The Straight Hero of Cameroon's Gays

Published: December 10, 2014

Jay Michaelson
Original Article:

In the Jewish community, Christians who saved Jews from the Holocaust are known as “righteous gentiles.”  Thanks to the film bearing his name, Oskar Schindler is probably the most well-known of these, but there are many others.

When the history of the international LGBT struggle for dignity and equality is written, Alice N’kom—one of the speakers at this week’s Quorum event, presented by The Daily Beast—will be remembered as a “righteous ally.”  A vibrant French-speake who frequently appears in colorful traditional Cameroonian attire, she is a straight woman who has risked her own life on behalf of gay people targeted by state and state-sanctioned violence.

In the West African nation of Cameroon, as in over 70 other countries around the world, same-sex intimacy is illegal—and ‘out’ gay people are obvious targets of persecution.  It is literally illegal to be gay, and so to self-identify is to risk imprisonment.  Indeed, said N’kom through her translator, “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.”

Even worse than state violence, though, is state-sanctioned violence.  One of Cameroon’s leading LGBT activists, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed on July 15, 2013. The crime was never solved, or even seriously investigated.  Police didn’t preserve the crime scene, only questioned other gay activists, and dropped the case without explanation.

I met several Cameroonian LGBT activists shortly after Lembembe’s murder, and they were understandably terrified.  (Courage, one recalls, is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in the face of it.)  One of them told me, “I don’t know what will be waiting for me when I get off the plane.”

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