Gay rights activist Joseph Achille Tiedjou is worried every day that he will be harassed or arrested in Cameroon.
Defending LGBT rights can be dangerous in Africa, where many countries have laws against homosexuality. But in recent years activists have stepped out of the shadows, empowered by the support of the Obama administration and the international community.
Now many fear the Trump administration will undermine those gains, and that their exposure could make them more vulnerable if support fades.
“I have so many worries with the new administration,” the 32-year-old Tiedjou said, pointing out Trump’s ban on transgender people in the US military. “Obama was known to be very engaged. Hillary Clinton was a champion of LGBT rights and made many guarantees in addressing these issues specifically.”
Obama’s administration made LGBT rights a major domestic and foreign policy, though some in Africa saw it as pushing “Western ideals.” The Obama administration also created a special envoy position on LGBT rights. The Trump administration has said it will keep the post, but concerns remain.
“The difference with the previous administration was that the rights of LGBT people were explicitly part of foreign policy. So LGBT groups around the world could absolutely rely on the moral and, indeed, material support that came from the U.S. government and that made a huge difference,” said Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program. “Under this administration, we are no longer going to be seeing that proactive engagement around LGBT rights.”
Though the Trump administration’s overseas policies on LGBT rights remain to be seen, the erosion of domestic advances directly undermines the authority of the U.S. to speak out internationally, Reid said. He cited the pushback against federal protections and the appointment of “openly homophobic officials” to senior government positions.
The US recently joined a dozen other countries to vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution that urged countries not to use the death penalty for specific forms of conduct, including consensual same-sex relations. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the vote was made “because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances” but said the US “unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for conduct such as homosexuality.”
Same-sex acts are illegal in more than 33 African countries and can lead to death sentences in parts of at least four, including Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia, according to Amnesty International.
Homosexuality is criminalized in the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In Tanzania, authorities recently stopped health providers from non-governmental organizations from providing services to LGBT people.
In Cameroon, a strong ally of the US in the fight against extremism, Human Rights Watch has documented high levels of arrests of LGBT people.
Colonial-era anti-gay laws are still in place in Ghana and are implemented from time to time, and a high level of social intolerance and family violence exists against the LGBT community.
In Gambia, where former leader Yahya Jammeh made “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life in prison, activists are waiting to see whether new President Adama Barrow will amend the law.
In Senegal, violence is directed at LGBT communities, along with arrests, according to Human Rights Watch.
“In practice the act is criminalized so it can be used broadly to detain people based on their orientation,” said Francois Patuel, a West Africa researcher for Amnesty International.
But despite setbacks in some countries there have been some gains, Patuel said.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in 2014 adopted a resolution condemning violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. South Africa’s constitution specifically protects the rights of LGBT and allows same-sex marriage.
The United States has provided support for HIV/AIDS and other programs that indirectly have enabled gay rights groups to form in some sub-Saharan African countries. Patuel urged that such support not be revoked under the Trump administration.
In Mali, activist and journalist N’Deye Traore said social media has been used to incite hatred against the LGBT community, discouraging people from publicly advocating change and forcing many to live in hiding and at risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS.
Traore said she worries about the example set by the Trump administration.
“It is the life of human beings that is at stake and must be respected!” she said. “I urge the American president to seize and at least tolerate this community for sustainable development in America and around the world.”