Article 347 bis of the Cameroon Penal Code punishes “sexual relations with a person of the same sex,” with sentences of prison terms as long as five years in addition to fines. According to Michel Togue, a Cameroonian attorney who has defended many people accused of homosexuality, gay and lesbian stereotypes alone are often enough to warrant charges.
Togue told ThinkProgress that of the dozens of such cases he has represented, very few people were actually caught in the act of actually having sex. Once an accusation of homosexuality is made, police make arrests based solely on how individuals present themselves. For example, if a man is found to be cross-dressing, that could be used as proof that he is gay in court. If somebody has a job that doesn’t fit their gender, like a male hairdresser, that too could be used against them. A judge convicted one of Togue’s clients for feminine mannerisms and for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream, which he felt only a woman would drink.
Stigma fuels the accusations and arrests. Many individuals have been charged after neighbors, family members, or even scorned ex-lovers report them to the police, though in at least one case, the ex-lover was arrested too. Togue recently tried to free two women who had been in jail for nine months after neighbors reported them. They had not actually caught them in a sexual act.
Togue argues that even in the cases where people might be caught actually having sex, it would be a violation of others’ privacy, which is also illegal. “To catch people having sex, to catch them in the act, you have to break the law. You have to violate their privacy, which is an offense,” he explained. “But the police will not focus on the offense of breaking the privacy of someone, but they will focus on the fact that they saw two people of the same gender having sex.”
In another case, police arrested three men who the officers claimed were having sex in a vehicle — while it was moving. The men denied the act and argued that they were arrested only because they were dressed effeminately. They were sentenced to five years in jail.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, who texted a picture of himself holding a sign that read, “I’m very much in love w/u” to another man. The recipient reported the image to the police as “sexual harassment,” then invited Mbede over to his home, where the police were waiting to arrest him. Mbede was sentenced to three years in prison. “If Roger was sentenced as a homosexual,” Togue asked, “with whom did he have sex?” Mbede was provisionally released on medical grounds in 2012 and went into hiding; he died earlier this year after he could no longer afford hospital treatment for a hernia.
The Catholic Church is one of the strongest forces reinforcing anti-gay stigma in Cameroon. Back in 2012, Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot — then-Archbishop of Yaundé, Cameroon’s capital — said that homosexuality is “shameful, a disrespectful criticism of God who has chosen to create man and woman.” Before he was replaced in 2013, Bakot had also joined with Cameroon’s other Catholic bishops in issuing a statement condemning homosexuality, including the claim that “homosexuality opposes humanity and destroys it.”
This stigma is also having a negative impact on health care in the country, particularly when it comes to HIV outreach. “They can’t go to the hospital for the treatment or even for a test because they’re afraid,” Togue explained. He knows of at least one case where an individual admitted to a nurse that he’d had same-sex relations and she called the police on him. There are about a half-dozen organizations that do HIV outreach in the country, but Togue says that they’re largely LGBT support organizations in disguise.
Togue finds it odd that his fellow Cameroonians rely on tradition to defend their anti-gay beliefs from Western influence. “You have a country like Gabon. We share the same culture and tradition… but in Gabon, homosexuality is not an offense! Can you imagine that?” He says it’s simply “wrong” to claim that anti-gay beliefs are inherent to their culture.
Still, he remains optimistic that education will help Cameroonians learn more about human rights, sexual orientation, and privacy. “The West are not imposing homosexuality to Cameroon, but Cameroon has people who have a different sexual orientation, and they are in their rights to do that. They have to be respected without any stigmatizing.”
Togue hopes that local organizations in Cameroon will help people learn that “a homosexual is our friend, is our brother, is our sister, is part of our family — is not a stranger, not someone coming from outside.”
Thanks to Global Rights for helping set up the interview with Michel Togue.