Inspirations

12.18.14 8:25 PM ET

The Straight Hero of Cameroon’s Gays

Why has 69-year-old Alice N’kom risked everything to defend gays in a country where homosexuality is illegal? Because ‘someone has to do this.’

In the Jewish community, Christians who saved Jews from the Holocaust are known as “righteous gentiles.”  Thanks to the film bearing his name, Oskar Schindler is probably the most well-known of these, but there are many others.

When the history of the international LGBT struggle for dignity and equality is written, Alice N’kom—one of the speakers at this week’s Quorum event, presented by The Daily Beast—will be remembered as a “righteous ally.”  A vibrant French-speake who frequently appears in colorful traditional Cameroonian attire, she is a straight woman who has risked her own life on behalf of gay people targeted by state and state-sanctioned violence.

In the West African nation of Cameroon, as in over 70 other countries around the world, same-sex intimacy is illegal—and ‘out’ gay people are obvious targets of persecution.  It is literally illegal to be gay, and so to self-identify is to risk imprisonment.  Indeed, said N’kom through her translator, “men have been arrested and imprisoned for hairstyle and for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream. These crimes of fashion proved the men were feminine and thus gay and therefore worthy of incarceration. Perception is everything.”

Even worse than state violence, though, is state-sanctioned violence.  One of Cameroon’s leading LGBT activists, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed on July 15, 2013. The crime was never solved, or even seriously investigated.  Police didn’t preserve the crime scene, only questioned other gay activists, and dropped the case without explanation.

I met several Cameroonian LGBT activists shortly after Lembembe’s murder, and they were understandably terrified.  (Courage, one recalls, is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in the face of it.)  One of them told me, “I don’t know what will be waiting for me when I get off the plane.”

How, then, are LGBT people to advocate for their rights (civil, human, or otherwise) if they cannot even identify themselves?

In cases like Cameroon, straight activists like Alice N’kom are often their only hope.  N’kom is mostly safe from legal prosecution (though not from acts of violence, of course) and thus has what might be termed straight privilege.  She can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Born in 1945, N’kom has been a lawyer for 46 years—since 1969.  She was the first woman to become a lawyer in Cameroon, and had a long career as a civil rights attorney.   Her clients have included victims of police violence and women’s rights activists targeted by the state.

In the last decade, she has become famous for defending people accused (and sometimes convicted) of homosexuality—including, for example, Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, who spent three years in jail on the basis of text messages sent to another man.

In 2003, N’kom founded ADEFHO, the Association for the Defense of Homosexuality.  “Traditionally, laws have been used against the LGBT community in many African countries and contributed to their persecution,” she said through her translator.  But as a lawyer, she uses law to contribute to their protection.

Needless to say, this does not enamor her to the powers that be in Cameroon.  She has been threatened with disbarment, imprisonment, and worse.  N’kom was almost arrested in 2011.  It is likely the case that attention and outrage from overseas saved her from this fate.

“Threats like these show us that the fight must continue,” she said at the time.

It is for this reason that N’kom’s work is not as hopeless as it might appear.  Even if her clients are convicted—and she does have many now in jail—she at least brings attention to their cases.  It is a near certainty that jailed gays and lesbians face horrifying violence in prison.  But because they are not forgotten, they cannot completely be abandoned. 

After all, smaller developing nations like Cameroon often depend on trade with and aid from the West.  Their leaders often blame gays for every kind of problem (including, in nearby Liberia, Ebola), and claim, ludicrously, that homosexuality is a kind of Western plot.  But they are also sensitive to pressure and attention from the West.

In light of this seeming contradiction—the West is evil yet it is also necessary—I asked one of the Cameroonian activists I met last year whether Western attention was helping or hurting.  To my surprise, he told me that it was keeping him alive.

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The situation may indeed be changing.  The year 2013 saw what N’kom called an “anti-gay crackdown,” with 10 people arrested for homosexuality and numerous incidents of homophobic violence.  But in the wake of Lembembe’s murder, arrests are down in 2014.  It is possible that attention from Westerners—who, let’s face it, probably can’t find Cameroon on the map—is in fact making a difference.

But no Westerner is risking what N’kom has risked, and despite many obstacles, she has steadfastly refused to close her practice.  Why?  Why is a straight grandmother the leading advocate for gays in Cameroon?

“Someone has to do this,” she said.