Lonely Track Star, Victim of Cameroon's Homophobia

Published: August 15, 2014

 Thierry Essamba, an internationally competitive runner in the 110-meter hurdles, was suspended from the Cameroonian track squad on May 24 because of rumors about his alleged homosexuality. When the story of his punishment first appeared, LGBT activists abroad offered him words of support. But none of those words led to any concrete assistance, either in seeking to overturn that sanction or in providing him with any way to continue his running career. Two and a half months later, Essamba feels abandoned and alone.

By Erin Royal Brokovitch

“Increasingly I feel that the sky is falling on me, that everything is closing in on me.”

Those are Thierry Essamba’s words almost three months after he was ejected from Cameroon’s national track team as a suspected homosexual.

At first, shortly after people learned that the Cameroon Athletics Federation had suspended Essamba, reactions were immediate and supportive. Encouragement seemed to come from everywhere, from all over the world.

Articles about his plight appeared in LGBT publications in Spain, France, Scotland and Venezuela.

Essamba began to hope that his career as a runner could be revived.

LGBT rights activists denounced the Cameroon Athletics Federation. Diplomats asked for explanations. LGBT organizations set their networks in motion, seeking ways to help Essamba.

One possibility was that Essamba could participate in the Gay Games in the United States, which are currently under way in Cleveland, Ohio.

Essamba, 29, could have done well there. He has competed in both national and international track meets. He won a gold medal for Cameroon in the 2013 Central African Championships in Brazzaville, Congo, winning the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 15.92 seconds. His best time, 15.15 seconds, was recorded at Porto Novo, Benin, in June 2012.

But he would have needed financial aid to get to Cleveland, and the Gay Games scholarship committee decided against him. That group said there was already a waiting list of athletes who applied for aid last year and it would be unfair to assist Essamba ahead of those who applied far earlier.

In Cameroon, Essamba’s supporters decided that it would be unrealistic to hope that Essamba will ever be accepted again on the national track team. The main reason: The Cameroon Athletics Federation is an independent association, unaffiliated with the government and a power unto itself. Legal action would be costly and probably unsuccessful.

Yet Essamba’s passion is running. For 18 years, he dedicated his life to it.

In early July, he realized that his teammates would travel without him to Scotland from July 23 to Aug. 3 for the Commonwealth Games. Essamba began to sink into depression.

Essamba turned for advice to Humanity First Cameroon, an organization that provides counseling and support to LGBT people in Yaounde.

There he met with Anne-Marie Manga, a psychology researcher who often serves as a counselor for LGBT people. She described Essamba as a person who is deeply troubled by what has happened to him.

At the same time, Essamba was beset by troubles from family members, many of whom think that he deserved to be suspended because of his sexual orientation.

His family told him he must leave the family home by the end of August.

“He’s about to crack,” a close friend said.

For all of that, Essamba keeps hoping that somehow he can once again run competitively.

Perhaps, he thinks, he can find another team abroad that he could join.

If he had been able to compete in Cleveland and had run as fast as he did in Congo/Brazzaville (15.92 seconds) or in Benin (15.15 seconds), he would have taken a gold medal at the Gay Games.

The gold medalist there won the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 16.4 seconds.

The author of this article is an LGBT rights activist in Cameroon who writes under a pseudonym.

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