It’s been a busy year for Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, but then again it’s been a busy year for the Cameroonian government, and its various allies, persecuting and prosecuting anyone it suspects of being gay, lesbian, transgender, of a sexuality, feminine, or different.
Alice Nkom was the first woman to become a lawyer in Cameroon. That was in 1969, and she was 24 years old, and she’s been kicking through ever since. Over the last four decades, Nkom has been a leading civil rights and women’s rights activist and advocate in Cameroon, and for the last decade or so has become famous, or infamous, for her defense of LGBTIQ persons, communities and rights.
In February 2003, Nkom established ADEFHO, L’association pour la défense des droits des homosexuel(le)s. The Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (its English name) has suffered threats, attacks, intimidation. Nkom has received death threats. She has been imprisoned. She has been threatened with being disbarred. And she persists and returns to court again and again.
This week, Alice Nkom once again was in the news when an appeals court upheld the three-year sentence of her client Jean-Claude Roger Mbédé, whose crime was sending another man a text message that read, “I’m very much in love with you.” In July, Mbédé was released provisionally, and so this sends him back to jail, to the harassment and assaults “at the hands of fellow inmates and prison authorities on account of … perceived and unproven sexual orientation”. He goes back as well to the general hellhole of Yaounde incarceration, a prison originally built for 600 that now houses 4,000.
In February 10 women were arrested on suspicion of being lesbians. No proof was given. No proof was needed. Suspicion is enough, when it comes to protecting the nation. Men have been arrested and imprisoned for hairstyle and for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream. These crimes of fashion proved the men were feminine and thus gay and therefore worthy of incarceration. Perception is everything.
All of this is happening, as Alice Nkom has argued repeatedly and to varying degrees of success, in a country that has a modicum of respect for the rule of law, to the extent that it has codified due process. The law that authorizes the current abuses is Article 347, which, somewhat ironically, may not even exist. Again repeatedly and to varying degrees of success, Nkom has argued that the law never passed through the appropriate committees and procedures in the National Assembly.
No matter. Somehow this non-law law has authorized the State disruption of a seminar on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, because there was something in the air about empowering sexual minorities. Perception is everything.
It’s not easy taking the high human rights road to attack the State. In Cameroon those organizations that have argued and mobilized around health issues pertinent to same-sex relationships, and particularly to MSM communities, have fared better in the international sphere, vis a vis funding, and have even received some support from the Cameroonian government. But when Nkom received funding from the European Union, “she was immediately threatened with arrest and a fatwa by pro-government youth groups.”
Last year, when her own arrest seemed imminent, Nkom wrote to leading Cameroonian LGBT activists: “Do not worry for me. I believe I will be arrested in the coming days, but I will not lose sleep over this or, especially, abandon what we have begun together.” It’s been a busy year for Alice Nkom, a year of pushing on, pushing back, pushing forward. Nkom has heard the rumble of violence, menace and threat, and has a direct response: “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue.”