I knew that Europe had a more tolerant attitude towards sexuality. What I didn't know was that my race and ethnicity would be an issue.
Related Gully Coverage
One Face of Gay Africa
DECEMBER 4, 2002. Cheikh Traoré is a 35 year-old AIDS educator working with African communities in London. He talked to The Gully about his work, and what it was like growing up gay in West Africa. (Part 1 of 2)
I am a health promotion officer for Britain's largest HIV & AIDS service organization, the Terrence Higgins Trust. I work on a number of national health initiatives and programs with Britain's African communities, organizing campaigns and producing information about health, well-being and access to services. I also work with health and social care professionals in the HIV sector.
My decision to come to Europe from West Africa six years ago was motivated in part by my sexual identity. I wanted to put some distance between myself and my family and community. I knew that Europe had a more tolerant attitude towards sexuality. What I didn't know was that my race and ethnicity would be an issue to deal with.
I had also decided on a career change; shifting from working as a clinical doctor to getting involved in community health. I was admitted to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where I earned a masters degree.
My main interest then was in public health issues affecting Africa, especially malnutrition. But my interest changed again as I realized that HIV/AIDS was beginning to have a growing impact. In 1998, I decided to focus on AIDS work. This was also for personal reasons; understanding sexuality was a strong drive, but also my views on issues affecting women and young people in African communities.
Fighting AIDS Among Immigrants
There are enormous challenges to doing AIDS work with immigrant Africans. The first is social exclusion: a lot of the people affected by HIV are struggling to have a decent income, a decent roof over their head, and many individuals within the groups we are trying to reach move around a lot. HIV is often the least important of their priorities.
In addition, HIV is a highly stigmatized condition, and people are still reluctant to fully embrace the problem. This stigma is a barrier to everything we are trying to do. That is why the first campaign my team decided to do two years ago was a campaign against stigma and prejudice towards people living with HIV in the community.
Homophobia and AIDS
The perception of AIDS as a "gay disease" constantly challenges heterosexual men. Many feel they have to make a point that they are not gay.
In general, sexuality is a difficult issue to bring up with African communities there are so many taboos. So, in order to have fruitful discussions on the subject, people have to devise appropriate ways to make people comfortable. For example, creating male-only or women-only groups or young people's groups.
I chose a personal strategy not to make my sexuality an issue in my work with the Trust, though I am out in my voluntary capacity with BIG UP, a Black gay male group in London. This is partly because in the African communities I work with, HIV is predominantly a heterosexual problem, and because I always try to have unbiased views and establish clear boundaries between my own personal issues and the work. Then there's the fact that challenging homophobia is something that I have only recently learned to do myself.
Growing Up Gay
I've spent most of my life, though, in West Africa. When I was six, we settled in Mauritania. I went to university in Senegal, and have lived in Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria. I have only been in London since 1997.
Growing up as a teenager in Africa was a very isolating experience for me. It took me a long time to understand my sexuality. I first realized that I was attracted to other boys in my early teenage years, but I did not know that this attraction had a sexual nature until I was 16 or 17 years old, and I didn't call myself gay until I was thirty.
I used to blame the fact that I was attracted to boys and men, having the "white man's disease," homosexuality, on the fact that I was born in France. I secretly blamed my parents for it.
At the same time, growing up, I didn't consciously think of myself as either gay or straight. I don't think I even had the concept that one had to be in one category or the other. In a way, I always thought of myself as having a unique sexuality: I was convinced that I liked both men and women sexually.
I never had the opportunity, or the courage, to be in a consensual sexual situation until I was twenty-seven. But even into my thirties, I was very much convinced for a long time that I would be able to enjoy sex with both men and women. I only recently found when I met my last boyfriend that I could be in a fulfilling relationship with one man (it's still quite a revelation.)
I learned to deal with my sexuality by attending sessions organized by BIG UP. Through my boyfriend, I also met many other Africans who were gay. Many of them were often successful professionals like lawyers, doctors and businessmen.
Meeting other Africans who were gay and comfortable with their sexuality had a very strong positive impact on me. My role models were not only African gay men. Reading about the lives of writers and personalities like Edmund White, Bayard Rustin, Jean Genet or James Baldwin was a strong and empowering experience.
I am not yet out to my family. And of course, being the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, everyone is longing to know who is my future wife. I sometimes feel guilty for not letting them know who I really am.
I can see a time when I will be out with them, but I don't think it will be an active process, like me going to them and telling them that I'm gay. They will probably hear it or find out in some way (if they haven't already.) I don't think I will ever feel ready to tell them.
Joining Forces to Fight AIDS
These ideas are now enshrined in some key prevention policy documents. I didn't have to be 'out' myself to do it, I just needed to involve Black gay men in the work. I also needed to help produce evidence about the need to work with men who have sex with men and convince pools of influential professionals and get them to apply inclusive policies in their own areas of work.
Four years ago, when I started working in this field, many lgbt groups were already set up to work on AIDS issues. Many of them found it very difficult to start welcoming heterosexual Black people. This has changed nowadays mainly because of the changing epidemic, and the increased numbers of diagnosed cases among Black Africans. At present, lgbt people fighting HIV have become more accepting of the need to work with African communities.
At the same time, it would help if African communities also went further towards accepting lgbt people within their own community to start with. As I've said before, many Africans still perceive homosexuality as a "white disease." My experience is that Africans and many black people can tolerate homosexuals as long as they are white. They find it a lot more difficult to deal with homosexuality when it's in their midst.
If it wasn't for HIV, these two communities would probably never have had to work together. And to be honest; the two cultures know very little about each other. Perhaps the only common ground is the shared experience of prejudice and discrimination.
In the future, I would like to see more Black leaders openly challenging homophobia in the Black community. I would like to see people who claim that homosexuality was an import from the West to realize how stupid this statement is. And I would also like to see more gay rights activists speak out about racism within gay communities.
In "Part 2: Creating Community In Exile," Traoré talks about the gay Black community in London, dealing with racism, and his struggle to "invent this notion of being gay and African."
For the BBC's UK: Fighting homophobia among black communities about the Terrence Higgins Trust.
For the Terrence Higgins Trust.
For the BIG UP Group at Gay Men Fighting AIDS.
For allAfrica.com's HIV Hits Women Hard in Africa.
For Behind The Mask, an lgbt African website.
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