Analysis

Fighting Cameroon's harsh homophobia

Guillaume Bonnet

In Cameroon, if you are gay or if others believe you are gay, you can be charged with a crime and punished with up to five years in prison.

Roger Mbébé, pictured on the website of AllOut.org, is fighting back.

"I am very much in love with you." This is the text message that put Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé in prison. Why was this a crime? Because he sent it to another man.

After he sent the message last year, Mbédé was charged, arrested and sentenced to three years in prison under the Cameroonian law that criminalises "homosexual behaviour". After a year in prison, he was released on bail, thanks to few courageous lawyers who stood by him.

So began his "fight", as he calls it. While waiting for his appeal, Mbédé decided to use his new-found notoriety to make a difference, despite becoming the target of public insults and death threats.

"A discussion took place on the radio and all journalists and listeners who called asked that pictures of me be published throughout Cameroon for people to learn to avoid me," Mbédé told me. "My own father said he'd prefer to have a mentally ill child than a gay son."

But he is determined not to be silenced, and that is where our organisation, AllOut.org, comes in. One million strong, with members in every country, AllOut.org is the biggest global movement for love and equality. It brings together straight, gay, bisexual or transgender people who believe every person in the world can live openly and love whom they choose – people like Mbédé.

Because Mbédé's court dates were constantly in flux, we only had a few days to activate AllOut.org members, diplomats and international media before his appeal hearing on September 17. Despite the little time we had, the response was huge and Mbédé's story was heard all over the world. More than 100000 people signed the AllOut.org petition, writing poems, sending letters and submitting photos of themselves holding signs with Roger's message. Celebrities, journalists and diplomats joined the call. The inboxes of the Cameroonian authorities exploded.

Moratorium
It was not the first time, however. Last year, AllOut.org members joined this campaign and supported Alice N'Kom, a 67-year-old grandmother who is one of the few lawyers defending young gay and lesbian Cameroonians. The global support helped to put N'Kom's face and voice in the mainstream international media, telling the world about the crisis in Cameroon.

There are signs we were heard. I was told by a contact in the region that President Paul Biya had confessed to a diplomat he was going to declare a moratorium on anti-gay laws – apparently he was annoyed that the issue kept coming up. That was a few months ago, and he has not done anything yet. But he needs to know our campaign will continue.

There must be an end to this absurd crackdown. Two men, aged 22 and 20, were recently condemned to five years in prison and a fine of 200000 francs because they used "feminine" vocabulary and because their clothes were not masculine enough. But that is not all. The final piece of evidence, according to the judge, was that they drank Bailey's Irish Cream – a drink he decided was "for homosexuals". Their appeal will be decided on October 5.

Following the international outcry over Mbédé's case, the British high commissioner to Cameroon attended the hearing, joining the growing chorus to demand an end to violent homophobia in the country. AllOut.org's work, along with a coalition of human-rights organisations in Cameroon and around the world, is going to pay off. We will keep fighting for Mbédé, N'Kom and the brave Cameroonians who are trying to make a difference.

Guillaume Bonnet is a global campaigner for AllOut.org. Go to allout.org/roger for more

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