No Justice In Cameroon: One Man's Struggle To Escape Extreme Homophobia
By Ester Alegria in News on Aug 10, 2014 3:30PM
Photo Credit: CamerVibe
I don’t usually make up lies to start conversations with strangers on the CTA.
But this time, it was special. Justice—not his real name, in his early twenties, from Cameroon—had the face of my brother. I told myself it was the face of my dead brother so I could drum up enough courage, but in reality, it was the face of Ezra, the brother who last saw Enoch before he shot himself. And I somehow saw this as a sign from the universe. It was an uncanny likeness. When I sat beside him and showed him a picture of Ezra, my “deceased” brother, he put his hand to his chest and let out a deep sigh. And a soft echo of sentiment and empathy left his full, dark lips.
His thick accent was almost unintelligible over the droning of the 34 S Michigan as it advanced through the Roseland streets. I immediately felt horrible for lying. But the anniversary for my brother’s death was fast approaching and he’d been on my mind.
We quickly changed topics. Work, American culture, or the lack thereof, writing, and how long he’d been in America.
While in the midst of a rant about the violence in our area, I remembered shatters of a quote from a poet I’d seen recently named Tim’m West that went something like, “They’d rather see one black man put the barrel of a gun to another black man’s head, than see them sharing a loving embrace,”
When I said this, Justice’s face lit up a bit. I thought he was just engaged in the conversation.
He asked for my phone number, and assured me that he wasn’t hitting on me. “I just like to talk to good people. People who do good.” I was happy to give it to him. Later on that night I got a text from Justice.
“Hello Ester, I hope you enjoyed our conversation well yesterday. Like I said, I only like you like a sister because I don’t like women. ‘I am gay.’ You told me that you are a writer. I want to tell you about the trouble in my life, and what’s going on with people who are gay in my country.”
I was instantly intrigued, not only as a writer, but as a new friend.
This soft spoken, empathetic man, who had unknowingly given me such a strong connection to my brother, was now asking for an outlet to tell his story. Giddy, I asked to meet him that morning. Being a very hard worker, he wasn’t available until the end of the week. We finally met Friday in Palmer Park. His beautiful dark, brown face was the perfect foreground to the greenery around us. And then we began.
Justice fled to Chicago two years ago after suffering persecution at the hands of the Cameroonian government for homosexuality. “The people there don’t like gays. If you are gay, you are not a human being,” he said.
He showed me two old wounds from police brutality. He had been beaten with a cane.
“They see you walking with your boys, and they arrest you. I have a lot of friends who have died in jail—three this year. One friend was a journalist on television. He was fighting against the people who don’t like gays. ‘They have a life! They have a choice!’ So, they broke into his house. They broke his neck. They broke his arm. They burned his foot. And he died.”
We let a silence rest between us as those last words came to life in my mind. As had been a running trend while speaking with contacts here in Roseland, a train passed breaking the silence.
I asked Justice why he whispers a bit whenever he says the word ‘gay’ and why he references himself as ‘someone like me.’ I could have guessed the answer, and I was right. He was afraid.
“It still affects my mind,” he said. “You have an image in your mind and you remember what happened before. I just think; if they send me back, they will kill me.”
“If they suspect you are gay, they send you to jail for 6 months. When you get out, you pay what amounts to $100. They torture men in jail. When they come home to the villages, everyone abandons them. Their families kill them. They lock them in a room and kill them.”
I told Justice about the Lakeview area called “Boystown," and the wonderful air of acceptance he’d experience further north. As a pansexual woman, I’m well aware that some parts of this city can be unaccepting to our lifestyle. “Tell me everything! I want to go everywhere!” he said as he gave a blossoming smile, searching for reason, love, and everything in return, met me full on. I gave Justice the busiest cross streets in Lakeview.
“Whatever you want to know, I can tell you. In Africa, I have read so many books on many subjects,” he said, eager for both debate and conversation during his hour long lunch.
I asked about his schooling.
“I went to university for Biochemical studies, but I had to leave. I was a runner in my country, and I want to study engineering here in America,” Justice said.
Even though he’s in a very open city, Justice still feels like he has to hide his sexuality. “It’s in your mind. And I think it killed my father. When he found out, he just died. And my mother, I just lie to her. I don’t want her to die. And now on the phone, I say, ‘Yes, I have a girl. I will get a girl.’ Because I want her to feel happy.”
Justice was increasingly paranoid about phone security, and whether the US government would listen in on his calls to see if he’s engaging in homosexual activity. I made a reference to the NSA, and assured him that they’d be extremely busy and completely in debt if they were tracking the LGBTQI community. He was much safer here now.
This is not his full story. There is more to be told. Visual evidence can even be provided. But under the present circumstances, that story will have to remain in the memories of those directly affected, and perhaps will only be spoken of after tiny bits of the bigoted horror comes out in the media.
“One day I’ll be a strong man in the world so that people will know that being gay is not a bad thing. I will be a testimony. I’ll be the best so that people will realize that a gay man is not bad, but that he is the best! ”
This is a man who should be looked at from the inside out. Multilayered, and shiny; gravitational, and warm. His face, so familiar, so handsome, so unassuming—just reaching out for a friend in a strange new city.
I’ve kept in touch with him. Often waking up to a cheery text message, wishing me a good day. Our initial conversation was held a few weeks back. Justice instructed me at the very last moment not to post his story for fear compromising being granted asylum. Friday, I sat with him on that very same bench and got the awful news that he was not granted documentation that would make him a legal citizen in the States. He did however, get approved for a work visa until he goes before another judge in 2019.
“The judge had no idea how much pain I felt. He said there are too many cases waiting to be heard. They can’t grant it to me now. He just smiled at me and told me to work for 5 years. I am in shock. I’m not even sure if I am allowed to go to school. I'll just have to keep my attention on books. If I don't read, I'll go crazy.”
While Justice wasn’t shown the immediate attention his story warrants, one can find a bit of solace in knowing that he is safer here for at least 5 years. And I’ll keep up hope that his fears of being forced to return to Cameroon are never realized, and that the bad memories are replaced by butterflies of new love.
Whether the courts have given you full citizenship or not, welcome home, Justice.