustices the gay communities in homophobic countries face and that I witnessed first hand. To that end, I began an M.A. in International Affairs upon returning to the U.S. from which I will soon graduate. Throughout my studies I have been drawn to the humanitarian sector and refugee rights but the plight of gay men and women around the world will always remain a forefront issue to me. As I begin to think about finding a job in the humanitarian sector I consider ways my career could impact my marriage and if there will be times when my partner and I will be forced to choose between being together and my career should I be offered a job in a homophobic country where he could not safely and openly join me. While I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my career in a country that would be hostile to both me and my relationship I must acknowledge that I do have a masochist side that is excited to do it on the short term. The challenge of intentionally forcing myself outside my comfort zone pushes me to become more empathetic, humble and appreciative and ultimately evolve in ways that always ‘playing it safe’ would not permit. Having had the lived experience of a gay man in Cameroon allows me to reify the horrendous acts perpetrated against members of the gay community in homophobic countries and not assume that all aspects of my life in that country, as a gay development worker, would be equally horrendous. Instead, I appreciate the rewards that come from my willingness to make the small short-term sacrifice of ‘living in the closet.’ Cultural value shifts that make life more just for LGBTI individuals don’t occur over night but rather over generations and one mind at a time. I understand that my overall impact on that cultural shift may be miniscule but I take pride in knowing that my conduct and my words may ultimately help change a mind, and I don’t need to be ‘out’ to have that effect.

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Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon (part 2/3)

Part 1: Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community

I was in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, a few days before Christmas with a few hours to kill so I decided to call a local gay Cameroonian friend, I’ll refer to as Clinton, who I had met online a few months back and spoken to on the phone a few times but never met in person. Clinton brought his gay friend, I’ll refer to as Desmond, to the bar where we met and spent the evening mostly discussing the challenges of gay life in Cameroon. Desmond and I casually flirted throughout and exchanged numbers, much to Clinton’s disapproval (Clinton deleted my number from Desmond’s phone when he wasn’t looking and weeks later told me it was because he didn’t trust Desmond). Over the next few weeks Desmond and I developed a casual dating relationship that involved sex. During this time Desmond began moving emotionally too fast for my comfort and it became clear that he expected what I viewed as casual dating to grow into something long-term and serious. This, combined with a number of unattractive personality traits made me decide to break things off with Desmond sooner rather than later.

Shortly after making this decision Desmond took the day-long bus ride from Douala and surprised me late one night with a visit. Because I had decided to break things off with him I was highly irritated, however, this would give me the opportunity to talk to him face to face. That night as I explained I wasn’t comfortable with the serious direction he was pushing things he told me he loved me, which I doubted for two reasons. First, we had only known each other a short time and I felt we had no real connection. Second, because Desmond seemed overly eager to be with me and constantly reminded me he was struggling financially I felt that he may be viewing me as a potential replacement for the Frenchman he had dated previously who used to regularly send him money. I gently told Desmond that I didn’t love him and apologized for the misunderstanding but his demeanor told me the issue was unresolved.

The next day I left Desmond at my house while I attended a meeting. Upon returning both Desmond and my computer were gone. I was incredulous and immediately called Desmond. He explained that he felt extremely betrayed and angry that the sentiments he expressed to me the night before were not mutual and that he would return my computer if I sent him a money transfer of 2 million CFA (approx. $3,000.00). If I refused to send the money he said he would go to the police and tell them that I drugged and raped him and show them the gay porn on my computer that I now clearly regretted showing him. Banking on the fact that Desmond would not following through with his threats and risk also ‘outing’ himself, and wanting to at least try to get my computer back before Desmond left the village making it much more difficult, I went to the police for help.

There was only one road leading out of the village and expecting Desmond would try to escape on public transportation I went to the village checkpoint with the police officer and for the next hour checked every passing vehicle. After this was unsuccessful I worked with the local money transfer center to send a fake transfer hoping to trick Desmond into meeting me and returning my computer. This too failed. The next day he called me and reiterated his original threat and I tried once more but failed to reason with him. I don’t remember if our conversation formally ended or if I hung up on him but either way, I permanently removed the SIM card from my phone so he could never contact me again, and moved into a new house within the week to decrease the chances of anymore surprise visits.

In retrospect, I regret going to the police that day. If Desmond would have been caught the situation could have quickly exploded resulting with Desmond being beaten by the police and potentially jailed while making it unsafe for me to stay in that village if he told the police I was gay. At that time I naively thought that physical abuse at the hands of the police was the exception but would later come to view it as the rule and decide to only involve the police in the direst of circumstances. I also naively thought that if Desmond were caught the police would let him go if I didn’t press charges but would later learn that the law would have viewed his crime as being against the state, meaning that he could have been prosecuted regardless of what I wanted.

The weeks that followed were extremely stressful. I began stress smoking while my mind played through every scenario that could possibly transpire. I went so far as to look up U.S. and Peace Corps policy concerning U.S. citizens abroad who violate country laws and read that they would be subject to the country’s judicial system. However, I was unable to find any case concerning a U.S. citizen charged with homosexuality and therefore had no real precedent. While I never feared for my physical wellbeing I feared that the police, despite their inefficiency, would come knocking on my door any day to question me. I longed for anonymity but being the only ‘white man’ in the village, there was no hiding. Reaching out to the Peace Corps for support was never an option because, based on another similar case, I believed the Peace Corps would have pulled me out of the village and likely the country.

Throughout this period Clinton kept me updated of his conversations with Desmond but no good news came. Clinton told me he had tried to reason with Desmond but he was too angry to hear reason. Desmond was in revenge mode and after unsuccessfully blackmailing me his revenge sought new targets. Clinton told me that Desmond began to threaten him and did in fact go to the police but instead of following through with his original plan to incriminate me he accused Clinton of essentially running a gay sex tourism ring of which Desmond was a victim. I think Desmond knew the police would willingly believe this story because Clinton was gender non-conforming and therefore an easy target for this type of accusation.

After a couple weeks of no phone calls from Clinton I received an email that he claimed to be sending from his sister’s phone while she was visiting him in prison. He said that after Desmond accused him the police put him in prison where he was physically abused. He included pictures of himself wearing a hospital gown sitting on a gurney with a severely swollen eye. Clinton’s email was angry and accusatory but he was also afraid. He wrote that his family now knew he was gay because of me and that they wanted nothing to do with him.

Even after seeing the photos I didn’t want to believe that Clinton’s story was true. I considered that Clinton and Desmond were ultimately colluding to get money out of me and that the photos were somehow faked. If Clinton really was in prison it wasn’t my fault but it was because of me and I wanted to help but I had no idea how. Soon after, I received a couple more emails from Clinton and was relieved to learn that his family had bailed him out of prison and everything seemed to be returning to normal.

I never kept in touch with Clinton after this because I felt so horrible about what had happened and thought that there was little opportunity for redress. About a year and a half later I learned that Clinton had been seen out at a gay party where he was recounting the whole situation with Desmond and my computer. Upon hearing this I felt relieved to know he was okay but I also felt a rush of negativity come over me as memories of the event came rushing back. To this day I have not heard from either Desmond or Clinton.

Part 3: Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind

Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community (part 1/3)

As a result of growing up in a rural and devout Christian community I was exposed to the work of missionaries at a young age. They traveled to my family’s church from far-flung regions of the world to account for the outcomes of their church-funded missions and present on traditions and cultures that captivated my imagination. As I grew older and developed secular perspectives I knew missionary work wasn’t for me but the impressions their presentations left on me would remain influential throughout high school and while trying to find myself in college.

One evening as I lay on my friend’s living room floor listening to music she told me she had applied to the Peace Corps but wasn’t accepted. I had never considered joining the Peace Corps but thinking about it now evoked the same curiosity as the missionaries’ presentations from my childhood. The opportunity to live in a different country among a culture drastically different from my own and possibly learn a second language seemed like exactly what I needed. The next day I researched the Peace Corps’ entry requirements and learned that I needed at least a bachelor’s degree to be accepted so I buckled down over the next three years to finish college with the goal of joining the Peace Corps upon graduating. However, it would still be two years after graduating before the Peace Corps would finally accept me and subsequently send me to Cameroon to teach Information Communication Technology for three years. The excitement I experienced in the months leading up to my departure overshadowed any concerns I had as a gay man about to embark to live in a country where homosexuality was criminalized.

By the time I departed for Cameroon I had just begun seriously coming out to longtime friends and family and was still very familiar with life ‘in the closet.’ Because of this, the thought of being ‘closeted’ for my safety while in Cameroon didn’t seem like much of an issue and I was glad to do so after arriving and encountering so much anti-gay sentiment. Homosexuals were seen as pedophiles and presumed to be connected to black magic cults while the idea that homosexuality was ‘un-African’ was buttressed by the notion that it was wholly a Western import. Stories of homosexuals being thrown in prison, beaten up or killed were common. It was clear that any gay community that existed would be strictly underground and I felt that seeking it out was beyond what I could safely do.

My fears surrounding finding the gay community were assuaged after speaking to my gay Peace Corps friend about his experience dating Cameroonian men. Motivated by the obvious reasons but also curious to understand the dynamics of gay dating in a country where homosexuality was an anathema as well as a crime, I logged onto a gay dating site I had used in the U.S. and to my surprise found many Cameroonian men. Most of the active profiles were in Douala or Yaoundé, Cameroon’s two largest cites both a day’s bus ride away from me, where Internet access and computers were much more ubiquitous and bandwidth much faster. I was able to make a couple friends who I would chat with regularly online or on the phone and with this experience I began trying to meet gay men offline as well. On a few occasions I befriended men who I suspected of being gay and later if the circumstances were right would flat out ask them or ‘come out’ to them myself resulting in my suspicions usually being confirmed. After I had made a few gay friends online and offline others came as a result of simple networking within the gay community, some of which led to dating relationships.

Making friends, and much more so gay dating, in Cameroon were hard. In addition to cultural and language barriers my white skin was associated with wealth and privilege in a way that would always draw attention to the fact that I was an outsider. Often strangers would approach me on the street and ask me for money, connections to jobs or schools, and many times visas to my country without showing much concern for which country that might be. On one occasion a straight man I considered to be a good friend told me he ‘loved white people,’ while two gay friends told me they were ‘attracted to [my] white skin.’ Rarely did anyone mention negatives associated with white people but surely there had to have been many. For the first time in my life I was consciously aware that I was white and began considering how that influenced all my interactions. I began to believe that my skin color was a greater influence on Cameroonian’s perceptions of me than my conduct and became suspicious that those overly eager to be my friend, and especially to date me, were motivated by the assumed benefits of being associated with a white person. Despite these barriers mutual respect and genuine friendship were not impossible and in fact all my experiences in the gay community were extremely positive except one.

Part 2: Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon

Part 3: Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind