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Lawyer advocating for gay Cameroonians speaks in D.C.

RFK Center hosted Michel Togué

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Michel Togue, Cameroon, gay news, Washington Blade
Michel Togue, Cameroon, gay news, Washington Blade

Cameroonian LGBT advocate Michel Togue (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A lawyer who represents LGBT Cameroonians on Thursday urged his African country’s government to stop the persecution of gay men and lesbians.

“Gay people are not seeking everyone to approve of their behavior,” Michel Togué said during a roundtable at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Northwest D.C. “They are seeking freedom.”

Authorities since 2010 have prosecuted nearly 30 people under the section of the country’s penal code that imposes a sentence of up to five years in prison and a roughly $400 fine against anyone convicted of same-sex sexual activity. These include Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, whom police in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé arrested in March 2011 after he sent a flirtatious text message to another man.

Police in July 2011 arrested Jonas Kimie and Franky Ndome outside a Yaoundé nightclub and charged them under Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality law.

A judge referenced the couple’s clothes and their “feminine” speech before sentencing them to five years in prison. Kimie and Ndome last month went into hiding after an appellate court released them. (The Washington Blade’s attempts to interview them were unsuccessful.)

Togué, who represents Mbede alongside fellow Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, said those charged under the anti-homosexuality law routinely face human rights abuses while in custody.

He said a doctor asked Mbede to bend over during an examination at a local hospital to prove whether he is gay.

Togué further alleged authorities also beat Mbede, who received a three year prison sentence and was re-sentenced in December after he unsuccessfully appealed his original conviction, while in custody. He said they also distributed naked pictures of Mbede they took inside the police station.

“There’s no dignity there,” Togué said. “There’s no respect or dignity of humanity.”

All Out, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department are among the groups and governmental agencies that have criticized Cameroon’s LGBT rights record in recent years.

President Paul Biya told journalists last month after meeting with French President François Hollande that attitudes towards gay Cameroonians are changing.

“Cameroon is part of a global community and the world has become a global village,” Togué, who moved his family to Silver Spring because of the death threats he said he and his colleagues continue to receive, said. “It is not in the interests of my beloved country to not live in isolation.”

Togué’s D.C. appearance coincided with the possibly imminent debate in the Ugandan Parliament on the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill that would impose the death penalty upon anyone convicted of repeated same-sex sexual acts. It also took place less than a month after President Obama mentioned gay men and lesbians, marriage rights for same-sex couples and the Stonewall riots in his second inaugural address.

Lawmakers in France, which partially colonized Cameroon until it gained independence in the early 1960s, earlier this month approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children.

“It can have an impact [in] my country and of the LGBT issues in Cameroon,” Togué told the Blade after the roundtable. “My president is really aware of what international opinion thinks about what he is doing.”

He returned to Cameroon on Sunday.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kouokap Martin

    March 5, 2013 at 9:01 am

    No amount of pressure will change anything, homosexuality has no place in the African continent. Who has ever tried to raise a debate on homosexuality in Arab countries? Why do Americans and Europeans not legalise polygamy which is an African reality? We have our customs and we will not allow others to impose their customs on us.

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Petition urges White House to develop plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban regained control of country on Aug. 15

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that urges the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; the Council for Global Equality; Immigration Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday presented to the White House the petition that urges the administration to adopt “a 10-point action plan … to expedite and ease the refugee and asylum process for LGBTQI Afghans.”

The same six groups last month urged the Biden administration to adopt a plan that would “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.” The groups, among other things, asked the White House to “speak out forcefully against human rights abuses by the new Taliban regime and any increased targeting of vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people, and use existing mechanisms to sanction and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuse.”

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ.

“We reiterate our call for President Biden to adopt the 10-point policy plan which will expedite and ease the refugee process for LGBTQI Afghans,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof in a press release. “The 10,000+ people who signed our petition have demonstrated that they want the United States, long a beacon of refuge for those fleeing persecution, to take action to protect LGBTQI Afghans—a vulnerable group who risk oppression, even death, simply for who they are or who they love. Now is the time for action.”

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Putin describes transgender rights as ‘crime against humanity’

Russian president made comment in Sochi speech

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo public domain)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described transgender rights as “a crime against humanity.”

The Washington Post reported Putin made the comment in a speech he delivered in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea where the 2014 Winter Olympics took place.

Putin specifically said the idea that children are “taught that a boy can become a girl and vice versa” is “on the verge of a crime against humanity.” Putin, according to the Post, also said trans activists are demanding an end to “basic things such as mother, father, family or gender differences.”

Activists in Russia and around the world have sharply criticized the Kremlin’s LGBTQ rights record, including a 2013 law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors. Putin also has close ties to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is behind a brutal anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic.

The European Court of Human Rights in July ruled Russia violated the rights of a trans woman who authorities prevented from visiting her children because of her gender identity. The decision is the first time the court used Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in an anti-trans discrimination case.

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Report details anti-LGBTQ discrimination, violence in Kenya refugee camp

March 15 attack left gay man dead

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Ugandan refugees, gay news, Washington Blade
The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (Photo by the E.U. Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations via Flickr)

A new report released on Wednesday indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ people who live in a Kenya refugee camp have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad in May 2021 surveyed 58 LGBTQ asylum seekers who live at the Kakuma refugee camp and the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement that opened in 2016 to help alleviate overcrowding at Kakuma. The groups also interviewed 18 “key informants.”

More than 90 percent of the LGBTQ asylum seekers who spoke with ORAM and Rainbow Railroad said they have been “verbally assaulted.”

Eighty-three percent of them indicated they suffered “physical violence,” with 26 percent of them reporting sexual assault. All of the transgender respondents “reported having experienced physical assault,” with 67 percent of them “reporting sexual assault.”

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they had been “denied police assistance due to their sexual identity.” Nearly half of the respondents told ORAM and Rainbow Railroad they had to be “relocated from their allocated shelters to alternative accommodation due to the constant abuses directed at them by neighbors.”

Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the U.N. Refugee Agency operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

The report notes upwards of 160,000 refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda were living in Kakuma as of January.

Those who responded to the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey are from Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia and all of them have asked for asylum in Kenya. Ninety-four percent of them live in Kakuma, while the remaining six percent live in Kalobeyei.

The report also estimates there are 350 LGBTQ asylum seekers in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. UNHCR in 2020 created Block 13 in Kakuma that is specifically for LGBTQ refugees.

Gay man died after Block 13 attack

Two gay men suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 on March 15. One of the men died a few weeks later at a hospital in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

Forty-one of the Block 13 residents who participated in the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey said that “relocation to a safer place as a priority.” The report also notes some respondents who live outside Block 13 “said that the activism in Block 13 was affecting the overall relationship between LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and service providers in the camp.”

“They expressed concern with some activities conducted as part of their activism,” reads the report. “For example, they alleged that some activists were conducting staged attacks on individuals and false claims of violence to attract media attention as part of their advocacy.”

The report notes “allegations of activity from activists in Block 13 have not been confirmed.” Some of the “key informants” who ORAM and Rainbow Railroad interviewed for their report, however, “observed that LGBTQI+ activists from different countries have been supporting the advocacy in Block 13 without considering the local context and potential negative or unintended consequences.”

“They allege that the advocacy has been antagonizing LGBTQI+ members with other refugees in the camp and service providers,” reads the report. “For example, some of the LGBTQI+ asylum seekers were reported to have deserted their allocated shelters, moved to Block 13 and were persistently demanding new shelters.”

An attack at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on March 15, 2021, left two gay refugees with second-degree burns. One of these men later died. (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Kagarura)

UNHCR in a statement after the March 15 attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. The ORAM and Rainbow Railroad report acknowledges both points.

“Asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya are not immune to pervasive anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes in the community,” it reads. “As the number of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees increases rapidly, it is important to understand their unique protection needs and plan for safe and dignified service delivery to meet those needs.”

The report notes more than 70 percent of respondents have gone to Kakuma’s main hospital the International Rescue Committee operates in order to receive HIV/AIDS-related services. More than 85 percent of respondents said they “preferred to seek all other health services beyond HIV and AIDS services at the main hospital, since the facility was friendly and provided a stigma-free environment for the LGBTQI+ community in the camp.”

“Respondents reported traveling long distances in order to visit the main hospital,” reads the report.

The report notes limited access to cardiologists and other specialists at the eight health facilities in the camp that UNHCR partner organizations operates. Roughly a third of respondents also said they have “been stigmatized in some of the health clinics.”

“This included being referred to as shoga (a derogatory Kiswahili term used to refer to homosexuality) either by staff members or other refugees in the waiting room while waiting to see a provider, or some providers just directing them to the main hospital with snide remarks about how they do not entertain LGBTQI+ persons in their facility,” reads the report.

The African Human Rights Coalition, the Refugee Coalition of East Africa and Upper Rift Minorities are among the other groups that work with the camp’s LGBTQ residents.

The report notes only a third of respondents “were actively engaged in economic activity at the time of the study, a majority depended on the food rations distributed in the camp.” It also contains 10 recommendations, which are below, to improve conditions for LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

1) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya must fast-track refugee status determination of LGBTQ asylum seekers with further support from UNHCR and civil society organizations.

2) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya and UNHCR must create more responsive and sensitive protection services for LGBTQ refugees in Kenya.

3) Civil society organizations and their supporters should provide livelihood support and other support to meet the immediate needs of LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

4) Governments of resettlement countries must resume and fast track resettlement of LGBTQ refugees from Kenya.

5) UNHCR and civil society organizations must continue to build skills development programs for employability.

6) LGBTQ civil society organizations should work more closely with refugee-led organizations and collectives to build self-protection services.

7) Donor communities should participate in more long-term development programming for LGBTQI+ refugees in Kenya.

8) LGBTQ civil society organizations providing support to refugees in Kenya must coordinate more closely.

9) LGBTQ civil society organizations and refugee-led organizations should continue to advocate for more inclusive human rights in Kenya.

10) Civil society must continue the push for LGBTQ human rights globally, including decriminalization of same sex intimacy.

“This much-needed report underscores the challenges, dangers and complexities of life that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face in Kakuma refugee camp,” said ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth in a press release that announced the report’s release. “The refugees themselves have spoken and they want to be heard. UNHCR, governments and civil society organizations must work together to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of this community while also addressing the longer term, durable solutions we recommend in the report.”

Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell added refugee camps cannot “become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement.”

“The findings of this report confirm a key goal of Rainbow Railroad—to fast track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees,” he said. “Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners are ready to provide support to LGBTQI+ persons at risk and assist in further resettlement. Ultimately, we need the UNHCR, the government of Kenya and governments of countries that are destinations for refugees to step up an ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries.”

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