I’m traveling in West Africa on my annual win-a-trip journey, a global reporting expedition on which I take a university student to highlight issues that deserve more attention. My winner this year is Maddie Bender, a recent Yale graduate (the pandemic delayed our trip) — and with that, I’m handing the rest of the column over to her.
By Maddie Bender
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — When Abdul was a teenager and coming to terms with being gay, he was attacked by a group of men. They mocked him with homophobic slurs and assaulted him with broken beer bottles, slicing his thumb open.
He reported the incident to the police and was told that an arrest could be made — of him, for homosexuality.
Sierra Leone is one of more than 30 African nations (over half the continent) that criminalize same-sex relations. While most of the gay people I spoke with there did not seem to fear being arrested, they said discrimination against them was widespread in housing, employment and family life.
Meanwhile, American Christian groups with records of fighting L.G.B.T.Q. rights have poured millions of dollars into African countries, according to a 2020 report. Some American evangelicals have been known to encourage anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation in countries such as Uganda.
Queer issues are deeply personal to me, since I am bisexual. While L.G.B.T.Q. people still suffer danger and discrimination in America, traveling with Nick in West Africa offered a window into the immense adversity queer people experience here — and their resilience and courage in the face of it.
But Africa is not uniformly homophobic, and I found some physical and virtual space emerging for L.G.B.T.Q. communities. In São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, homosexuality has been legal since 2012. “Sexuality is free,” the country’s prime minister, Patrice Trovoada, told me, adding that in his country, “you don’t have this hate attitude” toward gay people.
Still, it’s complicated. Members of an association for gay men in São Tomé say L.G.B.T.Q. people in the country have experienced violence and been ostracized from their families. The group’s president, Kelve Borros, 28, told me, “Nothing about life is easy.”
In Sierra Leone, I met two dozen queer people inside a community center run by the Dignity Association, a local advocacy group. The center’s warmth reminded me of a support group I belonged to in high school, where I had my first kiss with a girl.
Outside, the atmosphere is chillier. Although people were happy to talk about homosexuality when I asked, most said they’d never encountered a gay person. But in 2013, the Sierra Leonean government estimated that around 20,000 (and possibly more) men who have sex with men live in the country. Statistics for queer women are fuzzier.
Spending time online may be broadening some people’s worldviews. A 2020 review of Africans’ attitudes toward homosexuality suggests that frequent internet users are more likely to be tolerant of gay people.
Two teenagers in the city of Makeni in northern Sierra Leone, Fatmata Binta Jalloh, 17, and Marie Kamara, 16, told me that while they believe homosexuality doesn’t exist in their country, they’ve seen plenty of gay people online. They recalled watching a viral TikTok video of a lesbian couple celebrating after conceiving a child through in vitro fertilization. The video, they said, made them happy for this couple, whose sexuality they had been taught to fear.
For L.G.B.T.Q. youth like Abdul, online content can be a kind of lifeline. He follows queer celebrities on Instagram, including the musician Sam Smith and the rapper Rashad Spain (known as Saucy Santana), and aspires to a level of success that can also partially insulate him from violence and homophobia.
When asked about the queer representation that Sierra Leone’s young people may see online, the country’s president, Julius Maada Bio, compared external influences to the contagion of gun violence. Because of technology, he said, “‘copycatting’ becomes very easy,” and he worried that outside information “poses a serious threat to our own culture and way of life.”
I’d like to see the United States use its influence to press for more tolerance — certain forms of aid, for example, could require participating organizations not to discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people — but after talking to people like Fatmata and Marie, I suspect that our greatest tool for making change is soft power.
We should be outraged at how far the Christian right has gone to support the persecution of gay people in African countries. These laws need to change, but I doubt that equal and opposite meddling is the solution.
Instead, we can call upon our own leaders to help fund safe spaces abroad and strengthen lines of communication with local organizations in Africa like the Dignity Association, and speak out when their members are threatened.
As for those of us in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, let’s embrace our power online. In the face of bigotry and restrictive legislation at home and abroad, flaunting our pride can be an act of radical resistance. And all of us can speak with our wallets, making clear that tourism will be jeopardized in countries that punish same-sex love.
Attitudes aren’t shifting fast enough for young people like Abdul, who was outed in 2019 and driven from his home. Now 20, he imagines a different life for himself because of the queer celebrities he follows online.
They’ve taught him that he has to strive, he said: “I know it’s not going to be easy.”
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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