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From our correspondent in Abidjan – The publication of the first magazine dedicated to West Africa’s LGBT community, originally set to hit shelves on May 12, has been delayed due to difficulties finding gay-friendly printers in the Ivory Coast. “Meleagbo” would be French-speaking West Africa’s first LGBT publication. Launched by the NGO Gromo, which advocates LGBT rights in Abidjan, the magazine promotes gay icons and highlights the community’s culture, history and victories.

The magazine’s publication would represent a step forward for a continent where some 33 countries still have laws on the books criminalising same-sex relations. 

Gay rights in Africa came under renewed scrutiny earlier this year after Uganda’s parliament approved the first reading of a bill in March criminalising merely identifying as LGBT, outraging human and civil rights advocates worldwide. The bill called on members of the public to report people in same-sex relationships and imposed a 20-year sentence for promoting homosexuality, which activists said could be used to criminalise any type of advocacy. 

And the path forward is full of pitfalls. Chief editor Emmanuel Niamien and his team are still fighting to get the first issue of “Meleagbo” printed.  

Emmanuel Niamien at the launching of the magazine during the third annual Awawale festival held on May 12-13.
Emmanuel Niamien at the launching of the magazine during the third annual Awawale festival held on May 12-13. © Sophie Lamotte

“Every day, homophobia is the first difficulty that we encounter. We are faced with printers who do not want to be associated with the LGBT community. If we had launched a fashion magazine, we wouldn’t have had this kind of problem. So we [must] go at the pace of those who are willing to help us,” Niamien said between calls to the printer, who had promised a delivery several days ago. 

The magazine is financed by the NGO Gromo – which is one of the few associations fighting for LGBT rights in Ivory Coast – and personal funds from members, including Niamien. The magazine itself is about 40 pages, but they are difficult to fill: despite plenty of ideas coming in, few are willing to put their faces or names to the stories for fear of retaliation.        

“We wanted to picture the team behind the magazine to show the people who contributed, but we rejected this idea because some were afraid and wanted to remain anonymous because of the current environment,” explained Brice Dibahi, Gromo’s founder, during the third annual Awawale Festival, which celebrates the LGBT community in Abidjan.  

The magazine’s zero issue, a mock-up of the magazine to promote it to the community, was launched at the two-day festival, held on May 12-13.  

The 30-something Ivorians say they launched “Meleagbo” to address a lack of representation of the LGBT community in mainstream media. “We realised that magazines here in Africa were not addressing issues affecting our community, and even when such topics are addressed there is a sense of exclusion. So we wanted to control our own narrative.”   

“We hope to change people’s mindsets with this magazine,” said Niamien. “To make people see that we are here, we have always been here, and that we are part of the people who are making changes to the system.” According to research by Gromo, 70 to 83 percent of LGBT people are still victims of homophobia and continue to face death threats, assaults and rapes in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast. 

At first glance, Ivory Coast does relatively well among African countries by not outlawing homosexuality. Ghana, which borders Ivory Coast, is currently reviewing a law that would establish heavy penalties – including up to 10 years in prison for homosexuality, which is already illegal. Four African nations even impose the death penalty for crimes linked to same-sex relations.

Nevertheless, Ivory Coast is one of 40 countries on the continent where LGBT people’s rights are also not protected by the law. Moreover, Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Council amended the Ivorian penal code in November 2021 to remove sexual orientation from the list of prohibited motives for discrimination – a move seen by the community as a major setback for LGBT rights. 

“The good news is that there is no law that condemns homosexuality outright,” said Cedric, one of the Awawale Festival organisers. “But society condemns [it].”

“We live in constant fear. So we live hidden, we don’t express ourselves enough, we don’t have the opportunities to express ourselves fully.” 

Widespread discrimination even penalises LGBT people professionally. According to a survey conducted by Gromo in 2021, 70 percent of LGBT people are unemployed in Ivory Coast. According to the National Institute of Statistics in 2019, the national unemployment rate is 21.3 percent.

To address this, some sections of Meleagbo are dedicated to job offers, professional advice and lists of queer-friendly companies. 

According to sociologist Brice-Stéphane Djédjé, a specialist in LGBT studies, employment is a major issue for this community.

Sociologist Brice-Stéphane Djédjé, a specialist in LGBT studies at the third annual Awawale festival in May.
Sociologist Brice-Stéphane Djédjé, a specialist in LGBT studies at the third annual Awawale festival in May. © Sophie Lamotte

“It is difficult to be gay and poor, because the strongest always oppress the weakest and this is also done through economics,” said Djédjé, who authored the book, “How to Love Yourself as a Gay Man in Africa”.

“Gays from poor families pay the price for the laws that discriminate against queer people. A financially stable person will live more freely than someone who lives with his parents – without family pressure, seeing his partners freely and taking care of his mental health.” 

Djédjé also stressed that religion – and in particular Christianity, which is deeply rooted in Ivorian society – contributes to the stigmatisation of the LGBT community. Although the public in many West African countries regard homosexuality as a phenomenon imported from the West, he considers the homophobia in Ivory Coast as having roots in the colonial era. “Colonisation came with the churches here in Ivory Coast. (…) And the churches today spread hateful and violent messages against the LGBT community.” 

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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