|Stephane Tchakam, Charge de Communication Pan Africa ILGA|
Gaston Dissake, 29, has never known life without soccer. For as long as he can remember, the soccer field has been where he found freedom.
Unfortunately for Gaston, an openly Gay man in the oppressive African nation of Cameroon, freedom stopped whenever he left the field. After years of police beatings, attacks from former teammates, and threats on his life, Gaston fled to seek asylum in the U.S., which eventually led him to Seattle and gave him a taste of the civil freedom that he only previously got on the field.
Gaston's story is one of a man who risked all so that he could be free to be himself. He is ready to embrace a Gay community he only read about or saw on TV. Above all, he wants desperately to get back into soccer.
In his home of Cameroon, a country of west-central Africa with over 18 million citizens, association football (soccer) dominates the male culture. Amateur football clubs abound, organized along ethnic lines or under corporate sponsors. The Cameroon national football team has been one of the most successful in the world since its strong showing in the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Within that world, Gaston Dissake was a star.
Gaston and I talked over coffee on a rainy afternoon in a café in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. He is polite and soft-spoken, and communicates well, despite his limited knowledge of English. He has a great smile and his face lights up when he talks about his favorite sport.
'I was a well-known soccer player and coach in my country,' he told Seattle Gay News. 'I've played many other sports - tennis, basketball - but soccer has always been my life.'
Gaston told me that, after many years of professional play and minor-league coaching, he became a free agent, playing for teams that needed a player for tournaments. He traveled throughout the African continent, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
In 2003, he explained, 'My life changed forever.'
Gaston and his teammates were in Hong Kong when, for the first time in his life, he acted on his homosexual urges. A practicing Christian and closeted Gay man, Gaston not only 'passed for straight'; he was straight, as far as he was concerned. Still, he says he knew that deep down inside, after having sexual relations with another man, he would have to come out as Gay.
When he returned home, he developed a relationship with Jonathan, another native of Cameroon. The men carried on for some time, and Gaston mustered up the courage to tell his mother about his relationship with his new lover and introduced Jonathan to her.
The meeting was not a pleasant one.
'My mother was not happy with the news, and she didn't want to believe I was Gay,' he recalled. 'She blamed Jonathan for making me Gay and said the young man had possessed me. She demanded I see a priest and prayed for the 'evil spirit' to leave me.'
His teammates didn't take the news any better. 'They became so outraged that they beat me,' he said. 'They accused me of deceiving them. They would go to my mother's house and threaten her.'
'2004,' he says, 'was a very difficult year.'
Homosexual acts are banned in Cameroon with a penalty of five years of imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 francs. More severe sentencing is likely when one of the offenders is under 21 years of age. Like many African nations, Cameroon is a conservative society in which same-sex acts are frowned upon and LGBT persons suffer great violence and imprisonment - and sometimes death.
In the years following his coming out as Gay, Gaston was arrested six times by the police. 'Each time I suffered severe beatings on the bottoms of my feet, plus humiliation and insults in every possible manner,' he said.
Whenever he was released from jail, he was thrown back out into a world where people on the street often abused him.
In 2010, Gaston's father passed away. His mother was now his full responsibility, and Gaston knew that something had to change in order for him to survive to be able to take care of her. After trying an ex-Gay-style exorcism to prove to his mother that he was Gay and nothing would ever change that fact, he and Jonathan emigrated from Cameroon to Colombia, and then to Panama to seek asylum.
'I chose Panama because when I did my research on the internet, I found the country to be very welcoming to immigrants from Cameroon,' he explained. 'But 30 days before Jonathan and I arrived, the process had changed.'
When the two men arrived in the South American nation, they were detained for 14 months while they solemnly waited to hear the outcome of their immigration case. During that time, Gaston said he was the victim of discrimination at the hands of the Salvation Army.
'Once the case managers figured out we were Gay, the Salvation Army no longer helped us,' he said. 'They were very bad to us. I think it is because of them that our plea for asylum got denied.'
Down and out and quickly running out of options, Gaston used his savings for the couple to escape Panama for Mexico, paying bribes as they went along.
Once in Mexico City, the couple was once more detained. 'The Mexican government asked us if we wanted asylum in Mexico,' said Gaston. 'I declined. I told them, 'No. I have to reach America.' But Jonathan, fearful of the drug cartels and the uncertain journey to the U.S. border, told me he would not come with me.'
To this day, Jonathan remains in Mexico City.
'He was afraid to try to come to the U.S., but I am brave and so I came,' he said.
Without his family, his lover, or any friends, Gaston plowed ahead, eventually making it to the Tijuana, Mexico/San Diego, California border. 'At last,' he thought, 'I've made it.'
At the border, Gaston - no longer fearful of anything - bravely walked up to the customs office and asked the clerk for asylum in the U.S.
Once again, he was taken into custody - only this time, something was different. Gaston knew his life was about to change for the better. For the first time in years, it seemed, luck was on his side.
'I said to myself, 'OK, I have reached the country of liberty, and things are going to get better,' he said.
Gaston was eventually transferred to The Northwest Detention Center, an illegal immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Washington that can hold up to 760 inmates. Gaston faced immigration charges and possible deportation.
Over the next five months, attorney Matt Sullivan fought, pro bono, to win Gaston asylum.
In February of this year, Gaston won his claim for asylum. Seattle Frontrunner members Ron Hochnadel and his partner Mike Gaeta then opened up their home to Gaston, who has been living with the men ever since.
'Even though he suffered all this persecution, Gaston has managed to remain a kind and thoughtful person who doesn't seem to harbor much ill will towards anyone,' said Matt Sullivan, Gaston's immigration attorney. 'He wants nothing more than to rebuild his life as a soccer coach and agent.'
Gaston is now ready to put his life back together.
'I want to find employment and I am taking English classes at Seattle Central Community College,' he said. 'I am new to Seattle, but I think it is a very nice city. I've met some good people and made friends easily.'
These days, Gaston doesn't play much soccer. In fact, he's just trying to get by and send money home to help take care of his mom. He said that he misses Jonathan from time to time and has found it hard to integrate into the local Gay scene because, for him, it is difficult to live as Gay out in the open after suffering so much violence in Cameroon. But he is willing to try - and after speaking with Gaston, one can't help but feel that he will persevere.
Ron and Mike are helping Gaston with his résumé. He speaks French, Spanish, and English and is ready and willing to work hard. Seattle's Rain City Soccer has donated money to help Gaston buy much-needed clothing as well as a pair of soccer shoes, and beginning this month, the International Refugee Committee is providing Gaston with a monthly stipend.
Gaston is leaving Ron and Mike's house this month to live in a small apartment of his own, so he is in need of all things one would need to furnish a new home. You can help. If you are thinking about upgrading your furniture, computer, kitchenware - anything - please consider Gaston. To make a donation, contact Ron Hochnadel at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange where to bring your donations, or ask for pick-up.
'I want to make Seattle my home,' said Gaston. 'This is where I want to stay.'