While the US now has marriage equality in some countries its a matter of life or death just to exist as gay. A 22-year-old was sitting at a bar in Cameroon when he was arrested. The police weren’t looking for him, he had done nothing wrong, they were looking for any gay man they could torture.
When this young man, who we will call J, was taken into detention, he was beaten up so badly he could barely breathe.
They burned him with cigarettes all over his body. At one point the policemen tied a cord around his penis and led him around. He was treated like he was an ‘evil demon’ that needed to be punished. They didn’t care if he survived or not.
J endured for five long days.
‘It isn’t easy to forget when you’ve been tortured,’ he tells Gay Star News, now in his 30s and living in the UK. For nearly five years he has been battling to stay in the UK and not be sent back.
And while he has not completely been unshackled from the traumas he faced, J is hoping to use his story to show anyone can one day be free from torture.
As a kid, J had a normal childhood like anybody else living in a small village in Cameroon. He got on well with his parents, and there was a strong community.
He was a well-adjusted, confident and ambitious teen – someone who other kids looked up to.
But at the age of 15, when he realized the thoughts he had inside his head were for other men, life became difficult.
‘In Cameroon you cannot be found out because otherwise you will be found guilty by mob rule,’ J told GSN, through a translator.
‘It’s completely unacceptable. People will violate you or beat you. You will be rejected.’
The feelings grew, and his friendship with a neighbor boy grew into something more. They kissed, but he was chased off by the boy’s mother.
While this was mostly disregarded, it raised suspicion. J was spending a lot of time having meals in the households of men in the village, rather than with his own family. It was considered abnormal.
And then, when he got to 19 and he refused to take a wife, it got worse. He was considered weird, an outcast, a ‘pederast’ (a word used in Cameroon as a homophobic slur).
J went to the country's largest city, Douala, hoping he would find others like himself who were considered ‘abnormal’.
He discovered the underground scene, where many gay people knew it was safer to be invisible. No one used a real name. You never knew if the guy you were talking to was who they said they were. They could be a cop. They could be a blackmailer. They could want to hurt you.
Everyone was a suspect. Everyone was alone.
So it was during that time, one evening, when J needed a drink. He went to a nearby bar, ordered and sat down.
When the police raided the bar, looking for ‘pederasts’, fingers were pointed at him.
‘I wasn’t even sure I was going to survive,’ J said, looking away in our conversation. When asked to explain more about what happened, he couldn’t. ‘It is just too sad.’
Years later, J developed a relationship with an older, wealthy man who was married. But the wife became jealous and suspected J, so threatened him to have him arrested.
Terrified of being detained once again, he found his way to the UK in 2010. Safe from torture, perhaps, but not safe from his memories.
J’s memory has been left confused after what happened. Events from his past come to him like hazy dreams, difficult to find, ‘chopped up’ in his head.
‘I don’t know how I found myself in England,’ J said. ‘There have been people who have rescued me, but I still don’t know where I am going.’
While he has met friends, he cannot date. ‘Language is number one. Poverty, I have no money. Most of all, fear. And also, I have lost feeling.’
Every erection stirs painful memories for J. He doesn’t think of his genitals the same way he used to, because it brings back being led around by the balls with a piece of rough rope.
J knows his life is getting better, after having received legal and emotional support and treatment at Freedom From Torture, the only UK organisation helping to rehabilitate survivors of this torment.
And after four years and eight months of fighting so hard to be believed by the Home Office and the judge, he was officially given asylum today (19 June).
But J also knows that many gay men, like him before he escaped, are still living in Cameroon and are at risk of being tortured or even killed.
He believes the Cameroonian government can change the situation, bringing in laws and enforcing them to ensure no other LGBTI person meets a similar fate. He hopes to encourage others to send letters to officials and make a change.
‘They must know we cannot change who we are,’ J said. ‘I’m asking gay Cameroonians to be strong. I am with them. You have to fight, to carry on, for the sake of freedom.