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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