ABIDJAN Relaxing on the terrace of a gay bar in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan, a group of men embraced and laughed as people walked past without even glancing their way.
Inside the bar, a young man caressed his companion’s chin in the corner, while a transgender woman greeted everyone before strutting and shaking to the music under the strobe lights.
“Some of the guys who come here don’t feel comfortable displaying their sexuality outside of these walls,” 34-year-old Michel, the owner of Sass Bar, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Abidjan.
“Others are just fine being themselves in their neighborhoods,” he added, his voice barely eclipsing the music.
The bar is one of many gay venues in Abidjan, a relatively tolerant city for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in a region where homosexuality is mostly illegal, and sexual minorities face persecution, discrimination and violence.
Ivory Coast is one of a minority of African countries – around 20 of the 54 nations on the continent – which do not explicitly criminalize homosexuality or same-sex acts.
Yet the recent jailing of two gay men for three months – under a public indecency law that carries a harsher prison sentence for “an indecent or unnatural act with a person of the same sex” – has sent shivers through the LGBTI community.
Yann, 31, and Abdoul, 19, were arrested in the southwestern city of San Pedro in October after rumors spread about the nature of their relationship, leading Abdoul’s uncle to file a police complaint as he believed Yann was abusing his nephew.
Rights activists say Ministry of Justice officials are considering changing the public indecency law so that it no longer singles out homosexual acts or relations.
However much more needs to be done to change Ivorians’ attitudes – with some still suspicious of or hostile toward sexual minorities, campaigners say.
While Yann and Abdoul were released from prison in January many freedoms still elude the men, who are now openly a couple.
“When you look or a job, they ask for your police record … and mine is already tainted,” said Yann, who worked as a security guard before his arrest.
Home to gay bars, gay rights groups, and even an annual cross-dressing beauty pageant, Abidjan is considered a refuge for LGBTI people, both within the country and across the region.
For Yann and Abdoul, who plan to move there soon, the city offers their best hope of having a normal life as a gay couple.
“At least it (Abidjan) is a big city,” Abdoul said. “They don’t consider [being gay] a big deal there.”
Despite its tolerant reputation, sexual minorities and even LGBTI organizations in Abidjan are prey to abuse, harassment and violence, with little legal protection, several activists said.
In 2014, a mob of nearly 200 people ransacked and looted the headquarters of Alternative Cote d’Ivoire (ACI) – a prominent gay rights group in Abidjan – after days of anti-gay protests.
Last year, several gay men were abused, beaten, and forced to flee their homes after the U.S. embassy in Abidjan posted a photo of them at an event for victims of a nightclub shooting in Florida and identified them as members of the “LGBTI community”.
“Most people are reluctant to publicly display their sexuality exactly because of the difficulties associated with the daily lives of [LGBTI] persons,” said Alexis Ouattara, president of the civil society group Lesbian Life Association.
Such abuse and violence may be stoked by sensationalist and demeaning media coverage, an ACI official said, citing the example of a newspaper misrepresenting a gay rights group as promoting homosexuality, and using photos of LGBTI activists.
To counter this, the ACI runs a program to raise awareness among Ivorian journalists about the lives of LGBTI people.
The goal is to ensure journalists understand that the LGBTI community suffers widespread discrimination, said the ACI activist, who fearing for his safety, did not wish to be named.
“When they (the media) understand this, there will be a certain tolerance,” he added.
First Law, Then Attitudes
A justice ministry official in the department in charge of legislation declined to comment on the proposed change to Ivory Coast’s penal code.
But approval of the legal revision from government bodies could take several months, said observers including Wodjo Fini Traore, vice president of National Human Rights Commission of Ivory Coast, an independent body established by the state.
While the change would come too late to help the two jailed men, activists say it will strip law enforcement and justice officials of a tool of discrimination that can ruin lives.
“Everyone agrees that the situation (surrounding the law) has been marked by multiple cases of human rights violations, specifically on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Traore.
Even if and when the law is revised, there still remains the much more ingrained challenge of improving Ivorian attitudes toward LGBTI people in a conservative society, Traore said.
“The behavior of the population is still what it is,” he said. More education is needed for the public to accept open displays of affection by same-sex couples, Traore added.
For Yann and Abdoul – marked as criminals and shunned by their community at home – acceptance is a major concern as they consider how to rebuild their lives in Abidjan.
“We have one foot in prison, and one foot in freedom,” Yann said.
Why Two Gay Men Were Jailed?
Acitivists say if indecency law was applied it would be first known instance of it being used to jail gay people.
Authorities in the Ivory Coast have refused to explain why two gay men were arrested and jailed in a country that does not criminalise same-sex acts, and is widely regarded as a beacon of tolerance for sexual minorities.
Yann, 31, and Abdoul, 19, are openly gay but deny any romantic relationship. They were arrested in October in a village in southwestern Ivory Coast, apparently for “public indecency”.
Though prosecutors have declined to confirm the charge against them, activists say if the indecency law was used it would be the first known instance of the provision being used to jail gay people in the country.
Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, said: “A vague law, arbitrary arrests and an unexplained conviction: this is completely contrary to the rule of law.
“The government needs to come clean and offer an explanation to these two young men who have spent three months in jail for no apparent reason.”
In an interview at the Sassandra prison two weeks before their release on Wednesday, Yann said the case had upended his life and prevented him from caring for his elderly mother.
“I am the only son of my mother. My father is dead, so it’s me who takes care of her. But because of my nature, I am stuck here and I can’t take care of her,” he said.
“We were convicted in an unjust manner. If there is no law that that condemns it, I don’t understand how we could have been convicted.”
The case highlights the limited geographic reach of many gay rights groups in the region. In Ivory Coast and neighbouring countries, most activism takes place in major cities and there is often little contact with more remote areas.
In Cameroon, where activists have long documented the government’s rigorous application of its anti-gay law, local groups still have only a faint idea of what goes on outside Douala and Yaoundé.
This divide is reinforced by the fact that sexual minorities in rural areas can feel alienated by their urban counterparts’ use of western campaign tactics and terminology, such as the term LGBT.
News of the Sassandra conviction only reached activists in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city and commercial centre, after a local press agency ran a story about it in November. By that point, the conviction had already been handed down.
By that time, Yann and Abdoul, who had no lawyer at the trial, had decided to forgo an appeal, fearing the process would extend well beyond their three-month sentence.
Local activists, who have limited funding, could afford to make the eight-hour road trip to Sassandra only once during the men’s three-month incarceration, meaning the pair were largely left to fend for themselves in the prison system.
During the interview two weeks ago, guards blocked a reporter from entering Sassandra prison, and Yann and Abdoul said they were crammed into small cells with 80 other inmates. A tally on a chalkboard near the prison entrance said 485 inmates were at the facility, well over its official capacity of 300.
Now that they have been released, the pair plan to go to Abidjan to try to rebuild their lives. But while the city is often viewed by gay west Africans as a relative haven, with an impressive network of gay bars and drag shows, security is hardly guaranteed.
There is no legal protection for sexual minorities, and incidents of discrimination including physical assaults are common, activists say.
Last year, several gay men were beaten and forced to leave their homes after the US embassy in Abidjan posted a photo of them signing a condolence book for victims of the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
ADO Jr, president of Lesbian Life Association, a local group closely following the case, said the Sassandra incident had also receivedsensationalist coverage in Ivorian newspapers, potentially endangering Yann and Abdoul.
One article, in the Soir Info, contained fabricated quotes purportedly from the two men that they had sex in public.
“This case caused a lot of buzz here,” ADO Jr said, “so they might feel they need to leave the country.”
Dutch Men Strike Out With Holding Hands Campaign
Dutch men around the world are holding hands to campaign against homophobic violence, days after a married gay couple was beaten up in the Netherlands for walking together hand-in-hand.
Using the Twitter hashtag #allmenhandinhand, Dutch men from Britain, Cuba and Australia posted photos and videos of themselves on social media holding hands with other men to condemn violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Dutch politicians Alexander Pechtold of the D66 party and colleague Wouter Koolmees were the first public figures to show their support, holding hands outside parliament in The Hague on Monday.
“In the Netherlands we think it is very normal to express who you are,” Pechtold told reporters.
Local media said the gay couple were beaten up as they walked through the town of Arnhem early on Sunday.
Media reported that one of the victims lost four teeth and suffered a split lip and that four teenage boys had handed themselves into police over the attack.