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Homophobia: the lifelong burden for homosexuals in West Africa

Homophobia: the lifelong burden for homosexuals in West Africa
Episode 7 #CryLikeABoy   -  
Copyright © africanews


Since 1966, being homosexual in Senegal is considered a crime and punishable by law. But a few decades ago, some Senegalese men openly identified themselves as neither male nor female, but as an alternative gender - the “Góor-jigéen” or “men-women”.

These terms are aimed at belittling the masculinity of homosexual men. Why do you think this is the case? Why do you think societies or communities do that?

However, in some countries such as France, where this is not legally punishable, homosexuals live and feel for the most part the same fate as their counterparts in Africa. It's all about living their life in the closet, living their life in secret.They will always have to choose between coming out and “facing” society’s prejudices or keep hiding their sexuality to live peacefully.

In this episode, we will talk about what it’s like for gay men in Africa and in Europe.

How Does coming out affect the way people see you as a man? Does it change your daily life? Why do some immigrants continue to live in the closet when they move to Europe?

Cry Like a Boy is an original podcast series that aims to promote a cross-border discussion on gender roles from the perspective of five African countries (Burundi, Senegal, Lesotho, Guinea and Liberia), but also from the perspective of African men challenging archaic norms.

Please do not hesitate to listen and subscribe to the podcast on euronews.com or Castbox, Spotify, Apple, Google, Deezer, and give us a review.


Khopotso Bodibe: Welcome to Cry Like a Boy, a Euronews original service and podcast that explores how the pressure to be a man can harm families and societies.

Stay with us as we travel across the African continent to meet the men who defy centuries-old stereotypes.

After listening to our previous episodes about being homosexual in Dakar, Senegal, today, we are going to have a conversation about toxic masculinity and homophobia with two LGBTIQ+ rights activists who understand the African context, as well as the European one Sheba Akpokli joins us from Lomé, the capital of Togo in West Africa and Youssef Belghmaidi is in Aubervilliers in France. I am Kopotso Bodibe with you from Johannesburg, South Africa. Hello to you.

Thank you so much for joining us. We will get back to you in a minute.

Now, listeners, if you have not yet had episodes on the Góor-Jigéen in Senegal or the origins and harshness of homophobia in the West African country, we invite you to listen to them by visiting our website at www.euronews.com/2020/12/23/podcast-cry-like-a-boy-all-episodes

In addition to listening to this conversation now, is it true that there was a time when the LGBTQ+ community was not persecuted in Senegal? You will be surprised to learn about a time when Dakar was once described as the gay city of Western Africa.

Before starting our conversation, let's first introduce our guests, Youssef Belghmaidi is a Moroccan transwoman, an activist based in Aubervilliers in the northeastern suburb of Paris in France. She has organised the first pride march in the multicultural neighbourhood of Saint-Denis in Paris. She has a bachelor in transnational politics at the University Paris 8 Saint-Denis and Sheba Akpokli is a LGBTQ rights activist and a lawyer from Togo. She represents the African region on the world board of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Intersex Association. She also has experience in research and documentation in West Africa.

Now, I have a question for both of you, we are looking at homophobia and masculinity and in the previous episodes about homophobia in Senegal, we have learned that homosexual men there are targeted with the slur Góor-jigéen - a pejorative term, which literally means man or woman in the Wolof language and is used to belittle their masculinity.

We all know this is not only the case in Senegal. For example, here in South Africa, where I am, gay men are called Moffies a South African slang word, meaning a guy who dresses and acts like a girl word.

Moffie is the title of a 2019 film by a South African director, Oliver Hermanus, that explores the relationship between homophobia and toxic masculinity.

Here is a question for both of you, have you had similar terms in Morocco and France, in your case, Youssef and in Togo or other West African countries in your case, Sheba?

Youssef Belghmaidi: So a little trigger warning for the listeners. Obviously, we're going to use a lot of derogatory slurs. Well, in Morocco, there is a similar term that is zemel, which is which doesn't really work on the duality between homosexuality and heterosexuality. But it's really more about the duality between hegemonic masculinity and masculinity that is subjected to this hegemonic masculinity. So, yeah, the word zemel doesn't really translate into like fag, but it's really used to describe a man that is dominated by superior masculinity. As for French, there is pédé, which is pretty much a translation of fag, and it's used to point out the fact that homosexuality is inferior to heterosexuality, politically speaking.

Khopotso Bodibe: In your case, Sheba, what is the experience? What have you picked up?

Sheba Akpokli: I think, yes, there are similar expressions as well in Togo, and one of them is nousugnon to describe a man who behaves like a woman or conversely, a woman who behaves like a man. So I think there's a context we are sharing both in Togo or Morocco or even in Senegal as well.

Khopotso Bodibe: Now, in both your experiences from both the environments that you are speaking of right now, these terms are aimed at belittling the masculinity of homosexual men. Why do you think that is the case? Why do you think society or communities do that?

Sheba Akpokli: I think it's because of gender stereotypes. Some people expect men to have only and exclusively feelings with a woman. In addition, I think people limit very often the same-sex relationships to the sexual part when is actually more than that. And I wonder at which time the fact that a man has feelings for another one takes away his masculinity, in fact. So I think this kind of comparison is made of first of all moralising people and the repressive context where we have so idealised the qualities required to be a man that if you do not meet these criteria, you are not a real one. But I know that question that I'm drawing our attention to is that what is a real man?

Khopotso Bodibe: In fact, what is your observation Youssef?

Youssef Belghmaidi: Well, I really agree with Sheba. It's really not about the sexual dimension of it. It's really a minority part of the whole system, I think, masculinity, especially in Morocco, is really linked to family, which is a really important social crux.

So basically a man, in order to preserve the patriarchal order, has to provide for his family, has to lead his family. So this is why in Morocco, when I came out to my mom as a gay man in my earlier years, she was like, oh, it's OK. There's a lot of gay people in the closet, you can still have sex with men and still get married and stuff.

And so there are a lot of men in Morocco who actually partake in sexual activities that could be considered homosexual. But there isn't an actual stigma because, at the end of the day, they're still going to get married to a woman, they still going to create a family. They still going to create a heterosexual social structure. So the stigma is really more about actually defying the masculinity norms with the gay identity. So it's really, really about that. It's not necessarily about sexuality.

Khopotso Bodibe: I hear you say that you find men in Morocco actually straddling both worlds, is that correct?

Youssef Belghmaidi: Pretty much some of them don't see the problem in having a secret gay life. Some of them obviously do have issues, but some of them obviously are perfectly happy, not necessarily happy, but they're content with the fact that their sexual life is going to be hidden in order to have a normal heterosexual family life.

Khopotso Bodibe: Right. Right. Now, when we asked people in Senegal to describe how a man should act, they all agreed on one concept, and that is a man is the opposite of a woman.

Now, the stereotypes that you have been talking about here, Sheba and Youssef almost common in many parts of the world, certainly in many parts of Africa, what happens in Morocco and Togo to people who do not fit the patterns that society actually expects them to be living or to fit as men and women.

Youssef Belghmaidi: So obviously, it is punished by law, by the penal code. So in Morocco, that would be article 489.

So it's obviously well, you can get in prison for up to three years. There's also a very expensive fine and there's also a general social stigma that leads to marginalisation and basically you get banished from society.

This stigma really happens when you actually decide to transform your homosexuality or your queerness as an actual identity, that that can actually, like, challenge the local and national social structures.

Khopotso Bodibe: Sheba. In your experience, what is it that you have actually seen?

Sheba Akpokli: In Togo, we have a law that criminalises same-sex relationships and we have sanctioned up to three years in jail. And the other thing that can go up to three million CFA. So for people who assume their sexual orientation, there is that law, even if to this day this law has never condemned anyone.

This provision is kept there to try to discourage people because when it happens that you assume your identity and your queerness. This is the point when you can be banned from society and, you know, not more accepted anyway.

So there is also a social stigma and there is as well an important role played by the religious groups

For queer people Togo, this is not really easy, because, first of all, this is like most of the African country, a very hetero dominant society where we have a law and it is fairly difficult to live with your sexual orientation openly, for instance, you cannot be openly lesbian in Togo because first of all, like I was saying, we have a very patriarchal society.

So you have to be in this picture of double discrimination for some, first of all, for being a woman and then for being as well a lesbian or LGBTI people so you can definitely leave your sexual orientation freely.

Khopotso Bodibe: So it's pretty much about living your life in the closet, about living your life as a secret and not actually living it off so that people can actually see your authentic self.

Sheba Akpokli: Exactly. Because if you out yourself and you are openly queer, it's like opening the door to any kind of violence and discrimination.

Khopotso Bodibe: The conditions that we face in many parts of Africa. I would imagine that the draconian social stigma and the draconian laws that exist actually apply for both men who identify as LGBTQ+ and women as well who identify as LGBTQ+, or does it affect men more than women or vice versa? How does it work? What is your experience? Are lesbian women finding it a bit easier to live their identity as opposed to homosexual men or gay men?

Youssef Belghmaidi: Yeah, of course. I don't think lesbian women have it easier. On the contrary, I think it's mostly about visibility. Gay men are way more visible. So we talk a lot more about their issues, the violence that they face. And I mean, at least in Morocco, as I said, we really don't talk about lesbians because there are no words. So basically everything starts with masculine homosexuality and then we translate. But there are no discussions on lesbian specificities.

So one might argue that because of invisibility, lesbian women might have it better because I don't know, they can, like, get around stuff. But that's really not the reality of it. Like lesbian women also face tremendous violence, corrective rapes. They also get in prison. They also face really, really harsh violence. So they have that and they also have fewer possibilities to talk about their identities, to conceptualise their identities, to conceptualise their situations because of the lack of words, because of the lack of representation, because of the lack of work on the matter.

But also in France, which is considered to be like this, really LGBTQ+ friendly country. Well, we don't really talk about lesbians. There are not that many lesbian cultural places, bars, exhibits, stuff like that.

So it's really, really an issue that should be tackled both in Morocco but also in France.

Youssef Belghmaidi: Sheba, do you want to jump in there?

Sheba Akpokli: I think that we are having the same challenges. And the fact that we are talking more about the challenges faced by the gay men, it doesn't mean that it's easier for the lesbian to live in our countries. It's probably because sometimes women do not report enough those kinds of violence.

But if you have you look at this survey, the reports that have been done recently, you can see that most of the families this has been directly directed to the LGBTQ+ women community and the transgender people as well. And we are not classifying. But, you know, it's not the fact that we are talking more about gay people's discrimination, that, on the other hand, it's easier for the other subgroup.

Khopotso Bodibe: Thank you. Now, as we wrap up this conversation, in the previous episodes of Cry Like a Boy, we learned the story of Junior, a young Senegalese man who is forced to live with the secret of being gay, because in Senegal, if you come out of the closet, you not only risk being persecuted and harassed, but you can end up in jail.

What does it mean for a person to live a life inside the closet?

Do you know stories like Junior's? What similarities and differences do you find in the challenges of being gay in Morocco and France, in your case, Youssef, and in Togo and Senegal in your case, Sheba?

Sheba Akpokli: What does it mean for someone to live in the closet. I would say oppression. Taking a lot on yourself. Probably fragile mental health by being forced to conform. Constant insecurity. Fear of being outed and for sure always double-check before going anywhere, any place. This portrait is really sad.

Khopotso Bodibe: That is a whole lot of issues that you have to deal with at a personal level, because you always have to be in check of yourself, in check of what you do, in check of what you say, in check of where you go. Youssef, your understanding?

Youssef Belghmaidi: Well, I agree with Sheba. It's pretty much suffocating.

I think for me, at least, that's how I feel because obviously it really reduces your life to endless performances and performances. So you don't really have the possibility to actually be authentic. You also live in this fear of having your performances being clogged. So obviously, when you get clogged, well, a lot of violence comes down on you. So it's not necessarily the same thing between Morocco and France and within France, there are also a lot of contrasts and differences between contexts.

For instance, I live in la banlieue (suburbs in French), which is a suburban area. The northern banlieue (of Paris) is mostly inhabited by immigrants from all parts of Africa. So there are a lot of racist and colonial stigmas on us people, immigrants living in le banlieue. And so being LGBT in la banlieue isn't really the same thing as being LGBT in Paris, for instance, because, well, a lot of people in la banlieue are so closeted for many, many, many reasons.

People like to say in France, the general opinion likes to say that it's about like Islam. It's because African countries are less developed on the LGBTQ matters. But that's actually like a very simplistic approach and it's way more complex than that.

But instead, of going into these specificities, which might take a while, I'd say, yeah, it is really suffocating. And a lot of people, a lot of non-LGBTQ people like to say that it's really about sexual activity. So you can basically have your sexual life and then you can have your normal life. But actually, it's not really about being your authentic self. It's about having your identity. At the end of the day, it's really about auto-determination. And that's obviously not a right that we have as LGBTQ people, whether it is in Togo, whether it's in Morocco, whether it is also in France.

Khopotso Bodibe: Thank you so much for your time. Both of you, Youssef and Sheba, thank you for joining us for this episode.


This show has been produced with me, Khopotso Bodibe, Marta Moreiras in Senegal, Marta Rodríguez-Martinez, Lillo Montalto-Monella, Naira Davlashyan and Arwa Barkallah in Lyon. Special thanks go to Lory Martinez, Clizia Sala and Studio Ochenta for helping us produce this podcast. Theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.

I would like to thank our guests Sheba Akpokli and Youssef Belghmaidi. For more information on Cry Like a Boy, a Euronews original series and podcast, go to euronews.com to find opinion pieces, videos and articles on the topic.

Follow us on Twitter @Euronews is our Twitter handle and we are @Euronews.TV on Instagram. Also, share with us your own stories of how you changed and challenged your view on what it means to be a man using the hashtag #crylikeaboy. If you are a French speaker, this podcast is also available in French "Dans la tête des Hommes" is the name of the podcast series.

This programme was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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