Côte d’Ivoire is considered a paradise in West Africa and French-speaking Africa for the LGTBIQ community.
It is one of the African countries where homosexuality is not prohibited (out of 55 African territories, only 22 recognise its legality) and whose penal code, which punished homosexual public acts, has been changed by social pressure. In the country there are several associations of this type and spaces, events and bars proliferate for them. In the 1960s and 1970s, the economic growth experienced by Côte d’Ivoire created a more open environment that allowed the community to thrive. There has been no police crackdown or public stigma. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that a political movement began to emerge that defended sexual minorities, always closely linked to the HIV group.
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In 2003 the first organization called Arc-En-Ciel Plus was born and in 2010 Alternative Côte d’Ivoire. Although women are the essential structure of associative tissue, they continue to fight in an invisible way. They had to find their own spaces, activities and places of political struggle to mark their presence, always in a context where they live happier if discreet.
An association for them
Monique Kouman is 38 years old and is president of Woman African Freedom (WAF), the only women’s association in the lesbian, bisexual and queer community currently active in Côte d’Ivoire. In her professional life she is a midwife, but spends her free time creating workshops and activities for the group. “In Côte d’Ivoire there are several associations fighting for LGTBIQ rights, but their programmes have not taken into account the reality of women. That’s why in May 2019 I decided to create the WAF together with other colleagues, to talk about our problems and, above all, to provide concrete solutions to the situations we experience as women,” she says. “Today there is no law that criminalizes homosexuality, but neither does the law that protects it. Therefore, homophobia is something we live with every day.”
Kouman has been with his partner for five years, with whom he lives, although only his closest friends know. The family may hear him say it, but he prefers not to talk about it. The importance of the traditional African family remains an essential component of the social structure and, therefore, a woman whose partner is not a man does not fully adapt to it. This activist has children, like most Ivorian women LGTBIQ, who undoubtedly accept the guidance of their mother. “Most lesbians hide their sexuality, so having children with men is a bit of a cover for them.” It also works as an alternative to expensive and often inaccessible artificial insemination.
Sport to create bonds
Nicou Flore turned 32 and lives in Yopougon, a humble district of Abidjan. Every Sunday he meets with a group of LGTBIQ girls to play football, and even if they don’t hurt him, it seems that sport is just an excuse to see, chat and have fun. “I created the team because it allowed us to meet and share that sisterhood that exists in our community. Because there aren’t many spaces for us, we have to create them.” In Abidjan there are three bars for LGTBIQ people, but the majority of those who attend are men. And although through associations laboratories or activities are created that allow a kind of space to discuss and promote social change, they are still not very active. Flore calls himself “he,” or as one would say in Côte d’Ivoire, is a yossi. The terms yossi and toussou designate each of the traditional genres. Yossi is the lesbian who follows the classic male patterns: short hair, boyish clothes … And the person who has to financially support his partner. The toussou, for its part, is regulated by the traditional characteristics of the feminine: long hair, heels and the person in charge of household chores. “These heteropatriarcal model roles are at all levels: at work, at home, and even in sexual intercourse, as some Yossi don’t undress and don’t let themselves be touched during sex,” says Monique Kouman.
Flore has a partner, though recently, and does not live with her. The lack of legal recognition of women’s associations makes stability difficult. Social pressure, and family pressure in particular, complicates long-term ties, which is why many LGTBIQ women maintain constant sporadic relationships.
A digital means to have references
Lynn Attemene is 28 years old and her voice can be heard through podcasts broadcast by EmmaLInfos, the only information point for lesbian, bisexual and Queer women in West Africa, created by Emma Onekekou. From their platform they publish articles, videos and radio programs on sex education, LGTBIQ activism or feminism, always focused on the interests and problems of African society. “When I was growing up I had a lot of questions about sexuality, so I had to go to associations to find out or search private Facebook groups. Today we want this medium to serve to openly share experiences and knowledge for the African community LGTBIQ”.
Without many public references, Ivorian women find their spaces discreetly. The announcer is one of the few women completely out of the open in family, at work and with friends. “Since I accepted as a lesbian, I’m not ashamed to say that,” she says. The only difficulty she encountered was showing her family that even though she didn’t want to have a man as a partner, she could be a happy woman and live freely. “I did my best to be independent and show my people that being gay doesn’t mean being cursed or a failure.” Côte d’Ivoire, still far from being a paradise for LGTBIQ women, is a small oasis within the continent. “The atmosphere is calm. Although we still have to be cautious, it shows that we have more confidence in ourselves and are willing to change things,” attemene concludes.
(María Aparicio on ElPais-PlanetaFuturo of 12/03/2021)
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