The simple opening melody begins; soft plinks on a lone piano. I instantly recognize the song playing on the wide-screen LCD behind me. Some friends and I have dug in at one of the classiest restaurants in the country, and as a symbol of its luxury it continually showcases Trace, the Cameroonian equivalent of early ‘90s MTV. On the TV hits of Nigeria and the U.S. take turns sharing the spotlight.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘Same Love’ wafts through the eatery, the same tune I’ve been catching snippets of all over the country, from small villages to big cities. I wonder to myself if the other patrons realize what they’re hearing. The video follows the trials of a closeted homosexual as he finds himself and happiness, despite a rough beginning. The song itself made headlines in America as the first openly pro-gay marriage song to be distributed widely. If the restaurateurs and diners weren’t picking up on it at the beginning, surely they marriage ceremony at the end would give them a hint.
Though America just marked the 14th state to approve marriage equality for all, and my adoptive home of Canada installed truly equal marriage rights for all back in the mid-aughts, Cameroon proves to be a much more hostile environment. Peace Corps advises that any volunteer that might be homosexual or bisexual do their best to keep it a secret, or risk evacuation from their village on grounds of security. Even amongst each other volunteers use the terminology ‘non-trad’ (short for ‘non-traditional) when talking about other volunteers or people they know to fit into any category but straight. To talk openly about others or ourselves using the term ‘gay’ is too dangerous for everyone involved.
Not too long ago Cameroon made headlines due to the death of a prominent gay activist, such an “extreme” stance being verifiable rarity here. The details of his death were grisly, his demise marked with extreme violence. Volunteers were horrified. Shortly after, a movement was held by local college students in the capital, who visited from bar to bar calling for more absolute measures be taken, the only solution they could see for the plague of gayness that had fallen upon the world. They wanted to guarantee that gays knew they were not welcome in West Africa.
Before that, a man was arrested for sending a text to another male saying ‘I love you’. Before that, two men were jailed on suspicions of homosexuality for ordering Bailey’s Irish Cream at a bar. Around that same time three women sat in a prison in Douala, tried with being suspected lesbians.
And all this comes from a place where typically “homosexual” things are the norm. Hand holding among men, even in public, is an
unremarkable fact of life. Hugging is common among the same sex. One of the greatest compliments a man can pay another man is to claim he’s slept in his marital bed, a testimony to how trustworthy he is. Group, nude bathing is traditional.
And yet, the greatest fear of many is the idea of an insipid gay infiltrating their lives on a mission to convert their children, an absurd view with no base in sanity or reality. During the announcement of France’s legalization of nation-wide gay marriage I was parked in a bus station with 50 Cameroonians, waiting to board. A collective gasp sounded as they bore holes with their eyes into the images on television. Two men, right there, kissing. In one swift motion they all swiveled to face me, the apparent local expert on all things gay and white.
And instead of shrugging and claiming I knew nothing, me and a whole gaggle of Cameroonians sat until the bus came, arguing what we knew or thought to be true about gays. With great courage, one woman piped up and announced herself as a seasoned nurse. She’d delivered hundreds of babies, she said, and sometimes…sometimes they’re just born gay. She was straight herself, she clarified, but just as those in the room didn’t choose to be attracted to men or women, neither did these homosexuals choose their attractions. And with that she sat back down, turning her face back to the television, the celebrating men and women long gone. And while perhaps not support in the truest sense, it was progress for me, for other straight allies, and for the LGBTQ community at large. One singular step forward on what seems to be a very long journey for Cameroon.
But, as they say, small small catch monkey.