‘What two men do’

The long history of classism and homophobia in public and media spaces in Cameroon.

Streets of Yaoundé. Image credit Ludwig Tröller via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

On February 8, 2021, at 8pm and following an anonymous call, the police in Douala, Cameroon, arrested two transgender women—Loic Jeuken, known as “Shakiro,” and Roland Mouth, known as “Patricia.” The arrest was made at a restaurant in Bonapriso, a posh residential neighborhood of Douala.

In the absence of any identification, the two women were taken to the police station, then held in custody for 24 hours where they were tortured and deprived of visits by family or lawyers. After going through the contents of their phones, guards found messages and photos with sexual content. Subsequently, the women were taken to the Bonanjo Tribunal of First Instance (a judicial lower court for general civil suits) without the presence of lawyers, where they were forced to sign a confession. They were then sentenced to two years imprisonment for “attempted homosexuality,” and “lack of ID.” Furthermore, they were ordered to be heldat the men’s quarters of the central prison of New-Bell in Douala.  Shakiro and Patricia were eventually each sentenced to five years plus 472,000 CFA Francs (about US $800) fines.

According to human rights activists and members of the NGO Working for our Wellbeing Cameroon, who were representing Shakiro and Patricia, this situation is very common for sexual and gender minorities across the country. Many Cameroonians endure blackmail, suspicion of homosexuality, physical and verbal assault from partners, loved ones, and family members, as well as humiliations from medical, legal, and education experts.

Historically, the place of gender and sexual minorities in pre-colonial Cameroon was codified and relegated to defined social, cultural and religious roles. It was not until the 1990s that a gay scene appeared, principally consisting of educated men from upper- and middle- class backgrounds in the two major cities, Yaounde and Douala. Many self-identified as Nkoandengué (“what two men do” in the Ewondo language) instead of “gay” or “queer.” For a long time, coming from relatively privileged backgrounds, Nkoandengué managed to dodge the homophobe policies that typically target underprivileged groups.

However, in early 2000, the relative safety that Nkoandengué enjoyed began to disappear following public denunciations. Among the more infamous cases was the “Top 50.” On January 11, 2006, the newspaper La Météo published an article titled: “Homosexuality in the Circles of Power” with a list of eleven names. On January 24 of the same year, L’Anecdote led with a front page article, “a list of fifty highly-ranked homosexuals,” including several well-known public figures. Among them was a former prime minister, parliamentarians, renowned journalists, and celebrities who filed defamation complaints.

For the most part, the individuals on the lists were men. These public denunciations were later on picked up by other newspapers and magazines and since 2006, several media outlets have made “list of homosexuals” a recurrent part of the journalism culture in Cameroon. Over a decade later, “accusations of homosexuality” are also still part of political and social debates.

The use of labels, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual, in the vocabulary of sexual and gender minorities in Cameroon appear to be both an affirmation tool or signal (real or supposed) of belonging to a social class, as well as coming from an academic background. These new labels, which emerged in the 2000s, mark a broader desire to be emancipated from the prevailing homophobia and to reproduce more widely a lifestyle of wealthy social classes and queers of the countries of the North, where there is supposedly more respect for individual rights and freedoms.

Contemporary homophobia is so deeply rooted that it enjoys wide consensus in Cameroonian society. In the entertainment industry, for example, the image of the homosexual—an effeminate man—is perpetually mocked, particularly in songs and video clips, such as Petit-pays in “Les pédés” or, more recently, Happy’s  “Tchapeu Tchapeu.” A normalized homophobia has become firmly established in Cameroonian pop culture. Beyond the entertainment industry, homophobia takes on a political character  perpetuated by leaders and political rhetoric, especially during election periods; it is the sign of a militant act, of a rejection of imperialism and of the cultural colonization of the West. Similarly, it takes on a religious character when it is exacerbated by the rhetoric of the two Abrahamic religions. In this context, it is an act of religiosity and a rejection of a “sin”—the cause of the people’s misfortunes, economic crises, poor governance, and so on.

In fact, although banned during colonial times, the first texts relating to the repression of sexual and gender minorities in (independent then unified) Cameroon were unilaterally introduced into the first Cameroonian penal code as an offense, by President Ahmadou Ahidjo in his second term. Article 347-1, introduced in the 2000s states that “any person who has sexual relations with a person of his/her sex, is punishable by imprisonment of six months to five years and a fine of twenty thousand to two hundred thousand francs.” Without the support of NGOs, such as Working for Our Wellbeing Cameroon, many queer and poor people end up in prison—a particularly hostile environment.

In 2010 the law on cybersecurity and cybercrime was implemented, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, particularly from Boko Haram in the north of the Sahel. In addition to criminalizing terrorists, it targets sexual and gender minorities in the digital sphere. Article 83-1 stipulates:

sexual propositions made to a person of the same sex is punished by imprisonment of one to two years and a fine of 500,000 to 1,000,000 CFA Francs or by one of these two penalties only, the one who by electronic communications, makes sexual proposals to a person of his/her sex. [The penalties] are doubled when the proposals are followed by sexual intercourse.

It is on the basis of this legislation that Roger Mbédé was jailed in 2011 after writing “I am very in love with you” to a man.

“Attempted homosexuality” falls outside of the legal framework initially provided for by the first penal code ordinance 1972. In fact, for the sponsors of this law, no one could in practice be convicted of homosexuality. Indeed, proof of “in the act” is difficult to obtain, because it requires the violation of the right to privacy and protection of the home. Thus, to circumvent this difficulty, judges and police officers have in practice quickly introduced suspicion as evidence of “attempted homosexuality,” even making anonymous denunciations by third parties possible.

Nothwithstanding that article 347-1 of the penal code makes no mention of trans identity, the monitoring and control of “dissident” bodies and expressions introduced into the interpretation of the law an equivalence between homosexuality and trans identity, which was not the will of the legislators, neither in text nor in practice. This pseudo-equivalence has more broadly led to a confusion of gender identities and sexual orientation in the legal system. Article 83-1 of the cybersecurity and cybercrime law of 2010 is still central today in the condemnation of queer people—who, like 90% of the population of the country, use phones as a tool for communication and socializing.

In view of the figures released bythe Unity Platform—an umbrella organization including32 groups and human rights defenders in Cameroon—it is obvious that male homosexuality and female trans identity are the subject of particular attention from civil society, an openly homophobic public, and media figures. It is therefore not surprising that judges and law enforcement agencies explicitly assume the role of monitoring and controlling “masculinities and dissident bodies” perceived to be thumbing their noses at the established order. In the cases reported by local NGOs to Human Rights Watch, included in the latter’s 2013 and 2021 reports, men were sentenced in some cases because the judge considered that they were drinking women-beers, meaning beers with weak alcohol levels. In other cases, convictions have resulted for possession of condoms and lubricants, or the wearing of particular clothing.

To a certain extent, the monitoring and control of “masculinities and dissident bodies” remains subject to social class. For those who have significant social and economic capital, it is easier to extricate themselves from suspicion and condemnation through fairly common practices: bribes, relying on personal connections within the administration, or moving to a country in the Global North.

Media coverage in the national press of the arrest of Shakiro and Patricia, as well as the twists and turns of the trial up to the conviction, is superfluous at best. The relative silence is explained by the current context in which freedom of the Cameroonian press is declining year after year. Furthermore, openly supporting sexual and gender minorities is not without consequences for journalists and activists who may be threatened and even murdered, as was the case of  Eric Lembembe on July 15, 2016.

Initially, the trial, which was scheduled for March 10, was postponed to April 5 because the judge did not have at his disposal the evidence of the prosecution.At the same time he rejected the defense team’s request for bail to be granted to the two “accused.”On April 5, the trial resumed but was again postponed after lawyers for Shakiro and Patricia objected to the evidence before the court as inadmissable, and also raised the claims of torture and coersion that the defendants were subjected to in order to get their confessions.The judge announced a deliberation for April 26, which was in turn postponed to May 11.

To understand the importance of this trial, one must understand the conflicts ongoing in Cameroon. The country is currently facing a deadly second wave of Covid-19. In the north there are challenges from Boko Haram, and more recently instability and military junta activities in neighboring Chad. In the Anglophone West, a civil war is unfolding, giving rise to internally displaced persons. There are also multiple raids by armed militias of the Central African Republic in the Eastern region. It is in this complex context that the arrest of Shakiro and Patricia is situated, raising the issue of the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the country, with particular attention to trans-identity and transphobia.

Within Cameroonian civil society, there are divergent points of view. For the conservative majority, Shakiro broke the law and so should be in prison. Among queer communities in Cameroun, which tend to be silent and discrete, many think that Shakiro should have been more responsible, kept a low profile, and stayed away from media exposure, which would better serve the struggle for decriminalization of homosexuality as was the case in Gabon and Angola. For many, she should have applied the adage “To live happily, live in hiding” just as some queer public figures do.

Shakiro, through her exuberance and celebrity, does not do any disservice to the cause of sexual minorities in the country. Quite the contrary, as a transgender woman and simply by being herself, she is contesting the norms of this conservative post-colonial society which is strongly holding on patriarchal and gendered foundations. Statements such as “I am a transgender woman” is a demonstration of her willingness to accept her identity with no concessions even in the middle of a hostile and transphobe environment. This is about self-affirmation, a risk-taking attitude in the name of individual freedom which is supposedly guaranteed by the constitution. Shakiro is also demonstrating audacity and resilience in the face of injustice.

In many ways, Shakiro is an activist who inspires transgender women and queer people from lower classes. Just like her, they do not have the luxury of being able to leave Cameroon to hope for a brighter future elsewhere, or to stay and live in safety by living in hiding, as do elite queers who benefit from economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital.

One thing is certain, after decades of suppressed and ignored militant demands; the question of the decriminalization of homosexuality and the protection of sexual and gender minorities is gradually emerging in the public and media arena. And at the very moment when the country is caught in the grip of numerous endemic crises, openly including all its minorities in the social, political and economic life of the country is one of the prerequisites for the resolution of its conflicts and the construction of an inclusive and just society.

Yet the path towards this ideal seems to be obstructed, as evidenced by the May 11 sentencing of Shakiro and Patricia to jail time and fines. For the members of Working for Our Wellbeing Cameroon, the ideal of an inclusive and just nation is a work in progress.

Further Reading