- Emboldened by Outsiders, Restricted at Home: How Sexism Holds Back Queer Women in West and Central Africa
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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, and DOUALA, Cameroon—In Nathalie’s telling, she and her twin brother, Julien, were regulars on the dirt soccer fields of their hometown in southwest Ivory Coast from the moment they could run with a ball at their feet. As children, they dreamed of professional contracts in Europe and, one day, the superstardom attained by their legendary compatriots Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré. [End Page 75] But while Julien, like other boys his age, had as much time as he wanted to roam the streets looking for pickup games, Nathalie was soon enlisted in the domestic chores that kept their 11-person household clothed and fed.
Nathalie’s responsibilities only multiplied when, at age 12, she relocated with her family to Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city and economic capital. By then, her sisters had married and moved out to live with their husbands, leaving Nathalie, a scrawny child who wore her jeans baggy and her hair cropped short, the only girl around to help her mother. Each day, she’d walk to the market and spend at least an hour haggling over ingredients, trying to stretch the family’s food budget. Then she’d return home and, in between cleaning and washing clothes, help her mother prepare meals of grilled fish or steamed cassava.
This work was simply part of Nathalie’s role in the family, and not once did she complain, despite the fact that she received no help from her three brothers. “Even if I didn’t want to do it, I was going to accept it,” she said. Her parents loosened the reins somewhat when her housework was completed, allowing her to play soccer for a local club team, provided she limit the time away from her mother’s side. About six years ago, however, this arrangement was upended when Nathalie’s family discovered her secret.
Nathalie has been drawn to girls since before she can remember. “I can’t even imagine the age when I first felt this attraction, but I was very young,” she said. Unlike most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Ivory Coast has never criminalized homosexuality. But codification is not culture, and alternative sexualities are highly stigmatized. (For this reason, names have been changed in this story to protect sources’ anonymity.) Nathalie spent years fearing her parents’ reaction. They finally found out when an ex-girlfriend came by the home while Nathalie was away to inform the family of their relationship. Nathalie thinks this girl, angry about the breakup, was trying to get back at her. If so, she succeeded.
“My parents told me that if I was going to practice this kind of thing, then I needed to pack my bags and leave the house,” Nathalie said. Just like that, Nathalie found herself cut off from her home and the basic amenities—a bed, regular meals—it provided.
Queer women in sub-Saharan Africa, like Nathalie and so many others, face multiple layers of discrimination. Born into a family that depended on her unpaid labor, Nathalie was all but abandoned once her sexual orientation was revealed. Compounding the trauma of this rejection, the hours Nathalie had spent performing household tasks and chores for her family prevented her from obtaining the education and job training that might have led to financial independence. Paradoxically, this independence is the very thing that ultimately convinces many parents to be more accepting of their lesbian and bisexual daughters and to stop viewing them as lifelong burdens who will never marry and start families, said ADO Jr., president of Lesbian Life Association, an Abidjan-based organization that works with queer women. “The challenge for these girls is that they need to take control, to do something with their lives,” ADO Jr. said.
Stories like Nathalie’s are becoming more common as Africa’s emboldened gay rights activists encourage lesbian and bisexual women to live openly rather than assume “double lives,” marrying men and dating women in secret. ADO Jr. said these women are inspired...