Ivory Coast | A Fragile Tolerance

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

01 June 2013
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
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

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.”

Robbie Corey-Boulet is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has covered international justice issues in Cambodia and East Africa.

Keywords: rights homosexuality sexuality Africa identity Ivory Coast modernity
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