The right to be different

Could Côte d’Ivoire one day become a safe haven for LGBTQI+ communities in West Africa?

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

In the 1998 seminal documentary Woubi Chéri, Barbara, a trans woman activist, says: “It’s our right to be different. Without the right to be different, Africa is going nowhere.” Woubi Chéri is one of the first documentaries centering gay and trans people living in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast), and part of an era of newfound visibility for LGBTQI+ people in West Africa in the 1990s.

In Ivorian slang, woubi means “a man in a relationship with another man that plays the role of the woman.” LGBTQI+ people have always existed in Côte d’Ivoire; Ivorian laws do not criminalize homosexuality and same-sex relationships. Despite the visibility, however, the country doesn’t offer any legal protections to LGBTQI+ people nor does it allow trans people to legally transition. Côte d’Ivoire is one of the most visited countries in West Africa (pre-COVID-19, it welcomed two million tourists a year), and is known for being a “welcoming” nation, and one of the most “LGBTQI+ friendly countries” in the region. But the full picture is missing.

For two Ivorian activists, Carlos Toh Zwakhala Idibouo and Maylis Djikalou, the situation has improved for LGBTQI+ people in Côte d’Ivoire and there have been many instances of other LGBTQI+ Africans finding refuge here, but much work remains to be done. Idibouo is a gender non-conforming AfroQueer activist, focusing on the acknowledgment and protection of LGBTIQ+ people’s rights. Djikalou likes to activate change and is passionate about storytelling and inclusion.

For Idibouo, the history of LGBTQI+ people in Côte d’Ivoire is complex. Idibuo identifies “the seminal work done by trans women in Côte d’Ivoire with ATCI in the ‘90s to improve access to health for trans women and bring more awareness around HIV prevention as well as treatment,” Following the success of Woubi chéri, Idibouo acknowledges a “lull period.”

“I created the charity Arc-en-ciel in 2023 with some friends, the first LGBTQI+ charity recognized by the Ivorian authorities,” Idibouo says. “Our goal was to bring more awareness and improve the health outcomes of gay men who were HIV positive and dying in mass because of it.”

Cross-national solidarity between LGBTQI+ organizations and communities in general is not new. LGBTQI+ charities work with their counterparts in other countries on topics such as health access, and making sure trans people have access to hormones (as trans identities are not officially acknowledged in many people).

“There are foreign LGBTQI+ people who have come here for work, from Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, and are protected due to the privileges that come with being a professional. These countries have strong business and cultural ties with Côte d’Ivoire.” Djikalou explains. “In Côte d’Ivoire, if you have enough money, and you live a quiet queer life, you might feel safer. There is some queer hatred and homophobia but also safety. As always, hypervigilance is key.” 

As of now, there are more than 30 LGBTQI+ charities in Côte d’Ivoire, such as Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, Lesbians Life Association Côte d’Ivoire (LLACI) and Woman African Freedom (WAF). There have also been multiple cross-country initiatives to support the rights of LGBTQI+ communities across West Africa—Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, QET Inclusion, Transgenres et Droits have worked with organizations based in Benin et Togo.

Although there is more awareness of LGBTQI+ people as an integral part of culture, queer Ivorians still face many hurdles despite the perception of acceptance. In a country where having children is seen as a natural step in your life and the “only natural way” in which society can continue to exist,  stigma and pressure within families still linger for LGBTQI+ people who choose to come out; as a result, some queer people feel the pressure to have children first before being out. 

From a political point of view, the Ivorian congress recently voted against including LGBTQI+ people in a law to fight against discrimination. Côte d’Ivoire is a country with two main religious groups—Christians and Muslims—with a small minority practicing traditional African religions. A loud minority of religious leaders regularly attack LGBTQI+ communities. Despite this friction, there are charities such as l’Alliance des religieux pour la santé intégrale et la promotion de la personne humaine en Côte d’Ivoire (ARSIP) that promote human rights, including the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and organize mediation sessions with other religious people on these topics. 

When it comes to nightlife, there are places where people know that they will find “woubis,” and sometimes trans women too. For Djikalou, class is a definite factor as to whether an LGBTQI+ person will be out or not: 

Côte d’Ivoire is big and small at the same time. We know who is who, it’s a stratified society. When you have more privilege, you can be your true self because of the freedom money brings. But with that freedom, you might be seen as being more Western and not tied to your community of origin. But your queerness might be questioned too: are you LGBTQI+ due to your exposure to different cultures?

Could Côte d’Ivoire one day become a safe haven for LGBTQI+ communities in West Africa? On the one hand, it looks like this is the most likely country to ever be in such a position. On the other hand, there is still so much work to be done. Djikalou, prioritizes caution, first and foremost: 

Just because there’s no law that criminalizes the lives of queer people, it can’t be taken for granted … 2025 is an election year with a lot of things at stake. There could be a swing depending on the party that will rise to the occasion. I think we also need to have a census of LGBTQI+ people and for cishet people to share their views on that too.

Idibouo doesn’t shy away from the level of structural and societal change it will require, noting the impact of neighboring countries’ policies such as Ghana’s alarming anti-LGBTQ laws on local rhythms:

There is a need to deconstruct both people’s personal biases but also systemic ones. Some of the institutions we work with believe they understand LGBTQI+ communities which is not true. They believe they have expert knowledge on our issues and yet their biases show. Every time a neighboring country sets up new laws that criminalize same-sex relationships—like it is the case in Ghana at the moment—it creates a new wave of psychosis here. Many trans people live in very dire conditions and are housing insecure.  As a consequence, a high number of young LGBTQI+ people, especially trans youth, are HIV positive.

For Idibouo, numerous steps are required to secure a bright future for LGBTQI+ people in Côte d’Ivoire. The government voting in a law protecting the human rights of LGBTQI+ people is just the beginning: trans people’s gender identities must be recognized and appear on their paperwork, LGBTQI+ people must not be denied employment due to their identity, and landlords must be forbidden from kicking out people due to their sexual orientation or gender. The legal change will hopefully facilitate social adjustment—namely, law enforcement protecting every citizen without discrimination, and parents to stop kicking out their children from the family homes so that they find themselves having to rely on sex work and risk contracting HIV. “Then, we could talk about a bright future for  LGBTIQI+ in Côte d’Ivoire and Africa,” Idibouo says.

It is undeniable that there have been many initiatives to improve the lives of LGBTQI+ people in Côte d’Ivoire over the past decades. Compared to other neighboring countries, the status quo maintained there means that queer communities fare better. Queer communities deserve to thrive; in an ideal world, Côte d’Ivoire can help lead that change in West Africa.

Further Reading