By Erin Royal Brokovitch
Transgender people are becoming more visible in Cameroon, despite the legal repression of homosexuality and the fact that LGBTI people in Cameroon are often convicted in unfair trials because they look different.
NAOMI AND DELORES
For years, Naomi and Dolores have been well-known names in the city of Yaoundé, gaining a reputation that has spread beyond the LGBT community. Naomi, 25, whose real name is Franky, and Dolores, 23, with a given name of Jonas, both look so thoroughly female that they attract attention whenever they appear in public. Clothing, jewelry, hairstyles — every detail is feminine.
And in a homophobic country like Cameroon, where people cling to rigidly traditional views of gender, those who appear to be transgender or transvestites are at risk. They are automatically labeled as gay, which is condemned by Cameroonian society.
However, for the past six years or so, Willy, a well-known dancer in Cameroon, has regularly appeared in drag each night as part of his act, which makes him a familiar sight on the streets and in Yaoundé’s nightspots.
Beyond that, in recent years, the transgender phenomenon has gradually gained prominence, primarily because of Naomi and Dolores.
They have repeatedly been the victims of public attacks and assaults, but each time, like a phoenix, they emerge unscathed and unchanged, braving further taunts, scornful glances and insults. Every moment of their daily life in Cameroon is a challenge, but they remain true to their understanding of who they are, how they feel and how they prefer to present their gender identities.
They are well-known in police stations and courtrooms. In 2011, each of them was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (about US $380), which is the maximum penalty for homosexual practices in the Cameroonian penal code. During their trial, they were accused of behavior unsuitable to men, although issues of gender identity are not recognized in Cameroonian law. The country’s civil code provides for only two categories — male and female. No section of the Penal Code condemns untraditional expressions of gender. And yet Naomi and Dolores were convicted. The judge memorably concluded that Dolores was homosexual because she drinks Baileys liqueur, which he said was a woman’s drink.
Despite their many hardships, Naomi and Delores have kept their self-esteem, which has commanded admiration. As a result, they have made an immense contribution to the struggle for the affirmation of people’s differences. Their visibility has lifted the taboo in Cameroon on discussing the phenomenon of people who do not identify with the gender that social codes impose.
In her family, Naomi is accepted as she is, and her mom knows that her friends are like her. In fact, Naomi often has given shelter to friends who were evicted or disliked by their families because of their gender identity. But when the whole family attends an event, a separate space is allocated for Naomi and her friends. They are tolerated, but not fully accepted.
For Dolores, family life is more difficult. Her family has not accepted her as she is. Her brothers often beat her up. Naomi remembers going to visit Dolores at home to give her emotional support at a time when Dolores’s brothers had destroyed all her women’s clothing and replaced it with menswear.
In the ensuing uproar, the family of Dolores yelled at Naomi, calling her the worst sort of abomination. They then attacked her, threw away her wig and stripped off her clothes.
Apart from Naomi and Dolores, Keysha Rosalie is best known by residents of Yaoundé.
Unlike Naomi and Dolores, Keysha is not biologically a man. She is an intersex person, with physical characteristics of both a man and a woman.
She admits that she does not understand her body.
In childhood, she was like any other boy. But when she reached the age of puberty, female secondary sex characteristics began to appear.
One afternoon after eating oranges, she felt a surge of hormones, which she believes was a reaction to what she had eaten.
“My breasts began to grow,” she recalls. “I was abnormally hot. When I unbuttoned my shirt, I saw that my breasts had grown.”
Since then, she has always observed an increase in the volume of her breasts if she consumes an orange or a beer.
She has not the slightest sign of a beard.
Worse, for the past eight months, she has undergone something like menstrual periods. Her blood flows on a regular cycle, but — troublingly — it comes from her nostrils and mouth.
She has a penis that is unchanged since childhood, and she has never experienced ejaculation during orgasm. Instead, she feels vibrations of pleasure inside her body, with no external manifestation.
In the opinion of specialists, Keysha has a diffuse femininity.
She feels she has lost her sexual identity. It’s distressing, she says, that her body is incomprehensibly strange, even to her.
Unfortunately, the state of medical technology in Cameroon does not allow Keysha to undergo sex assignment surgery. Injections of female hormones are all that currently can be done for her to help her to express her femininity.
In the future, with help, her wish is to have enough money to undergo surgery abroad. She also hopes that she will be able to have children.
Keysha has cordial relations with her siblings, but not with her extended family. She had revealed her identity to her parents before they died. At first they turned in prayer to their ancestors, asking them to change her, but later they came to accept her as she is.
Her whole family, including cousins, aunts and uncles, knows of her gender identity, but only her siblings have accepted it. The rest of the family judges her harshly.
LIFE IN YAOUNDÉ
The other striking fact about these three women is that they are often seen in Yaoundé, looking like any other women, and accepting the advances of men.
Naomi and Dolores are hairdressers, but they and Keysha also do sex work at night.
To preserve their personal safety, they travel through the city in private taxis rather than in common shared-ride vehicles.
Asked what they can do if a client becomes violent after the discovery of their sexual identity, they simply say that they need to be careful. Naomi evaluates each client to determine who seems prone to violence and, in any case, refuses to enter a room alone with anyone. Often, she says, she serves her customers simply by fondling their private parts.
Keysha has not yet been able to change her body surgically, but she has adopted a feminine name. Her parents named her Major; now she is Keysha Rose Rosalie. Thanks to her older brother, she has a new birth certificate.
Cameroon does not currently authorize revised birth certificates for trans people, but the United Nations Human Rights Council is on record favoring them. In 2011, the council passed a resolution that included a recommendation that countries should “Facilitate legal recognition of the preferred gender of transgender persons and establish arrangements to permit relevant identity documents to be reissued reflecting preferred gender and name, without
infringements of other human rights.”
The author of this article is an activist for LGBTI rights in Cameroon who writes under a pseudonym.
(In early 2013, Naomi and Delores were still described as “two gay men.”)
- Jonas and Franky, freed but now in hiding (January 2013, 76crimes.com)
- Court overturns 5-year sentence for gay sex in Cameroon (January 2013, 76crimes.com)
- Two gay men freed into ‘living hell’ in Cameroon
- LGBTs in Cameroon: Attacked, arrested, freed again
- Cameroon arrestees freed, but possible probe looms