A week ago, a man in Cameroon died. Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was only 34 years young, died of complications and lack of treatment for a hernia. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, Roger died needlessly and senselessly after having to live in hiding and knowing that his family wanted to remove the ‘curse’ which plagued him. Why?
Because he was gay.
Roger was jailed under Cameroon’s anti-gay legislation in 2011 for sending a text message to a man which read, ‘I’m very much in love with you’. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and later released on medical grounds. He lived in hiding upon release and some reports suggest he was barred from receiving medical treatment. Even his family said that it would be better to just let him die.
Because he was gay. Because he loved a man and declared that love.
There are far, far too many countries in which individuals who do not fit the ‘norm’ face criminal charges for simply declaring an emotion which should bring joy, happiness and hope. Depending upon how you classify both country and legislation, a total of 83 countries (84 if you count Russia) have laws which place strict limitations on the human rights freedoms to those citizens who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender. That’s 84 too many. Imagine living in a place where you cannot declare your love for another human being. Where you cannot show your love for another human being. Where you are not free to love and show that love for whom you wish.
With all of the attention Russia and President Putin have been quite rightly getting given the upcoming Olympic games, perhaps we can also shine a spotlight on all those other countries in which LGBT men and women face prison, discrimination and stigma on a daily basis simply for being who they are. This includes Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and 35 other African nations (although the Ugandan law has not been signed by the president as of this morning). These are only the countries from one continent in which laws exist making it a crime to be gay. Let’s not forget the Americas, Asia, and, yes, Europe. As we in the developed North applaud the steady march towards marriage equality in the United States, the spread of laws which criminalise homosexuality continue and with them stigma, discrimination and hatred become more common and, in a way, legally sanctioned and institutionalised.
Despite Putin’s claims that the Sochi games will be welcoming to all athletes and free of discrimination in any form, what about the remainder of Russia outside the Olympic bubble? Actions, and in this particular case, legislation speak infinitely louder than words. So loud in fact that 27 Nobel laureates and Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) have penned a letter asking President Putin to reconsider the anti-gay propaganda law. Once the Olympic torch is extinguished, I’m dubious that anything will change, and suspect that things for Russia’s LGBT community may in fact become more grim.
But, what of those other countries in which the laws are even harsher? What of those countries who punish their LGBT citizens with decades long or even life prison sentences? What of those countries where being gay carries the death penalty? Where is the outrage? Where is the international support? Where are the protest letters from those 27 Nobel laureates and knighted actors?
In some parts of the world, undoubtedly we’ve come a long, long way towards making it safe and legal for all to love whom they love, openly and without fear (or, as it should be). But, as the senseless and tragic case of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede illustrates all too cruelly, we still have a very long way to go.