|Stephane Tchakam, Charge de Communication Pan Africa ILGA|
Four years ago Steave Nemande, a medical doctor in Cameroon, began organizing for change in how his country treated its LGBT citizens. Yet he kept running into a stumbling block.
Because there were no openly gay people, Cameroonian leaders dismissed calls for reform. They insisted that the country had no homosexuals, and therefore, no action was needed.
Backed by a supportive family and a growing network of fellow LGBT people and supporters, Nemande decided to publicly come out of the closet.
At the 15th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa, held in Dakar, Senegal last year, Nemande became the first openly gay man to address a major official African forum, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He is considered to be the first gay Cameroonian to publicly talk about his sexual orientation.
"I am one of the very few Cameroonians to come out," Nemande, 33, told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview Thursday, November 18 during a visit to San Francisco. "Before that people said there were no homosexuals. Now they cannot say it. There is a Cameroonian there to say he is homosexual. This has been an important step forward."
Nemande was born in Bafoussam in western Cameroon. He grew up and lives in the port city Douala, the country's largest city with 2 million residents. He has two brothers and one sister; he lost his partner three years ago in a plane crash.
His father is also a doctor and runs a medical clinic while his mother is an administrator at a high school. Nemande works alongside his father in the clinic, where he has been given permission to provide free medical care and HIV screenings to LGBT people.
"Luckily, my family has been very supportive. They knew about my homosexuality before I came out," said Nemande. "I can speak with them without reserve about my work."
Nemande is president of the human rights organization Alternatives-Cameroun, which operates an HIV clinic and community center called Access Centre in Douala. Other than a few bars known to be hospitable to LGBT people, he said gay life in Cameroon is "still underground."
"We can say there is a community more and more," said Nemande. "People are coming out of the closet, not publicly, but to other gay people."
He was in the Bay Area to receive the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism from Human Rights Watch at the organization's Voices for Justice dinner. He hopes the recognition of his work will push Cameroon officials to take LGBT rights issues more seriously.
"We often hear that LGBT rights are not human rights," said Nemande, who is also deputy chair of African Men and Sexual Health Rights, known as AMSHeR, a coalition of African-based LGBT groups. "We are doing this work because we are lesbian and gay ourselves and want to bring awareness around the issue in Cameroon and in Africa."
His San Francisco visit was part of a coast-to-coast trip that included meetings with State Department officials in Washington, D.C. and major donors of international rights groups in Los Angeles.
Prior to leaving for the United States, Nemande and Human Rights Watch staffers, including LGBT rights advocacy director Boris Dittrich, held high-level talks for the first time with the new U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, Robert P. Jackson, and high-ranking government officials, including Cameroon Prime Minister Philémon Yang.
"Without Human Rights Watch, we would never have been able to meet them," said Nemande.
They presented the government officials with copies of a just released report on LGBT rights abuses in Cameroon that Human Rights Watch published at the start of November. The first-of-its-kind report documents the prejudice, harassment and imprisonment that LGBT people in Cameroon routinely face.
Yang, having "listened carefully, read the report and said he was surprised by it and that he didn't know such things were happening in Cameroon," said Nemande. "What we can expect from those meetings is that officials will no longer pretend these violations are not occurring."
Dittrich added that his organization would be watching to see that the prime minister makes good on his promise.
"He promised to read the report and act on it. Of course, he may forget about it. We will remind him about it," said Dittrich, who was the first openly gay member of the Dutch Parliament.
Under Article 347 in Cameroon's penal code, anyone engaged in sexual relations with a person of the same sex can be imprisoned for up to five years and face fines of up to $400. Often relatives, neighbors, or even sexual partners, will report people to the police, said Nemande.
"On a daily basis people are arrested for being homosexuals," said Nemande, who despite, and likely because of, his public persona has never been jailed. "People are arrested and often spend more than a year in jail before they are charged."
The arrests of 32 people at a nightclub in the city of Yaounde in May 2005 was the start of a public campaign by Cameroonian media and political figures to demonize "homosexuels," a French term that has taken on a new meaning "to suggest all things evil," according to the Human Rights Watch report. One news outlet reported on a supposed "homocracy" taking over the country, said Nemande.
His organization's main focus right now is to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Last year it submitted a petition signed by 1,600 Cameroonians urging national lawmakers and the president, Paul Biya, to take action.
"We received no answer," said Nemande. "There has been no change in the policy."
Nemande said he does not expect to see the law changed anytime soon, because the government is not very popular and any pro-gay moves would further weaken its standing. But he did express hope that at least the arrests of LGBT people would be curtailed.
"We don't think decriminalization will happen tomorrow," said Nemande. "We are advocating for the arrests to stop. We feel this is possible."
He said Americans can assist in his group's efforts by pressing the U.S. government to address LGBT rights with African leaders and urge them to revise their anti-gay policies.
"We know it works. The U.S. ambassador can meet with the president anytime he wants," noted Nemande.