“I knew that I wasn’t insane or possessed, but my family didn’t understand,” says Dominique Menoga, describing the awkward day when he came out to his family.
Menoga, the former president of the LGBTI rights and anti-AIDS activist group CAMFAIDS (the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS), recalls that the revelation made his family tense and upset, and that his father started planning to send him to a traditional healer.
Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in 1982, Menoga founded CAMFAIDS in 2009, and was forced to move to France in 2012 after receiving death threats from people who opposed his work on behalf of the human rights of LGBTI people.
The following questions and answers tell the story of the first 32 years of his life, including his coming out, his decision to establish CAMFAIDS, the murder of fellow activist Eric Ohena Lembembe in 2013, and his decision to move to France, where he has been granted asylum.
What was your life like as a child?
My parents say that up through age 7, in elementary school, I acted like a girl. I played with girls and I played girls’ games. Then, suddenly, my father began to get rough with me. He forced me to play football, to play cops and robbers, and to behave “like a boy.” I had a very good relationship with my brothers. We were a united, Christian family. As a child, I was very attached to my mother, so I became a Catholic. As a devout Catholic, I accompanied my mother every day to mass in the Etoudi section of Yaoundé [where the presidential palace is located] and on Sunday I was an altar boy.
What was your education?
I went to kindergarten at the Repiqué Park public school in Yaoundé. Later, I attended public elementary school in Bastos. From 1993 to 1997, I attended the Collège de la Retraite. Next I went to Lycée Mbala II, where I got my high school diploma in 2000. Through 2004, I studied law at the University of Yaoundé II in Soa, a small university town near Yaoundé.
When did you realize your sexual orientation? How?
At the age of 16, my older brother, while taking a shower with me, showed me how to use soap to masturbate. Then, in 1999, at the age of 17, everything really started. I loved volleyball, I was selected as the captain of the school team. What I liked the most were the emotional embraces by me and my six teammates during training sessions and matches with other teams. Most of all, I enjoyed being in the dressing room as we prepared to take a shower. I understood nothing, but I liked the sight of the naked boys, their buttocks and sexual organs. It was a sensation that had been unknown to me and which ended up making me uncomfortable.
I had a female friend, who came to my house one Saturday in November 1999 to study for a test. I was home alone and we had sex. On the outside, I appeared happy, but my mind was troubled. I did not know why, but a heterosexual life was not for me. I was very different from my classmates.
One night in late December 1999, I met RB, a young boy of my neighborhood. I do not remember it very well, but I had heard from my mother that the mother of RB was sad because her son liked boys. He was a “faggot,” a “child of the devil,” a “demon.” That night, he offered to buy me a drink and we became inseparable. I do not know why, but the feeling was stronger than me. I loved his friends. We went out and drank with his friends.
One Saturday night in January 2000, after a drunken night, I finally had sex with RB. The next day, I was ashamed. I did not want to see him again because of what I heard about sex between people of the same sex — that it leads to “spiritual death,” that the Holy Bible forbids it in the Book of Leviticus, that it’s the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Have you “come out” to your family? How did they react?
Since I was good friends with RB, my parents started making accusations. “Only a cat goes with a cat,” they’d say, so if I was with a fag, I must have become a fag too.
One evening in July 2000, during preparations for my 18th birthday and as I prepared for the exam I needed to pass before getting my baccalaureate [high school diploma, my mother found a packet of condoms and lubricant gel in my bag. It was a disaster. She asked me, “What’s this lubricant?” I told her I was gay and that I liked boys.
Immediately, the whole family knew. We no longer were going to celebrate my birthday. We were going to have a family meeting. My father wondered if I had been lacking something in my life, if he had failed somehow. I was ashamed. My honor was sullied. The bond that bound me to my family vanished: I had become like a wild beast set loose in the house. I was punched a few times that day but, beyond the physical pain, I had the feeling of having disappointed my mother.
I spent the following days with no food or drink, locked in my room for punishment.
One evening, my little brother — who had always known and did not judge me — sneaked into my room through the window and gave me a piece of chicken and some water.
My father planned to send me to a healer in his native village to “bring back his lost son” who he believed was possessed by Satan.
I knew that I wasn’t insane or possessed, but my family didn’t understand.
Because of all the tension, I had to leave home. It took time for my family to accept that my sexual orientation was an integral part of who I am. Eventually, after seeing me in the role of an intense advocate, my parents finally understood. Later, my mother and my brother even supported me in my activism.
When and why did you become an activist?
After coming out, the isolation I experienced allowed me to step back and reflect on life. I realized that, as difficult as it was for me to get through this period, it also was difficult for my family. I felt it was important to undertake educational work around the issue of homosexuality.
I had nothing to reproach myself for. My family needed to realize that, other than my acknowledgement of my sexuality, I was no different, I had not changed. Others around me were living through the same things I was. We had done nothing, but we suffered because we were held in contempt by society and especially by our loved ones. That’s why I started my activism.
I knew of the organization Alternatives Cameroon and had visited there. In 2005, I joined them as the leader of their work promoting sexual and reproductive health in the homosexual community of Yaoundé. Later, I began working alongside Alice Nkom, the lawyer and president of the group ADEFHO (Association for the Defense of Homosexuals), and Dr. Steave Nemande, who at the time was president of Alternatives Cameroon.
In January 2009, after several deaths caused by HIV / AIDS in the gay community in Yaoundé, some friends and I decided to set up an organization in Yaoundé called ADEPEV (Association for the Development and Growth of the Vulnerable ). I became the vice president. Following a disagreement with the president of ADEPEV over the group’s decision-making process, I resigned in early April 2009. I created CAMFAIDS (the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS) in May 2000 with friends. We believed it was essential to set up an association that would promote the health rights of homosexuals in Yaoundé with a strong focus on advocacy. That was different from the work of the other associations in Yaoundé, which were more concerned with health issues.
How did you meet Eric Ohena Lembembe?
I knew Eric through a friend. We were both activists in Alternatives Cameroon and members of ADEPEV. He joined me when I decided to create CAMFAIDS. We worked together until his murder in July 2013, when I was already in France.
How did you and Eric launch CAMFAIDS?
I created CAMFAIDS with two college friends: a former member of the ADEPEV association and one of my best friends, now in Belgium. Eric, my mom and my little brother joined us right after CAMFAIDS was established.
Eric was interested in my vision, and we became inseparable during the public launch of CAMFAIDS. He became its communications officer, so he could write about all the activities of CAMFAIDS.
The name of the association comes from the desire to focus on the theme of sexual /reproductive health and on the defense and promotion of human rights. The name CAMFAIDS was inspired by amfAR, the acronym of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
What were the greatest achievements of CAMFAIDS while you led it?
One of the achievements I am most proud of is the “Open Letter to the President of Cameroon on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the criminalization of sexual relations between persons of the same sex in Cameroon,” which Eric and I wrote. That letter documented cases of violations of the rights of LGBTI people. These violations were contrary to United Nations treaties that Cameroon had signed and ratified.
Another of my satisfactions is the report sent in 2013 to the United Nations for the U.N. Universal Periodic Review for Cameroon. This report was developed in partnership with organizations working on human rights in Cameroon and with the support of ILGA.
Finally, CAMFAIDS has been fortunate to be able to collaborate with ADEFHO and Alternatives Cameroon on the Human Rights Watch report “Guilty by Association,” with the support and technical assistance of HRW researcher Neela Ghoshal.
All our work in communicating outside Cameroon would hardly have been possible without our partnership with Erasing 76 Crimes. This relationship has been a great success, serving as an example for other African activists who can also gain international visibility by reporting violations of LGBT rights in their countries too. This work has also helped us in our advocacy strategy by providing supporting evidence that we have used in the published documents that I quoted above.
What were your greatest scares as an activist?
One memorable fright was the homophobic attack on the IDAHO Day celebration of May 19, 2012, which had been organized by Humanity First, Affirmative Action and CAMFAIDS. I was very afraid for the safety of our community members, who had gathered in large numbers.
On another occasion, Eric and I went to the Nkolndongo police station to seek the release of a CAMFAIDS member who had been arrested on homosexuality charges. When we got there, Eric and I were also detained. Thanks to the intervention of attorney Michel Togué, we were released.
Another scare was the death of Eric, which upset me greatly. Not only had I a lost a friend, but I also feared that I would then lose other loved ones and other activists. I needed to know the truth about his murder. A criminal investigation was needed that would have found those responsible and to put an end to the climate of insecurity that the murder created for activists.
What made you decide to leave Cameroon? What specific threats did you receive and when?
I received several threats by SMS, in phone calls from unknown persons, verbal abuse and even physical abuse in my neighborhood. Moreover, the cases of LGBT rights violations became unbearable for me, so I took a stronger stand against them and thus became very publicly visible. If I did not leave Cameroon, I was afraid that I would be simply imprisoned or murdered like Eric in 2013. In order to protect my loved ones in Cameroon, I cannot say more.
Could you describe the time when you decided to seek asylum in France? Who helped you to make this decision?
My decision to leave Cameroon was made with Eric’s consent. We planned to send off Eric first, since he had received the same threats as me, but he had difficulty obtaining a visa.
Regarding the arrangements for my departure, I cannot say more without putting some people at risk.
Who helped you apply for asylum, if anyone?
In France I was directed to the ARDHIS, which is an association for foreign gay asylum-seekers in Paris. This association supported me and helped in this process.
On what basis did France grant you asylum?
It is based on the threats and persecution that have resulted from my activism. I was granted a residency permit for 10 years along with refugee status, which is how France protects those considered to have a valid reason for seeking asylum.
What support does the French government provide to you as an asylee?
While the government considers a request for asylum, it provides social assistance, housing and health services.
The residency permit only lasts 10 years? What will happen then?
The residency card can be renewed if returning to Cameroon would still put me at risk because of my activism.
What do you do now? Will you continue to work with CAMFAIDS in Cameroon ?
I intend to live fully and safely as a homosexual. I can marry my darling, whom I have known for a year and a half. I will work and become a member of French society. This is a country that recognized me as a refugee, works for the protection of LGBT people by treating them as human beings in their own right, and protects their rights whether they are citizens or just residents.
Marriage between persons of the same sex is a strong symbol for me as a human rights activist. This is part of my struggle: one day to see LGBT people celebrating the marriages safely in Africa, particularly in Francophone Africa, where I was born.
I was able to support CAMFAIDS and help it with restructuring, especially after the murder of Eric. Now that CAMFAIDS is well organized and restructured, I have resigned from my position as president after four years in that position. I now want to focus on LGBT activism in Francophone Africa, working in joint advocacy towards the decriminalization of homosexuality and the establishment of equal rights for all in a world without discrimination and stigma.
What can you do now that you could not do in Cameroon? Is there anything you cannot do any more that you could in the past?
In Cameroon, for example, I could not get married. I could not live safely with a man without worrying about threats and about what nosy neighbors might do. That still is not possible in Cameroon.
In France, it is possible, especially in the big cities. Our rights are protected and homophobia is prohibited. Here, I am in a strategic position that allows me convenient access to financial and technical partners, which I did not have to Cameroon.
However, I can no longer speak out as effectively about specific violations of the rights of homosexuals in Cameroon, since I live in Europe and am no longer in danger. That is the legitimate role for living activists in Cameroon. They are the ones who take risks on behalf of LGBT people in Cameroon. It is the duty of diaspora activists and their supporters to provide them with the means to continue advocating for the rights of LGBT people.
What conclusions have you reached after 10 years as an activist?
Over time, after our many campaigns, the Cameroonian government is aware of how strongly Cameroonian and international civil society defends the human rights of LGBT people. But realistically, no strong political or legal actions has been taken to protect LGBT people in Cameroon — or in Africa in general. The most important thing to do is to keep pushing to change Africans’ attitudes and to repeal laws that criminalize homosexual activity.
At present, the associations in Cameroon are not involved enough in advocacy for LGBT rights. Instead they focus much more on health / HIV / AIDS. But advocacy and health promotion should go together.
Moreover, although these associations are labeled “LGBT,” their activities are mostly frequented by gays. Lesbians and transgender people are rarely involved.
To advocate for LGBT rights, lesbians and transgender people should be encouraged to establish associations where they will be represented. Those organizations will be able to collect data on these people and will help develop a true, shared LGBT advocacy, rather than just gay advocacy.
In the near future, I intend to pursue this initiative throughout francophone Africa.
- Beating death of LGBT activist Eric Lembembe in Cameroon (76crimes.com)
- Anti-gay Cameroon resumes arrests; 7 nabbed in raid (76crimes.com)
- Trans woman attacked again in Cameroon (76crimes.com)
- Life is tough for trans and intersex Cameroonians (76crimes.com)
- Archive of articles about Cameroon.
- Archive of articles about CAMFAIDS.
- Archive of articles about Dominique Menoga.