Cameroon's Gay Crusader

BY Michelle Garcia

November 19 2010 1:00 AM ET

At age 17, Steave Nemande left his home country of Cameroon to study in Russia. Little did he know he would also discover he is gay.

After eight years of study and obtaining his medical degree in Russia, Nemande found himself back in Cameroon, en route to a more bustling locale like Johannesburg for additional schooling. But something kept him in Cameroon ' he saw a need for advocacy and activism for the country's persecuted LGBT population.

Eventually, Nemande became the head of Alternatives-Cameroun, a now four-year-old organization that provides services and help for gay people in the region. While he was quite aware of his sexual orientation when he took the post, his family did not know he was gay until rumors about his new job spread to his father.

"Two gay men were arrested for being homosexual," he told HIV Plus on Tuesday, the day after he was presented with Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award for his work. "After they were released, it was unsafe for them to return home, so I invited them to Douala to relax. We housed them at my apartment, but because of the way they dressed, and the way they acted, people knew they were gay."

Finally, Nemande's father approached him and asked about the situation. He describes his father as being generally reserved, and when he came out to his parents, they understood and accepted him. Still, they feared other people's reactions.

"I'm very lucky for the support of my parents, but not everyone has that in Cameroon," he said, which is why the work of Alternatives-Cameroun is so significant. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the Cameroon Penal Code, enacted in 1972, punishes "sexual relations with a person of the same sex" with a prison term of six months to five years and with a fine of up to 200,000 CFA (US$416).

Furthermore, national and religious leaders openly talk about suppressing homosexuality to further "positive African cultural values." Newspapers have also flooded their pages with antigay editorials, and police often beat people they suspect of being gay.

With the promotion of such attitudes comes isolation and stigma for gay people, especially those at risk of contracting HIV. But for gay Cameroonians, Nemande's organization provides some help when they cannot turn to their families and friends. Nemande was able to rattle off a short list of organizations with the same goals in the entire continent of Africa. While the group's funds are not plentiful, Alternatives-Cameroun activists provide legal aid, offer HIV outreach and education, and visit jails to hand out food, clothes, and cash to help people survive tough prison life, and the organization even pays rent for people who have become homeless. Nemande added that Alternatives-Cameroun helps people start small businesses, many making or selling clothes, tailoring, or running small food stands, in order for them to become financially independent. This is especially important as many parents cut off support for their gay children, who are then forced out of school and head toward a life of prostitution.

"Studies in African countries -- like Senegal, Kenya, Botswana, Malawi -- show that gay men are 5-20 times more likely to contract HIV," he said. " Many young gay people turn to prostitution. Their parents refuse to pay school fees, so they end up being prostitutes. So if they have a client who wants to have sex without a condom for more money than with a condom, they agree to it."

Alternatives-Cameroun is part of AMSHeR, a coalition of African resource groups in countries including Burundi, Uganda, and Nigeria, which have all made headlines for their ill-treatment of gay citizens. Nemande said he welcomes more involvement from the international community to help eradicate institutionalized and virulent homophobia in African nations. He urges those who are concerned to spread the word.

"Telling people about this kind of work has value," he said. "If enough people really know and understand what's going on, we can change things."

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