Even though I have had some hard experiences being queer in the U.S., I could never have truly imagined the hardships that people face in other countries concerning their sexual orientation. Of course, at the panel of four queer men and women put on by my study abroad program, I cried. I cried and it made the panel cry. One man had been beaten and ousted from his apartment building based on the rumor that he is gay. Everything he owned was stolen from him. He is harassed by people who don’t even know him despite how hard he tries to hide his identity. Eventually he moved in with the Association Prudence leader and I am not sure if life has improved much since then. Another woman had to change the way she dressed to avoid conflict, because she wore a t-shirt and pants instead of traditional boubous or “girly” clothing. She would get into spats on the street because she was challenging the norm. One of the women is a basketball player. The perception of female athletes as lesbians prevails in Senegal. Her father’s other wife called her up one day accusing her of being a lesbian and she had to deny it. Her father told her that if this is true he would force her to leave the family. One can be imprisoned in Senegal for up to five years for committing “counter-natural” acts but living queer in Senegal can be just as constricting as a prison cell.
There is a lack of physical security as a queer person in Senegal, and if you end up in a violent conflict the police will not hesitate to help your opposition physically beat you. Many queer people in Senegal choose to deny their identity and live an unhappy hetero-normative life because it is just so much simpler. There are some Senegalese people who believe that the queer identity in this country stems from globalization, thus it is seen to them as a foreign imposition. Living in a majority Muslim country, many queer folk face the same religious opposition here as they would in the U.S. If you are a queer person living with HIV/AIDS, then not only are you not accepted by society, but many times you are secondarily marginalized from the queer community itself. The bones of queer Senegalese have been dug up from their resting places and fed to dogs as a sign of disrespect. Oddly enough, there is a stereotype that queer men and women in Senegal are rich and so they become a target of theft more often than other folks.
Despite their many terrible experiences and the societal/institutional barriers they face, this group and many others still have hope for a more tolerant society. The four people that we talked to are involved in a group called Association Prudence. They focus on public health, sensitization, empowerment workshops, and changing public policy. I am hoping to get involved with them and potentially stimulate interaction between the group and Queer Community Coalition at CC. The group believes that change must stem from the grassroots level, but they use the now international terms “gay and lesbian” to identify with the global queer community and derive support from other levels as well. The leader of Association Prudence, Djamil, recognized that the fight for equity in Senegal is going to be gradual and challenging but he sees no other way to enact social change. His current focus is the decriminalization of identifying as queer and his approach is both local empowerment and policy change. I am extremely impressed by the courage that these four people had despite the overwhelming opposition to their cause and I can’t wait to see what their next move will be.
I have been having a hard time living as a queer person in Senegal because I am living as a hetero or even asexual person in Senegal. My thoughts about my girlfriend have been limited by this invisible societal pressure and when I even think about being queer I get teary-eyed. I cannot share a part of myself with the Senegalese family that I have become so close with and it hurts. Honestly, I feel somewhat ashamed when I even think about telling my host family because I know that it would disrupt our happy relationship and I know that it has the potential to hurt them. Of course, people experience this in the U.S. The difference is that there are many other outlets and communities to support people who are attacked based on their sexual orientation. These resources are almost nonexistent in Senegal aside from Association Prudence.
Coupled with my feeling of invisibility and shame is the obnoxious and almost constant dialogue between myself and Senegalese men concerning relationships and sexuality. For example, as I was waiting in the normal spot for some friends to go to the market, I got invited by some older Senegalese men to sit down and drink ataya on the side of the road. I had to accept because to reject an invitation would be offensive as I was just going to be standing there anyways. Of course, after greeting and asking my name, the first question the men had for me was about my marital status. Sometimes it is hilarious to concoct a fake family but this day it was just downright unnerving. I answered that I had a husband and stupidly said that he is American and that we don’t have children. The story of my fake relationship with some man named John goes on and on. Despite telling them my life’s fake story, the men told me how important it was for me to have a Senegalese husband. I am so sick of unwanted male attention and my inability to express to them that even if I was not in a relationship I would not be interested in them.
This experience has really opened my eyes up to how privileged I am in the U.S. Even though I can’t be out everywhere, I have a space in my campus, my community, and my family that feels safe and is public. I can share the love of my girlfriend with the people around me without fear for my life. I have protected rights. Obviously I would not trade this privilege for the world but honestly most of the time here it makes me feel guilty. I am out and proud in the U.S. but I rarely admit to myself how hard it is to be gay in general, no matter where one is in the world.
If you want to read a story from one of the members of Association Prudence, check out this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-vellone/growing-up-gay-in-senegal_b_1858428.html