Navigating queer rights in Senegal

by Lydia Ballantine


A few weeks into my homestay in Dakar, Senegal, I was sitting in the living room with my 15-year-old cousin. He was showing me rap music in Wolof, the national language of Senegal. One of the album covers featured a picture of Caitlyn Jenner with a big red X through her. Surprised, I asked him why she was on the cover. He replied that he didn’t know, he thought it was some French lady and I didn’t bother to correct him. “I like this song!” I said. “I wish I spoke Wolof so I could understand the lyrics.” “Oh, he’s saying that homosexuals are horrible and that he wants nothing to do with them,” he replied nonchalantly. My eight-year-old cousin was sitting next to me, bouncing up and down enjoying the violently homophobic rap song. I haven’t listened to Wolof rap since. 

Senegal is one of the more developed countries in West Africa, but it is very conservative in terms of gender roles and family structure. Polygamy is legal and widely practiced, women are expected to stay home and take care of the house and children and homosexuality is outlawed. Technically, the law states that “acts against nature” between two people of the same sex are illegal, so it is only the sexual act that is criminalized. Senegal is 94% Muslim and the Koran denounces homosexuality and all homosexual acts. “For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds…. And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone)” (7:80-84). Here, homosexuality is understood as a choice, and people don’t understand and can’t accept people who “choose” to live in sin. 

Going into my semester abroad, I knew that homosexuality was illegal in Senegal. I realized I would probably have to go back in the closet for a few months, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. It was during orientation week that I realized the gravity of the situation. We talked about transportation, safety, cultural norms and differences and taboo topics. Eventually homosexuality came up. We discussed it with some of the staff, debating whether it would be an okay topic to bring up with host families, especially for queer students. The woman in charge of housing cut in, “No, no, no! You should absolutely not discuss it with anyone, especially not host families. No matter what.” 

It’s strange to know that I’m surrounded by homophobia wherever I go in this country. It hasn’t affected my study abroad experience too much, but the one thing that really gets to me is the fact that most of the people I meet here, including my host family, would probably hate me or never speak to me again if they knew that one facet of who I am. And it’s not just within Senegal; homophobia is widespread in most of the African continent. Out of the 78 countries worldwide that criminalize consensual same sex between adults, 38 of the countries are located in Africa, out of 54 countries in the continent. In Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan, and Somalia, same sex intercourse is punishable by death. Homophobic laws and attitudes are reinforced by politicians and governments. It is now a savvy political move to stand against homosexuality. Yahya Jammeh, the president of the Gambia, said, “Homosexuality is anti-god, anti-human and anti-civilization. Homosexuals are not welcome in Gambia. If we catch you, you will regret why you were born.” He also threatened to “cut off the head” of any homosexual caught in his country. Violence and repression of all kinds are common against LGBTQ individuals throughout Africa, from loss of jobs and housing and rejection by family members, to physical abuse and torture such as beatings, castration, fingernail removal, and rape. If a man is raped by another man, it is only the victim who is considered homosexual; the perpetrator is not implicated. The abhorrent practice of “corrective rape” is fairly widespread—lesbians are raped in order to ‘make them straight.’ This often results in unwanted pregnancies and STDs. In Senegal, LGBTQpeople can’t be buried in Muslim or Christian cemeteries, and if someone is found out to be homosexual after they are dead and buried, people will dig up the bodies to remove them from the cemeteries.

As part of my program, I am interning with a Senegalese human rights organization. After checking to make sure it was alright to discuss, I mentioned that I was interested in LGBTQ rights. This led to the incredible chance to attend a conference on the subject in Dakar. The conference brought together representatives from several human rights organizations and a few LGBTQ rights organizations to discuss human rights violations of sexual minorities and the legal protections they are afforded. The conference began with a lesson on gender identity and sexual orientation and an explanation of all these terms. We moved on to discuss the legal rights which all Senegalese people, including LGBTQ people, are entitled to; the right to privacy, the inviolability of the home, the right to freely associate, the right to a fair trial and others. These rights are routinely ignored in cases involving real or suspected homosexuality. One conference attendee told the story of a police raid on a meeting he was holding in his home with a group of queer men. The police demanded the cell phones, computers, money and keys of all the people at the meeting. They threatened to out them to their families if they didn’t comply. Eventually, the leader was able to pay the cops off and get the belongings of the men back. In a similar instance in 2008, nine men who were members of an HIV prevention group were arrested in an apartment in Dakar and sentenced to eight years in jail. They were convicted of being members of a “criminal organization.” In what crazy world is an organization which fights HIV classified as “criminal?”

Queer organizations in Senegal have to register under the pretext of being something else, as they are not allowed to advocatefor the rights of homosexuals. Organizations often take the angle of fighting HIV/AIDS because this is a public health issue, but it disproportionately affects MSMs (Men who have Sex with Men). The majority of both homophobia and activism in Senegal is directed towards gay men, so any sexual minority, whether they are bisexual, transgender, or intersex (born without a clearly defined sex), are immediately labelled “homosexuel”. Senegal is a patriarchal society where masculinity is highly valued, and being effeminate in any way is shameful for men. 

As the conference went on, I began to understand the paradoxical situation of queer people in Senegal. For any real change to happen, homosexuality needs to be decriminalized. Until this happens, homophobia is essentially sanctioned by the state, and people will continue to use the law as justification for violence and abuse. But to change the law, there must be a change in public opinion, and this will be very difficult to accomplish as any mention of LGBTQ individuals is seen as promotion of homosexuality. Because organizations can’t promote education or discussion of LGBTQ anything, the public remains ignorant and prejudiced.

I had a conversation with a Senegalese friend who is accepting of homosexuality at a nightclub in downtown Dakar. He jokingly asked why my American friend and I didn’t have boyfriends, and after almost starting my well-practiced “I have a boyfriend at home” lie, my friend and I decided it was safe for me to come out to him. We went on to talk for a while about attitudes towards queers, and we asked him if he thought that opinions towards homosexuality were changing and whether Senegal would ever accept LGBTQ people. His response was surprisingly quick: Senegal will never change. Here, religion is omnipresent and wins out over personal views, and in his opinion Islam won’t ever be separated from opinions on social issues.

I want to believe he’s wrong. The younger generation, at least in Dakar, is much more open-minded when it comes to relationships and family structure. Most young people in the city date before getting married and parents and relatives now have less and less say in marriages. Those who are most accepting of LGBTQ people are generally the most highly-educated, who have been exposed to other points of view and broader perspectives which help overcome inherited prejudices. The events of the past several years, however, seem to support my friend’s opinion that homophobia isn’t going away anytime soon.

The belief that homosexuality is “un-African” is widespread. It is seen as something foreign brought by the West, a form of “sexual colonialism.” In fact, there’s much evidence to suggest that it’s homophobia that’s un-African and brought by the West, not homosexuality. In traditional Senegalese society, the “goor-jigeen” or “man-woman,” had an accepted place in communities. They would participate in and even lead many ceremonies such as baptisms, funerals and marriages, and were allowed to live peacefully within communities. As someone at the conference put it, “Every neighborhood had their homosexual like they had their madman.” Queer individuals were not necessarily welcomed, but they were tolerated.

Homophobia came with religion and colonialism, primarily Islam and Christianity, and the recent upsurge in homophobia is due in part to a movement of conservative Islam in Senegal and in part to far-right American Christian groups that spur homophobia in the continent. These extremist organizations, including right-wing Roman Catholic, Mormon, Protestant evangelical churches and groups like Family Watch International, have been bringing their battle against homosexuality and abortion outside the U.S. and into new territory. Beginning around 2008 in Senegal and neighboring West African countries, there has been an upsurge in violence, abuse and arrests of LGBTQ people. In October 2014, the Gambia, a tiny country surrounded entirely by Senegal, amended its criminal code to include the offense of “aggravated homosexuality” with a sentence of life in prison. “Aggravated homosexuality” occurs if someone who is HIV-positive has sexual relations with someone of the same sex, if someone’s same-sex partner has any kind of disability, or if the “offender is a repeat offender.” There was a huge upsurge in arrests, detentions, abuse and threats following this amendment. Many Gambians fled to the only slightly safer haven of Dakar, Senegal. Some are forced to flee their country after their picture, name, and address are published in the media, whether they are actually queer or not. Here human rights organizations help them integrate into society and assist them with safe housing, counseling and securing a job. Individuals who are suspected of being gay or trans are hunted and pursued even once they flee the country. There are Gambian secret service agents in Dakar with the specific purpose of hunting down Gambian queers or other refugees in any way associated with LGBTQ activism. Protecting the most basic human rights of queer people has become a clandestine, arguably illegal act which has to be hidden and cleverly disguised. 

Christian conservatism is not the only influence coming from the western world. My family watches a lot of TV and many of the shows are either French or American shows. I’ve seen reality TV episodes featuring a lesbian couple, a transsexual woman and an intersex woman. My family didn’t bat an eyelash or change the channel. “Call Me Caitlyn” was playing in a restaurant a while ago and nobody seemed to care. I don’t know if this ambivalence stems from curiosity that can’t be expressed, fascination with a foreign and “sinful” phenomenon or a lack of understanding of what’s going on, but, whatever the case, there is an increasing presence of queer culture in the media reaching the living rooms of Senegalese families. 

There is a group of guys around my age who often hang out with students in my program. Most evenings they sit outside one of their houses and make ataaya (Senegalese tea) and relax and shoot the breeze. It was one of my first times there, with a few other girls from my program. One of the guys had an HRC sticker on his computer. Surprised, I asked him if he knew what it meant and explained what the Human Rights Campaign was. He was unfazed and explained that the computer came from his American girlfriend, but that he would keep the sticker because he was fine with homosexuality and wouldn’t want to deny anyone their happiness. This was incredible to hear coming from a Senegalese man. We went on to have a good conversation about cultural differences and the reasons behind the widespread homophobia in Senegal. He was emphatic that we shouldn’t talk about this with other people no matter what, not even his friends. As if to prove his point, one of his buddies interjected that marriage and love are between a man and a woman. It’s not possible, he said,  for a man to love another man. I somehow managed to stop myself blurting out that I was living proof it was possible.

While trying to figure out the mentality behind the homophobia here, I remembered a conversation I had with a Kenyan runner on a Greyhound bus from Denver to Colorado Springs last year. We sat next to each other for the extra-long bus ride (the bus broke down) and spent most of the almost two hours talking. It was clear from the start that he was hitting on me, and as I knew I would probably never see him again and wanted to be able to have a real conversation with him, I said “I’m sorry, but I like girls,” not realizing what a foreign statement that was to him. He didn’t understand what I meant. I had to explain what it meant to be a lesbian, and that I felt the same way about girls that he did, and that no, I would probably never marry a man. He was not angry about it or hateful, just confused; he just honestly didn’t realize that homosexuality was real or understand how people could feel that way. He told me that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Kenya and was curious to try to understand where I was coming from. 

Although the situations in Kenya and Senegal are not the same, this conversation helped me come to terms with the attitudes of Senegalese people. I’ve come to realize that homophobia is not a character flaw; it’s something learned. Homophobia in Senegal is horrible and harmful, but most of the people here are kind and friendly and welcoming, they have just been taught all their lives to dismiss and judge homosexuality without actually thinking about what it is or means. It will take a long time, who knows how long, but I remain hopeful that things can change.