By Nick Diamond
We feared the case of Ebola in the neighborhood next to mine. And even when I was tested for malaria, nothing proved to be more challenging than living as a gay student in Dakar.
I wouldn’t have survived there without my running shoes and a black pen. Jogging along the Atlantic Ocean and journaling in my notebook allowed me to catch a break from hiding in the closet – again.
In Aug. 2014, I arrived in Senegal to spend four months interning at a global health organization, researching my thesis and finishing coursework. I never realized that I was headed back into the same state of mind that I had just escaped after coming out of the closet.
Senegal is one of 38 African countries that outlaw homosexuality. It is illegal in 70% of African nations. After living in the closet for 20 years, moving to Senegal forced me to lie about my identity, except this time in French and Wolof.
Living openly gay in Senegal seemed dangerous. In Feb. 2014, the Associated Press reported the story of two Senegalese men who were sentenced and imprisoned in Dakar. Many gay Gambians have fled to Senegal to escape President Jammeh’s crackdown on LGBT citizens. He hopes to “fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
In courses at Albion College, I examined identity crises in francophone countries. It was stuff I read about and stuff my professors talked about, but I never related. When I lived in Dakar, I soon developed a similar identity crisis. These were not the subjects of my academic essays or assigned readings, but rather real life experiences.
During my four months abroad, I lived as an American in Senegal speaking Wolof in the streets and French at home, all while lying about my sexual orientation. Speaking a new language, living in a new place and taking on a new family name only augmented that identity crisis.
My host family asked if I had an American girlfriend, and I said yes. Senegalese friends would ask if I was looking for a Senegalese wife, and I bashfully laughed. In a Saharan village close to Mauritania, a woman offered her sister to me within minutes of first meeting the family, and I smiled uncomfortably.
During a presentation on the role of women in Senegalese society, I retold that story to demonstrate women’s objectification in rural areas. My Senegalese professor of French laughed and asked if she was pretty. I feared telling him that I was gay because I didn’t know how it would affect my final grade in the course.
One night, during dinner with my host family, the TV aired a report about same-sex marriage in Italy. My host brothers stared at it unwillingly and then quickly changed the channel. I put my head down while continuing to eat communally around the bowl with them, which is supposed to be a Senegalese expression of hospitality.
Many think homosexuality is a disease. A local student who worked at our university explained that men catch homosexuality when they spend too much time in the kitchen or clean too often.
As an American citizen living abroad, I was forced to follow all Senegalese laws. Criminal codes 320 and 321 state that homosexuality is an unnatural act, and perpetrators can face one to five years in prison with a $3,000 fine.
After the first two months of my program passed, I needed an outlet. I tracked down an LGTBQ activist who advocates for gender equality in Senegal.
He and I met for coffee, but it was brief. We exchanged a few words and shared our contact information. He refused to tell me about his story, but I whispered in French about mine. Though compassionate, he was uneasy and left shortly. I realized that I chose the wrong location. The café was too public.
In November, a panel of Senegalese gays and lesbians visited my university. Each shared his or her story. The police arrested one man for attending a party in southern Senegal because it celebrated his friend’s partnership. Another elderly man, who promotes access to HIV/AIDS treatment and advocates for lesbians, lives openly out to his wife and children. One lesbian will never come out – she wants to marry a Senegalese man so she can start a family.
In December I returned to Detroit with lessons learned. Though Michigan currently outlaws same-sex marriage, I note an obvious distinction between our state’s policy and a society incriminating, sentencing and imprisoning homosexuals.
Senegalese gays and lesbians will continue to hide in homophobia. In my lifetime, it is unlikely that I will see them completely accepted and completely integrated there. And that’s part of what made leaving Senegal so hard for me.
Photos by Nick Diamond