Alice Nkom is accustomed to polarized public opinion about her civil rights work on behalf of Cameroon’s marginalized LGBT community. The defense attorney is highly praised by international human rights groups, yet vociferously denounced by many in her own country. She ignores the latter with aplomb as she visits dilapidated prisons where her clients face bleak prospects.
Nkom is one of only a few lawyers in the west central African nation of 19 million people bold enough to represent those arrested and imprisoned on charges of same-sex sexual conduct, which can carry jail sentences of up to five years for both men and women. She describes their treatment in prison as inhuman, horrid, violent. "I must help them live,” Nkom, 66, says in a recent phone interview from the capital city of Yaoundé. “I must give them the strength to say, ‘Yes, I am this way.’ And I want to help people understand that being gay is OK.”
In the past year, Nkom’s pro bono work has become more extensive — and dangerous. Cameroon, like many of its neighbors in the region, has struck defiant tones against growing calls from the international community for LGBT rights, and Nkom herself has been threatened with arrest by an election-rigging autocracy and its supporters. Her clients have become scapegoats for a government seeking to provoke populist homophobia as a distraction from pervasive corruption and economic woes.
One man whom Nkom represents, Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, is serving a three-year sentence after sending “gay text messages” to another man and has experienced malnourishment and sexual assault while in prison. Nkom worries that another client, who has HIV, will suffer the same fate. Some are apprehended on the streets of Yaoundé or the port city of Douala for “looking feminine” and are victims of police entrapment and extortion. Once behind bars, they may be subjected to humiliating anal examinations lacking any legitimate medical purpose. About a dozen arrests have been reported in the past six months, with three young men recently convicted and given the maximum sentence. Nkom called the judge’s decision in those cases shocking and “an embarrassment for Cameroon.”
Cameroonian officials maintain a different perspective. The oil-rich nation, they tout on a website to lobby for American aid, “has experienced vast reforms in all domains of public life” as the government under the near-three-decade tenure of President Paul Biya seeks to “rule justly” and respect the civil liberties of all its citizens.
The website is part of a public relations strategy to position Cameroon as a candidate for development funds from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency established by the U.S. Congress in 2004 that has approved more than $8.4 billion in grants and is chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who sits on the board of directors along with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
Secretary Clinton’s position on antigay discrimination is unequivocal. In 2010, she declared during an LGBT pride month address before State Department staff that “gay rights are human rights” — a deft riff on her own women’s rights speech at a 1995 United Nations conference in Beijing. “There is this rising global tide of violence against the LGBT community around the world,” Clinton told this magazine in February, “and we are taking the lead in confronting the dangers of the lives and the livelihood of LGBT people as they go about their daily lives.”
That tide of violence — and the rhetoric that contributes to it — continues unabated throughout Africa, where many countries retain colonial-era prohibitions against homosexuality. Earlier this month, a Ugandan man was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the January murder of David Kato, an influential LGBT rights activist who was beaten to death with a hammer not long after he and other prominent gay Ugandans appeared on the cover of a national tabloid accompanied by the words “Hang Them.” International media attention as of late has shifted from Uganda to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where lawmakers currently are debating a bill that would criminalize same-sex marriage (such unions already are illegal, and homosexuality is punishable with death by stoning in some northern regions that observe Sharia law), as well as outlaw advocacy work for LGBT issues. “If this bill passes into law, the Nigerian government will be sanctioning even greater discrimination and violence against an already vulnerable group," Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press last week.
Nkom has warned of similar political undercurrents against a fledgling LGBT advocacy network in neighboring Cameroon. After her organization, the Association to Defend Homosexuals, received a 300,000-euro grant from the European Union, a representative with the Ministry of Communication threatened Nkom with arrest during a televised interview in January. The official also accused the EU of meddling with Cameroonian affairs by funding programs that aid purported illegal activity.
Though the threat against Nkom goes unfulfilled, U.S. State Department officials have been alarmed by the apparent rise in arrests and find themselves in yet another diplomatic dance in Africa over gay rights, holding private talks with government representatives while engaging with nongovernmental organizations working on the ground. Embassy officials recently met with Cameroonian authorities to urge that LGBT individuals are treated in accordance with a UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in June that condemns antigay discrimination and violence (Cameroon was one of 19 nations to vote against the measure, however). Looking at how the State Department has approached the issue, “it’s clear they’ve recognized what’s happening in Cameroon to be a serious concern,” says Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality.
The State Department also is ramping up support for NGOs that address LGBT rights issues as part of their missions. It has already created an emergency fund for such groups and will, over the next year, provide grants to better document LGBT human rights abuses, as well as establish organizational networks across borders, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world. “As you might expect, these groups are often themselves marginalized and left out, even by other human rights NGOs, so our engagement can be a lifeline of moral support,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said last month in a keynote address to the Compass to Compassion Conference in New York City.
Baer, who spoke on a UN Human Rights Council panel with Nkom last year, indicated that the civil rights attorney fits the mold of an international LGBT activist worthy of State Department support. “She’s the person who will go to the prisons and serve as an advocate when no one else will,” Baer told The Advocate of Nkom. “Her role is extremely crucial.”
Emphasizing that homophobic policy is incompatible with American aid programs may be another avenue for change. For example, “ruling justly” and respecting human and civil rights are among the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s criteria for grants. Cameroon is still in the early stages of applying for a Millennium compact — a multiyear process — though it received failing grades for all human rights criteria in its most recent audit.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Baer indicated that Cameroon’s record on LGBT rights will continue to affect its poor ratings. “We’ve made clear that as a matter of policy, we don’t consider discriminating against people for who they are and whom they love to be consistent with good governance,” Baer says.
Other countries that are major sources of African aid have been more blunt in their opposition to antiquated antigay laws and modern legislative attempts to enhance them. In an interview last month, United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron said that Commonwealth nations that criminalize homosexuality could see cuts in bilateral aid as a result. The move quickly led to charges of Western officiousness by African nations: Ugandan officials slammed the PM’s stance as a “bullying mentality,” while Ghana’s president, John Evans Attah Mills, said he would “never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality.”
International pressure has yet to effect any substantive change in Cameroon, Nkom says. In fact, lawmakers appear to be emboldened: A bill to strengthen the penal code section criminalizing homosexuality has been offered in the national assembly, a move that Nkom has blasted as unconstitutional. “We’ve seen support for [LGBT rights] but it’s not as much as I’d like to see. Gays here feel completely abandoned by the community.”
Despite the EU grant, Nkom says she makes less and less money and continues the advocacy work she began eight years ago in near isolation. "Even Lawyers Without Borders is too intimidated to do this work. … But I can’t ask my clients for money. I am assisted by people around me. If I need to get somewhere, I ask someone for a ride.”
Sadly, she says, “I am better off than the people I help.”