Djamil Bangoura has known he is gay since childhood. Growing up in Pikine, a slum of Senegal’s sprawling capital city, Dakar, he kept his sexual orientation a secret for fear of violence, imprisonment, and alienation from his family — the core of Senegalese life. But one day in 2002, colleagues in the recording studio where he was working heard rumors that Djamil might be "goorjigeen," a Wolof slur for "gay," and let his supervisor know. Djamil, who was 24 at the time, was fired on the spot. The news quickly spread through his tight-knit community, and soon Djamil found himself thrown out of his family’s home. His parents, brothers, sisters, and neighbors cut all ties with him. In one pass Djamil lost his livelihood, family, and security; faced with threats from friends and neighbors, he spent the next three years in hiding, renting a tiny room with what was left of his savings. He never dared to leave his cramped quarters and relied on the few friends he had left to bring him food and water.
While the United States and other countries grapple with the issue of marriage equality, considered by many to be the final frontier of the gay-rights movement, Senegal and the rest of West Africa still face the initial hurdle of decriminalizing homosexuality, which carries the relatively light penalty of imprisonment in Senegal, compared with execution in Mauritania, its northern neighbor. Article 319.3 of the Senegalese penal code criminalizes "unnatural" sexual acts with five years in prison and a fine, and though its wording targets conduct rather than character, the law has been used by Senegalese authorities to discriminately target members of the LGBT community. In the absence of gay bars, clubs, or other means of association, the law rests primarily on appearance and suspicion. This was the case for nine members of an HIV/AIDS association, all men, who were arrested by police in December 2008, just days after Senegal hosted an international HIV/AIDS conference. In the absence of any evidence of homosexual conduct, a court sentenced them to eight years in prison, because police found them with condoms and lubricant. In the eyes of Senegalese law, possession of materials used to prevent the spread of HIV implied homosexual behavior and the corresponding penalty. Though they were released in April 2009 following international pressure, most lost their jobs and were cut off from their families and communities.
Djamil describes 2008 as a "catastrophic" year for gay rights in Senegal: In addition to the arrest of those nine men in December, a Senegalese gossip magazine published photos of a party it called a "gay marriage ceremony"; other media outlets republished the pictures, provoking condemnation from politicians and religious leaders, which led to the arrests of six men. One of them, Madièye Diallo, fled to Mali following death threats from his neighbors; he was HIV-positive and died the next year, unable to return to Senegal to receive antiretroviral treatment. When his family buried him in the local cemetery, thugs from the neighborhood twice dug up his body and dumped it in front of his parents’ house. Two other such disinterments of men presumed to be gay were reported in the same year.
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