Europe

I couldn’t come out as a lesbian until I moved to the UK

When I publicly came out as a lesbian via social media in 2017, a high profile Cameroonian producer threatened to rape the spirit of lesbianism out of me if I ever set foot in my home country again.

The whole ordeal was traumatic but he wasn’t the only one to send abuse or death threats. Comment after comment seemingly shared the same sentiment – that it’s un-African to be gay – but I couldn’t disagree more.

It took moving to the UK for me to realise that homosexuality isn’t and shouldn’t ever be a crime.

Still, because of Cameroon’s attitudes to LGBTQ+ people, I’m not able to go back to my home country – even when I lost my mother to cervical cancer in 2017. We were very close so it felt heart-wrenching not to be able to attend her funeral.

I miss the flavoursome organic food from home, warm weather and the simplicity of life. People may have ‘less’ but they are a lot happier.

I dream about going back but I fear I might get caught up in the ongoing crisis that has seen the deaths of thousands in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon and I worry about being arrested or killed by vigilante groups simply for being a lesbian.

It took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality and it all started while growing up Catholic in Nso, a tribe situated in the Northwest Region of my home country.

It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I began to realise I was different from my friends. As they went on and on about boys, I found my same-sex attractions conflicting with my friends’ and my faith.

To make matters worse, newspapers across the country led a gay witch-hunt on public figures in 2006 to name and shame them. This had me living in fear and part of me hated myself for having sexual feelings towards women.

Even though Bible verses and sermons were largely directed towards men who have sex with other men, the thought of going to hell drove me to my knees in prayer.

I made countless promises to God that I would stop questioning his teachings if he changed me. When nothing happened after a few months I tried to pray even harder.

Eventually, I just gave into my feelings but I never really inwardly accepted my sexuality at the time.

Around the age of 16, I properly became aware of the laws against homosexuality, which held a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 1,000,000 CFA francs (£1,359). This only made me retreat further into the closet.

Despite this, I dated women in secret but was always really cautious about it. In 2010, I broke up with a woman I was dating from my university course because she kissed me in front of a fellow student and I panicked that they would tell other people. Thankfully, they didn’t.

I decided to move to the UK to study because I believed it had the best education system in the world. I never dreamed I’d have the courage to come out while here, let alone not be able to go home because of it.

So at the age of 19, I moved to Bolton in 2011 to pursue a degree in biology. 

My first impressions of the UK were grim – it was cold, there were no leaves on the trees and the food was tasteless – but over time, I got used to most of this… if only because I eventually found great places to buy African food.

One thing I’m grateful for about being in the UK is meeting openly LGBTQ+ people while at university. I made queer friends and allies and through dating sites. Interacting with other queer people in the UK helped me accept myself.

My first time at the Manchester gay village was a mixture of excitement and fear. I had never seen so many lesbians in one place. Part of me kept waiting for something bad to happen, like the police showing up and arresting everyone.

I eventually relaxed after a few nights out and started enjoying myself. It felt very liberating being around people who did not judge me or hurt me for being myself.

Despite this, it still took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to publicly come out because I was worried how my Catholic family and community in Cameroon – which regarded homosexuality as demonic evil – would react.

Hiding my sexuality was also having a nasty impact on my mental health, and I knew I would have to come out at some point if I wanted to stay alive. So I took the plunge and did it.

I was told by a family member that I was confused and grief-stricken due to my mother’s passing a few months earlier. There was also a lot of name-calling from family and friends.

A few people in the Cameroonian community in the UK supported me, but I soon discovered that most Cameroonians don’t become less homophobic simply because they live in the UK.

I was continually told that homosexuality is un-African but that idea baffles me.

It’s important to recognise the devastating and lasting impact of colonisation in countries like Cameroon.

Anti-LGBTQ+ laws – which were often passed under British rule – still exist in 35 of the 54 Commonwealth nations. These countries make up roughly half of all countries that still criminalise homosexuality.

Britain and its co-conspirators took our lands and identities and gave us the bible, which is the number one tool used against LGBTQ+ people across Africa.

Before colonisation, the Dagaaba people of Ghana determined gender based on energy rather than sexual anatomy. Among the Pangwe people of present-day Cameroon and Gabon, men were known to have sexual intercourse with other men.

In Sudan’s Zande tribe, lesbianism was common in polygamous households. Some of the oldest rock paintings on earth were discovered in Zimbabwe, where cave art dating back thousands of years depicts gay sex.

So the truth is – as a lesbian – I am more African than homophobic people using a foreign religious book and colonial laws to erase me.

Theresa May said in 2018 that she ‘deeply regrets’ Britain’s part in passing anti-LGBTQ+ laws but that’s no consolation for the African people this legacy negatively affects.

Queer Africans are more than capable of accelerating LGBTQ+ acceptance with the right funding and support. At this point, I believe only Africans can change Africa.

As for me, I’m grateful I’ve been able to come out because it’s improved my mental health and self-esteem greatly. I have a better sense of self because I can freely express my feelings now.

My goal is to always remain visible and proud.

Through social media, I try to be the person I wish I had when I was in denial, confused and trying to pray away the gay.

If I can help just one person not go through what I had to, then it’s worth it.

Bandy Kiki is a Cameroonian LGBTQ+ rights activist – you can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

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