Know the name of the country that makes the most arrests every year for the "crime" of homosexuality? It isn't Uganda, Russia, or even Iran, but the west-central African nation of Cameroon.
Sexual acts between persons of the same gender are banned in the Cameroonian penal code, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment and fines of between 20,000 and 200,000 francs. According to Amnesty International, Cameroon is one of 38 African countries that criminalize homosexuality.
Although attitudes are slowly changing, the anti-gay law enjoys widespread backing in Cameroonian society, where homosexuality remains highly stigmatized. Amnesty reports that people are regularly arrested for homosexuality on the basis of rumor and innuendo, and that they are "usually arrested, charged, and sentenced" without any evidence whatsoever. The authorities will sometimes conduct invasive anal exams in an attempt to "prove" same-sex sexual conduct.
The LGBT community in Cameroon is largely underground, due to the constant threat of anti-LGBT harassment, intimidation, and violence. And the violence can sometimes turn deadly -- just this week, prominent Cameroonian gay rights activist and journalist Eric Ohena Lembembe was found dead in his home. Eric's killers brutally tortured him, burning his face, hands, and feet before murdering him by breaking his neck.
The U.S. State Department deplored Eric's "brutal" murder "in the strongest terms" and urged the Cameroonian government to thoroughly investigate the crime and prosecute those responsible.
Against this dangerous backdrop, the new documentary Born this Way presents a snapshot of the lives of gays and lesbians in Cameroon through the eyes of two subjects.
Last month I had the opportunity to see Born this Way here in Washington, D.C. at a screening sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. The film is incredibly compelling, in large part because of its unvarnished nature. Filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann came to the project without any preconceived narrative or points to prove. Instead, they simply allowed the people to tell their own stories.
Viewers are introduced to Cédric and Gertrude, who work at Alternatives Cameroun -- the nation's first LGBT center. The center, which officially operates as an HIV/AIDS clinic, functions as a safe haven for LGBT people in Douala, Cameroon's largest city. It figures prominently in the film, as it is one of the few places where LGBT people can be themselves and gather freely with other members of their community. The contrast between the freedom they experience at Alternatives Cameroun and the isolation and fear which pervades much of the rest of their lives is stark and jarring.
When two young women in a remote part of the country are arrested and charged with "lesbianism and witchcraft," Cédric and Gertrude enlist Alice Nkom, an heroic human rights lawyer, to defend them in court. For many years, Nkom has been the country's foremost legal advocate for the LGBT community, despite receiving regular death threats for her compassionate work. In the film, Nkom explains why she persists in the face of such threats:
I wanted to add this human rights dimension to my work because I'm just like a mother. When you have two kids who are different and one of them is vulnerable, you have to take care. You have to love them. You have to help them.
Unfortunately, the judge rules against the couple. But the work of human rights activists like Cédric, Gertrude, and Nkom continues undeterred.
Nkom attended the D.C. screening of Born This Way, and in a question-and-answer session after the film, she told the audience that in Cameroon, like Uganda, the government uses homosexuality as a smokescreen to distract the public from more pressing problems, including its own failings. She said:
...that homosexuals are responsible of jobless in Cameroon -- this is what people think. People think that in Cameroon, homosexuality is one of the worst things that can happen. They forget about not having potable water, not having energy, not having infrastructure; they see only homosexuality as the mother of all the sins in Cameroon.
But according to Nkom, the Cameroonian government isn't the only one whipping up anti-gay sentiment. She continued:
But this is pushed by the Catholic Church. And every Sunday they have a special prayer in all Catholic churches in Cameroon, saying that God must prevent us from homosexuality in Cameroon. Muslims are against homosexuality, of course, but they are not active. They cannot influence the situation of gays in Cameroon. But Catholics can, and they do. Every day.
When I asked Nkom afterwards whether the Catholic Church was taking its anti-gay cues from the Cameroonian government or vice versa, her response was unequivocal. Yes, she said, there is collusion between the two, but "in this particular matter of LGBT, the Church is the one who [pushes]."
But as Born This Way so vividly shows, not even Cameroon's government or its Catholic Church can squelch the spirit of the nation's brave LGBT community. Slowly but surely, LGBT Cameroonians are courageously stepping out of the shadows and into the light. They are finding themselves, finding each other, and -- against seemingly insurmountable odds -- finding their voice.
Watch the film's trailer: