Ivory Coast | A Fragile Tolerance

Abidjan’s liberal gay culture contains deep-rooted conflicts of class and identity

Activists claim that soldiers loyal to President Alassane Ouattara routinely target gay bars for extortion and sexually assault transgender sex workers. REBECCA BLACKWELL / AP PHOTO
01 June, 2013

IN THE PARKING LOT OF THE GAY BAR in Abidjan’s southern industrial district, 22-year-old David leaned against a low railing and gossiped withhis friends. He wore large black sunglasses and a black-and-white-striped cardigan over a white T-shirt. Like most men there, his outfit was a version of the style adopted by many young Abidjanais men—a style that mimics American hip-hop chic. With it, David conveyed the message that he was yere, an Ivorian slang word connoting modernity and street savvy.

The man to David’s right, a 23-year-old fisherman named Charles, sported a different look. He wore a blue-and-white patterned boubou, a long, flowing gown that reveals little about the body it covers. The boubou can be strikingly beautiful, but in some Ivorian circles it has come to signify traditionalism, even backwardness. The wearer is seen by many as gaou—a bumpkin.

David and Charles are part of the same gay scene, but they come to it from very different worlds. David lives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital and the third-largest French-speaking city in the world, and spends many nights in its handful of gay-friendly bars. Charles, meanwhile, lives in the less tolerant town of Jacqueville, 60 kilometres west, venturing into town only for occasional weekends, travelling by share-taxi and spending the night in friends’ apartments. But Charles considers himself lucky to have even this option. “Here, there’s freedom of expression. We are free to do whatever we want,” he said. “It’s a small corner where we’ve already won part of the fight.”

Sub-Saharan Africa has become notorious for its anti-gay views, and West Africa can be especially forbidding. Ivory Coast is in the minority of countries on the continent where homosexuality is not illegal. Abidjan has a relatively vibrant gay nightlife scene, a direct result of this freedom.

In recent years, several of Ivory Coast’s neighbours have taken steps to enhance their homophobic credentials. (The reasons vary from country to country, but generally involve a combination of growing Christian evangelical influence, attempts by leaders to distract from bad governance, and fears that world powers are looking, through aid dollars, to impose Western values on conservative African societies.) Lawmakers in Nigeria and Liberia, for example, are considering bills that would strengthen anti-gay legislation already on the books. In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh has threatened to “cut off the head” of any gay person found in the country. Cameroonian officials fervently pursue prosecutions under a law that bans sex between people of the same gender. A March 2013 report from Human Rights Watch and three local NGOs documented cases against 28 Cameroonians since 2010. Despite often resting on rumour, denunciation or laughably weak evidence—a text message, say, or a preference for effeminate clothing—these cases generally result in conviction and prison sentences of up to five years.

Twenty-three-year-old Cameroonian Arthur Njel fled to Abidjan two years ago after being arrested twice on allegations related to his sexual orientation. “Here, homosexuals are much freer compared to Cameroon,” Njel said. “You can be arrested there, but in Abidjan that’s not the case.” But Njel doubts Ivorians on the whole are more accepting. “Here the homophobia is silent,” he said. “People don’t express it.”

As Ivory Coast’s gay scene expands, the gains are not evenly shared. Among Abidjan’s gay community, it is taken on faith that yere zones—where residents are more affluent and worldly—are safer than zones populated by gaous, a word often used to refer to northern Ivorians and West African immigrants. Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at American University in Washington, DC, whose research centres on gay life in Abidjan, documents this widely held view in a forthcoming paper. He asked gay men to mark safe spaces and homophobic zones on a map of Abidjan, and found that neighbourhoods with large populations of northern Ivorians and West African immigrants were seen as less welcoming, and described by some as off-limits.

Charles, the fisherman, illustrated the dangers of one such gaou-heavy neighbourhood with a recent story. “One or two months ago in Abobo, the army came into the bar where we were,” he recalled. “They beat us, they took our phones and our money and our jewellery. My friends and I were lucky because we weren’t wearing effeminate clothing at the time. But don’t even ask about the ones who were.”

The terms ‘yere’ and ‘gaou’ have links to Ivory Coast’s political crisis, which effectively began with the death of the long-serving President Felix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 and culminated in the 2010–11 post-election conflict that left more than 3,000 dead. The origins of that crisis are complex, but it has partly turned on the question of what it means to be Ivorian—a question that has particular salience in a country home to large numbers of West African immigrants. A large factor behind the crisis has been the attempt by various political actors to brand current President Alassane Ouattara, who has roots in the north, as un-Ivorian, or at least insufficiently Ivorian to lead. To this end, supporters of former presidents Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo have at various times used yere modernity as a marker of national identity (never mind that many signifiers of this modernity, as it is widely understood, originated in France, the former colonial power, or in the United States). Those who, through speech, dress or comportment, betrayed their gaou roots in the more rural, traditional northern part of Ivory Coast—or in a neighbouring West African country—could never truly belong.

The concepts have been enormously divisive, but their continued power is unmistakable. And even members of Abidjan’s gay community have, when discussing hardships facing the city’s sexual minorities, begun to employ them in original ways. This is apparent, for example, when Claver Toure, head of the country’s leading gay rights NGO Alternatives Côte d’Ivoire, discusses abuses perpetrated by the present national army, formed by Ouattara toward the end of the 2010–11 conflict, and composed largely of former rebels who hail from the north. Since the end of fighting, soldiers have routinely targeted gay bars for extortion, while rounding up transgender sex workers and transporting them to military camps, where they have been subject to physical and sexual assault. Toure refrained from using the words ‘yere’ and ‘gaou’, but insisted that the soldiers’ background informs their behavior, effectively branding them gaou. “They come from the bush up in the north,” he said dismissively. “They can’t read. They don’t have an open mind. They came to Abidjan just because of the post-election crisis, and they saw gay people for the first time in their lives. And they thought, ‘Oh, that’s what that is. That’s what we call homosexuality.’”

It’s a subversive argument. In various parts of Africa, every day, gay people are told they are ‘un-African’, that they have been corrupted by foreign, typically Western, influence, even if they’ve never travelled outside the borders of their home countries. By using the concept of yere and gaou in this particular way, Toure argues the reverse. His claim is that the soldiers’ intolerance of homosexuality is gaou, meaning that, by default, it is yere to be gay-friendly. If to be gay-friendly is to be yere, and to be yere is to be modern, and to be modern is to be truly Ivorian, then creating a space for homosexuals can buttress, not undermine, national identity. But the danger of Toure’s argument is that it embraces divisions among the population that were constructed by politicians. While using them to his advantage, he also, perhaps unintentionally, precludes the possibility that acceptance for gay people in Ivory Coast will one day be universal, not limited only to people who might be described as yere.

Nevertheless, the fact that Toure and others dare to openly advance such an argument is a sign that things are changing. Fifteen years ago, filmmakers Philip Brooks and Laurent Bocahut presented a far more muted picture of gay life in Abidjan in their documentary, Woubi Chéri. (‘Woubi’ is a term in Abidjan for the submissive partner in a relationship between two men and ‘chéri’ is a French term of endearment.) The film was one of the first to deal explicitly with African homosexuality, and it offers a rare glimpse into a subculture that was at the time almost completely hidden. It comprises a series of extended interviews with several Abidjanais woubis and transgender women, offering little by way of narrative—but the content is so daring that the format needn’t be. Men describe the dynamics of their relationships, and their pursuit of acceptance from wary relatives and friends. In one scene, a woman named Barbara, identified as president of the Ivory Coast Transvestites Association, explains in detail the mechanics of anal sex to two heterosexual women over sodas in a restaurant. But though the film’s subjects don’t shy away from condemning homophobia in private conversations, they seem focused primarily on securing a place for themselves within an unaccepting society, rather than changing how society views them.

Yet even back then, this most marginalised of populations clearly yearned to live within—not apart from—their city. “I mix a lot with straight people because I sometimes get tired of being only with homosexuals,” Barbara says at one point in the film. “What I really love is when everyone is mixed: straights, gays, bisexuals, all having fun together. That’s the third millennium.”