Christina Fonthes is out, Congolese, and double-proud. “Yes, I am Congolese; yes, I am gay; and yes, my family know!” the 27-year-old writes on her blog, The Musings of a Congolese Lesbian. But the line that follows may be key to the predicament Fonthes has found herself in: “Well, most of my family…”
According to supporters, Fonthes, a British citizen, is being held against her will in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after a family trip turned into a sinister attempt to “cure” her of homosexuality.
Early Thursday, Fonthes sent out a cry for help on Twitter to an organization she works with. “PLS PLS CHECK YOUR EMAILS ASAP!!!!!!” Later, she tweeted again, writing, “My passport has been stolen BY MUM. and I need to return to the uk asap.”
According to friends and colleagues working on her release, Fonthes was on vacation with her mother and sister in the DRC when her mother confiscated her passport and brought her to an organization that claims it fixes homosexuality.
“It became apparent that her family were unhappy with her decision to be an out lesbian,” her partner, journalist Jessica Creighton, told The Independent. “They took her passport and [were] refusing to give it back. They have said they want to keep her in Congo and ‘cure her of her gayness.’”
Fonthes was being kept at her aunt’s home, which she fled and then sought refuge with a friend before making her way to the British Embassy in Kinshasa, where she reportedly got information on legal advice, travel documents, and flights.
It’s unclear why she then departed the embassy, but on her way back, both she and the friend housing her were arrested by Congolese police. Her mother, who had reported her missing, had Fonthes released back into her custody. Ranbow Noir, the organization Fonthes works for, confirmed that Fonthes had been released from law enforcement to her family.
“Christina’s life is still in very real danger,” a friend and LGBT activist Chloe Cousins wrote on Facebook.
Both the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London and the embassy in Kinshasa would only confirm that they “are providing consular assistance to a British national in the DRC.” A source looking into the case implied that this statement indicated Fonthes had not actually been arrested.
Though homosexuality is legal in the DRC, LGBT people face widespread discrimination.
They are directing inquiries to the U.K.’s travel support guide (PDF), which notes it can issue emergency travel documents and make special emergency arrangements. It cannot, it notes, “ensure your safety and security in another country,” or “get involved in private disputes.”
The Manchester-based activist was born in Kinshasa but raised on the “nitty, gritty streets of London town.”
Online, Fonthes writes with a social slant, penning articles condemning the lack of diversity in London’s LGBT Film Festival, and criticizing police brutality in Hollywood. On her blog, she credits her Congolese heritage with imbuing all aspects of her life and forms a mission statement of sorts: “This blog is a safe space—not a classroom—for me to talk about, celebrate, and share my multiple experiences and identities as a young, gay, Congolese woman.”
Fonthes arrived in Kinshasa on Aug. 11. Three days after, she retweeted a tellingly simple sentence: “Family is hard.” She also reached out wondering if there were any queer spaces in Kinshasa, seemingly without luck.
Though homosexuality is legal in the DRC, LGBT people face widespread discrimination. Late year, a draft of a bill criminalizing homosexuality was introduced to the Congolese National Assembly. It proposes penalizing homosexual acts with three to five years imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
According to Fonthes’ LinkedIn profile, she was a graduate of the University of Sussex in 2009 before doing a post-grad program at the City University of London, focusing her studies on foreign language, translation, and interpretation, which she now practices professionally, translating French, Lingala, and English.
She then helped co-found Rainbow Noir, an organization that bills itself as a safe haven for LGBT of color in Manchester. She also serves as the volunteer coordinator for a project collecting oral histories from the Congolese community in Britain.
Fonthes’ heavy involvement in the activist scene seems to have put her cause in good hands as she attempts to make her way out of the DRC.
After a Twitter campaign, a flood of tweets with the hashtag #ChrisFonthes brought her case to the attention of Stonewall, a gay-rights charity, and Manchester politician Kate Green (neither responded to requests for information). But after a day, supporters changed their tune on social media. A Change.org petition to the British Embassy advocating for attention on the case was shut down, after 516 signatures. A friend and fellow Manchester activist who goes by the Twitter handle @Pkakooza, wrote a note explaining that the blackout was for Forthes’ safety, and that attention could put her in more danger.
The DRC may not legally punish homosexuality, but a whopping 42 of the 53 British Commonwealth countries do, widely considered a holdover of colonial leadership. This state-sanctioned discrimination has forced an untold number of LGBT in the shadows for fear of persecution. Fonthes has attracted one spotlight as the price of being out and proud, but hopefully such attention can be shined more broadly.