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Growing Up Gay in Senegal

in SENEGAL, 12/09/2012

Djamil Bangoura has known he is gay since childhood. Growing up in Pikine, a slum of Senegal's sprawling capital city, Dakar, he kept his sexual orientation a secret for fear of violence, imprisonment, and alienation from his family -- the core of Senegalese life.

But one day in 2002, colleagues in the recording studio where he was working heard rumors that Djamil might be "goorjigeen," a Wolof slur for "gay," and let his supervisor know. Djamil, who was 24 at the time, was fired on the spot. The news quickly spread through his tight-knit community, and soon Djamil found himself thrown out of his family's home. His parents, brothers, sisters, and neighbors cut all ties with him. In one pass Djamil lost his livelihood, family, and security; faced with threats from friends and neighbors, he spent the next three years in hiding, renting a tiny room with what was left of his savings. He never dared to leave his cramped quarters and relied on the few friends he had left to bring him food and water.

While the United States and other countries grapple with the issue of marriage equality, considered by many to be the final frontier of the gay-rights movement, Senegal and the rest of West Africa still face the initial hurdle of decriminalizing homosexuality, which carries the relatively light penalty of imprisonment in Senegal, compared with execution in Mauritania, its northern neighbor. Article 319.3 of the Senegalese penal code criminalizes "unnatural" sexual acts with five years in prison and a fine, and though its wording targets conduct rather than character, the law has been used by Senegalese authorities to discriminately target members of the LGBT community. In the absence of gay bars, clubs, or other means of association, the law rests primarily on appearance and suspicion. This was the case for nine members of an HIV/AIDS association, all men, who were arrested by police in December 2008, just days after Senegal hosted an international HIV/AIDS conference. In the absence of any evidence of homosexual conduct, a court sentenced them to eight years in prison, because police found them with condoms and lubricant. In the eyes of Senegalese law, possession of materials used to prevent the spread of HIV implied homosexual behavior and the corresponding penalty. Though they were released in April 2009 following international pressure, most lost their jobs and were cut off from their families and communities.

Djamil describes 2008 as a "catastrophic" year for gay rights in Senegal: In addition to the arrest of those nine men in December, a Senegalese gossip magazine published photos of a party it called a "gay marriage ceremony"; other media outlets republished the pictures, provoking condemnation from politicians and religious leaders, which led to the arrests of six men. One of them, Madièye Diallo, fled to Mali following death threats from his neighbors; he was HIV-positive and died the next year, unable to return to Senegal to receive antiretroviral treatment. When his family buried him in the local cemetery, thugs from the neighborhood twice dug up his body and dumped it in front of his parents' house. Two other such disinterments of men presumed to be gay were reported in the same year.

The experiences of Djamil and Madièye are painfully common in a country heralded as a beacon of peace and democracy in a region fraught with instability. To be born gay and Senegalese is to be born into a country whose government considers you a criminal, and whose religious leaders want you dead. Though ostensibly a secular republic, Senegal and its politics are strongly influenced by Islamic leaders like Serigne Bara Mbacké, the Khalife General of the Mouride brotherhood, the most powerful Muslim brotherhood in Senegal. In a 2009 interview with the Senegalese newspaper Le Quotidien, Mbacké said of homosexuals, "We must look for these criminals and kill them publicly, and I will be at the forefront!" While in the U.S. such statements by religious leaders are largely dismissed, a brotherhood's endorsement of a politician can make or break a candidacy. Macky Sall, who was recently elected president of Senegal in a landslide victory over his incumbent opponent, declared during the campaign that "homosexuality is a societal problem" that must be addressed.

Despite staggering obstacles, Senegal's small LGBT community remains undeterred in its steady march toward acceptance. After years of solitude, Djamil was introduced to an informal association of men who have sex with men (MSM) focused on HIV education. Djamil was quickly adopted by his new family and used his network to extend the association's reach beyond the capital into more remote areas of Senegal. After taking the reins, Djamil successfully petitioned the government to recognize Prudence as an HIV/AIDS organization. Of course, the Government of Senegal does not acknowledge its targeting of the MSM community but has chosen to turn a blind eye, out of recognition that such targeting is necessary to prevent the spread of the disease. Prudence is now 479 members strong and quickly growing.

"I'm optimistic," Djamil said. "But without international solidarity, nothing will change." However, Djamil has good reason to believe that life might get better for some of the younger members of Prudence: In December 2011, Secretary of State Clinton launched the Global Equality Fund "to support civil society groups around the world that are working to protect the human rights of LGBT people." Indeed, the United States' continued advocacy for the rights and dignity of sexual minorities may prove decisive in the human-rights issue of our era.

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