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.