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Cameroon group works to protect, empower LGBTQ community

Working For Our Wellbeing operates throughout country

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Nkwain Hamlet (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Nkwain Hamlet is the president and executive director of of Working For Our Wellbeing, an LGBTQ advocacy organization in Douala, Cameroon’s bustling economic capital, that works toward providing queer Cameroonians with access to safety and a chance to live confident, fully self-actualized lives in a society that is nothing but vilely queerphobic. Hamlet recently spoke with the Washington Blade about his LGBTQ advocacy and future representation in the country’s government. 

“Cameroon, at all stages, is in a transition point. Whether it’s the presidency, ministerial roles, or different members of parliament, or even the Senate. We even have one of the oldest members of parliament in Africa,” he says about the possibility of an LGBTQ politician emerging in the country. “So, I think that in upcoming years, it will be a moment!”

Pushing Cameroon towards acceptance

Cameroon, like many African countries, has a culture of queerphobia that colonialism brought. Before Germany, and later France and the U.K, seized Cameroonian land and resources — wiping away any sense of freedom, agency and culture that existed in opposition to eurocentrism — queerness in what is now Cameroon was the norm.

Native Cameroonians practiced homoeroticism, with men being allowed to have consensual sex with other men. Women could also marry other women and establish same-sex households. 

“Among the Pangwe people of present-day Cameroon and Gabon, homosexual intercourse was practiced between males of all ages,” reports Bernadine Evaristo for The Guardian

Nankiti Nofuru for the Global Press Journal also reports about the Balong ethnic group.

“The Balong tradition allows women to marry to other women in cases where women are barren or have no children. Even women who want additional children but are unable to conceive them may marry other women,” reported Nofaru 

So, for Hamlet, whose goal is to advocate for all queer people in Cameroon by affording them the space to confidently inhabit their queerness, one of his organization’s focal points is to participate in politics and make queerness a national conversation that will encourage the government to establish wholly-protected human rights for LGBTQ individuals. 

“We currently don’t have any representation at the parliamentary level,” says Hamlet. “And because of this, we want to make sure that [LGBTQ people] are reflected and have role models in [this country’s] political positions.”

Cameroon’s future elections are on Hamlet’s mind, and he has famliarized himself with conversations surrounding the necessity to make sure that queer people are not only acknowledged in politics, but involved in decision-making processes. He emphasizes that there is a need for someone queer to step out, penetrate the politics scene and engage with the government.

Carrying this out, however, does not come without its hindrances. Hamlet recognizes one has to negotiate two realities in order to be a successful out LGBTQ politician in a predominantly queerphobic Cameroon.

“[To be a politician], you have to come out and embrace the political question of who is for you and who isn’t. And also, you have to think about who will support your candidacy and political agenda financially,” says Hamlet. 

He notes that financial support can exist through entrepreneurs and other influential figures who support the LGBTQ movement. Attaining it can nevertheless be exacting as many of them fear the public backlash that ensues after standing in favor of what Cameroonian nationals consider controversial identity issues.

“[Entrepreneurs] may not want to give their position regarding identity issues, and because of the backlash, you see them deleting their messages whether on Twitter or Facebook. So, you just have to identify who these people are and know that they’re open-minded and [will work in your favor],” says Hamlet. 

Working For Our Wellbeing members (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Making sure no one is left behind

Cameroon for years has been embroiled in the Anglophone Crisis, a civil war that stems from a conflict between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians, and their fight to maintain their respective colonial legacies, especially with regards to law and education.

BBC reports eight out of Cameroon’s 10 semi-autonomous administrative regions are Francophone, while the other two are Anglophone. English-speaking Cameroonians consequently face discrmination because they are excluded from lucrative employment opportunities and a chance at significant political representation as “government documents are often only published in French, even though English is also an official language.” Cameroon’s education system is also Francophone-centric, and it has created disparities because English-speaking areas are subjected to French standards, even though they inherited the British education system.

Reuters reports the Anglophone Crisis as recently as 2020 has killed approximately 3,500 people. The violence has displaced 700,000 people from their homes as English-speaking groups fight to break away from the predominantly French-speaking government.

The crisis has quickly become an LGBTQ human rights issue for Hamlet and Working For Our Wellbeing because a queer population exists in the two Anglophone regions: Northwest and Southwest. Hamlet describes the situation as “catastrophic” when speaking about how the conflict has affected his organization’s work.

“A lot of the work we do involves educating heterosexual people in the Francophone zones on tolerance and acceptance. Now that this conflict exists, our work becomes challenging because we are not able to reach the Anglophone zones as effectively as we are able to reach the Francophone zones,” says Hamlet.

He also notes LGBTQ people in the area are “in a death trap.” It therefore feels to him when he tackles national advocacy work that there is a gap because his organization is unable to reach Anglophone LGBTQ individuals without encountering diffculties. 

Working For Our Wellbeing is nevertheless redefining their strategies to better equip themselves to reach out to LGBTQ Cameroonians in the country’s English-speaking areas. Part of this includes the development of a stringent security plan and analyzing the day-to-day situation to ensure that Anglophone LGBTQ individuals can be fiercely advocated for without the organization facing any repercussions. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and Cameroon’s general political crisis have made it imperative to advocate on behalf queer Anglophones with the utmost care and sensitivity.

Imparting hope and joy to the LGBTQ community

As this month nears the end and many countries around the world conclude their Pride celebrations, Working For Our Wellbeing’s festivities are in full force, with preparations for a poetry competition fully underway. There will also be a round-table conversation that will welcome open-minded members of the general public interested in discussing and learning more about LGBTQ issues in Cameroon. 

“We’ve been hit hard by the law, and with everything, so we want to celebrate ourselves,” says Hamlet. “We are ready.” 

Working For Our Wellbeing after Pride will continue to do what it knows best: Caring for LGBTQ Cameroonians. Whether it’s providing  temporary shelter for queer people who have been rejected by their families or empowering them to be financially independent, one thing that is certain is that Hamlet and his organization will put LGBTQ Cameroonians first, normalize queerness and establish a culture akin to that which existed pre-colonialism. 

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Africa

Burkina Faso moves to criminalize homosexuality

Justice Minister Edasso Bayala made announcement on July 10

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Burkina Faso flag (Photo by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

Burkina Faso has become the latest African country to move to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Justice Minister Edasso Bayala on July 10 after a Cabinet meeting said same-sex sexual acts and similar practices would now be prohibited and seen as a violation of the law.

Unlike other countries where lawmakers have to introduce and pass bills, this scenario will likely not be the case in Burkina Faso because the country is currently under military role. Captain Ibrahim Traorè in 2022 led a coup that removed President Roch Kaboré and Prime Minister Lassina Zerbo.

Although some have signaled there still needs to be a parliamentary vote, there will be “legal” ramifications for those who are found to be LGBTQ or advocating for the community.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations or identifying as LGBTQ were regarded as legal in Burkina Faso before the July 10 announcement. Same-sex marriages were — and remain — illegal.

Members of the Transitional Legislative Assembly last September met to discuss regional issues that included the prohibition of and penalization of homosexuality and restricting the creation of groups that advocate on behalf of sexual minorities. The TLA incorporated the suggestions into a report and submitted it to Burkina Faso’s leadership.

Some of the country’s LGBTQ groups and human rights organizations have called upon the current leadership to respect and acknowledge other genders.

“We are all equal in dignity and rights,” said the National Consultive Commission on Human Rights, which is known by acronym CNDH (Commission Nationale des Droits Humains in French), in a statement. “CNDH is fighting against all forms of discrimination based on race gender, religion or social origin.”

“In Burkina Faso, thousands of people suffer from prejudice and injustice every day,” added CNDH. “We must take action. Discrimination weakens our society and divides our communities. Every individual deserves to live without fear of being judged or excluded.”

The organization further stressed “every action counts. Every voice matters.”

“Together we can change mindsets,” it said. “We must educate, raise awareness and encourage respect for diversity.”

CNDH President Gonta Alida Henriette said the government’s decision “would be the greatest violation of human rights in Burkina Faso and would condemn hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ people in Burkina Faso.” Alice Nkom, an African human rights activist, echoed this sentiment.

“Why politicize a privacy matter among consenting adults while making it a crucial topic for Africa? I answer you: Stop spying on your neighbor for the wrong reasons,” said Nkom. “Mind your own life and, if you care about your neighbor, worry about their health, if water is coming out of the tap, if there is electricity in the house, or food to feed their children.”

“Why are they prioritizing the issue of saying no to homosexuality in Africa instead of no wars or armed conflict in Africa, no poverty in Africa, no hunger in Africa, no misery in Africa?,” asked Nkom. “We should stop being distracted by topics that take away nothing and add nothing to our lives.”

Other activists say the proposal would expose the LGBTQ community and its allies to imprisonment and other punishments. They say the repercussions would go beyond legal implications; making human rights and sexual minority activists more vulnerable to criminal action, persecution, and arbitrary arrests. 

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Africa

Cameroon president’s daughter comes out

Brenda Biya acknowledges relationship with Brazilian model

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Brenda Biya (Photo via Instagram)

The daughter of Cameroonian President Paul Biya has come out as a lesbian.

Brenda Biya, 26, on June 30 posted to her Instagram page a picture of her kissing Brazilian model Layyons Valença.

“I’m crazy about you and I want the world to know,” said Brenda Biya.

Her father has been Cameroon’s president since 1982.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in the Central African country that borders Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Chad. The State Department’s 2023 human rights report notes harassment, discrimination, violence, and arbitrary arrests of LGBTQ people are commonplace in the country.

Brenda Biya is a musician who does not live in Cameroon.

The BBC reported she told Le Parisien, a French newspaper, in an exclusive interview published on Tuesday that she and Valença have been together for eight months. The women have also traveled to Cameroon together three times, but Brenda Biya did not tell her family they were in a relationship.

Brenda Biya said she did not tell her family that she planned to come out, and they were upset when she did. Brenda Biya told Le Parisien that her mother, Cameroonian first lady Chantale Biya, asked her to delete her Instagram post.

The Washington Blade on Thursday did not see the picture of Brenda Biya and Valença on her Instagram account.

“Coming out is an opportunity to send a strong message,” Brenda Biya told Le Parisien.

Brenda Biya described Cameroon’s criminalization law as “unfair, and I hope that my story will change it.”

Activists applauded Brenda Biya for coming out. The BBC reported the DDHP Movement, which supports Cameroon’s anti-LGBTQ laws, filed a complaint against her with the country’s public prosecutor.

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Caribbean

Dutch Supreme Court rules Aruba, Curaçao must allow same-sex couples to marry

Ruling likely also applicable to St. Maarten

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Curaçao is one of the constituent countries in the Caribbean that are part of the Netherlands. The Dutch Supreme Court on July 12, 2024, ruled Curaçao and Aruba must extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. The ruling will also apply to Sint Maarten. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Dutch Supreme Court on Friday ruled Aruba and Curaçao must extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Joint Court of Justice of Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten and of Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba in 2022 ruled in favor of marriage equality in two cases that Fundacion Orguyo Aruba and Human Rights Caribbean in Curaçao filed.

The governments of the two islands appealed the ruling.

The Joint Court of Justice of Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten and of Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba has jurisdiction over Aruba, Curaçao, and St. Maarten —three constituent countries within the Netherlands — and Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba — which are special municipalities within the kingdom. 

Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry and adopt children in Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba since 2012.

Aruba, Curaçao, and St. Maarten must recognize same-sex marriages from the Netherlands, Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba. Aruba’s registered partnership law took effect in 2021.

“Today, we celebrate a historic victory for the dignity and rights of LGBT individuals in Curaçao and Aruba,” said Human Rights Caribbean President Janice Tjon Sien Kie on Friday in a statement.

Aruban Sen. Miguel Mansur, who is gay, on Friday described the ruling to the Washington Blade as “an amazing victory which applies to Aruba, Curaçao, and by implication St. Maarten.”

“Aruba progresses into a society with less discrimination, more tolerance, and acceptance,” he said.

Melissa Gumbs, a lesbian St. Maarten MP, told the Blade the ruling “could very well have some bearing on our situation here.” 

“I’m definitely looking into it,” she said. “We’re researching it to see what is the possibility, and also in touch with our friends in Aruba who are, of course, overjoyed with this ruling.”

Cuba, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Martin, St. Barts, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, are the other jurisdictions in the Caribbean in which same-sex couples can legally marry. 

Mansur said the first same-sex marriages in Aruba will happen “very soon.”

“There are two couples ready to wed,” he told the Blade.

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