Publishing in the GAY-KRANT (‘gay journal’)
Guest Author: Peter Geschiere
Publishing in the GAY-KRANT (‘gay journal’)
Over the years I have published articles on my research and that of other anthropologists in many newspapers and weeklies – in the Netherlands and abroad – but I was never sure of the social relevance of all this.
In contrast, a short and quite superficial article I did for the Gaykrant (a somewhat glossy Dutch magazine for gays – very middle of the road) did have a clear impact, be it of very modest scope. I contacted the Gaykrant with some reluctance since I have no great sympathy for the magazine. It is very much part of the bourgeois turn that the gay movement in the Netherlands took in the 1990’s. The gay emancipation in my country had the unexpected – at least for me – effect that a whole generation of young, ambitious politicians emerged who, in the wake of Pim Fortuyn, not only came out as gays, but also associated themselves with rightist or even extreme rightist parties. The Gaykrant is very much the journal for gays whose main ideal is to be normal (marriage included).
However, I had a special reason for contacting the magazine. In 2007 I started helping a Dutch pastor who had a consultation hour in the Bijlmer – the part of Amsterdam that comes closest to being a ghetto – for Africans without papers. He thought my experience in Africa and my knowledge of French could help. I became especially involved in the case of a gay Cameroonian (no wonder, since I have worked in Cameroon since 1971 and I am deeply shocked by the sudden eruption – since 2005 – of true witch-hunts against gays in this country). His asylum-request had been refused two times already. He had submitted a third request (the last one possible). We had found a good lawyer for him, who helped to mobilize all sorts of new evidence (Amnesty reports and such). Yet, the prospect was somewhat bleak. Therefore, we were looking for ways of further attracting attention to his plight. Being deported to Cameroon would have meant being locked up again with all the horrors of Cameroonian prisons, especially for people reputed to be gays. So we were looking for ways to mobilize support in case the worst came to the worst.
The Gaykrant had already built up some reputation in defending gay causes – at first in relation to the recognition of gay marriage, but also around subsequent issues. So I wrote to the editorial board drawing their attention to everything that was happening in Africa (of course, Cameroon is not the only country where homosexuality suddenly became a burning issue, on the contrary this seems to be part of a wave that swept all over the continent). And I offered the Gaykrant board to write a brief article on recent harassment of gays both by the police and by the population in Cameroon. At first my mail got lost. But after I called it was re-discovered. The journalist in charge was very interested and efficient, and the article was published within a few weeks – still in time before the dreaded news about the results of our Cameroonian friend’s third request. However, the news was initially good: he was put in a prolonged procedure, which meant that the immigration service would properly look at his file. So we did not need the article then. However, as usually, the affair dragged on: at first a negative advice, then a protest, another negative decision, and again, another protest. Until – almost two years later – quite abruptly the asylum was granted. We still do not know what the final reason for the volte-face of the immigration service had been. It certainly was not the Gayktrant article, probably rather all the support we had mobilized from all sorts of organizations and experts.
Yet, the article in the Gaykrant took on a momentum of its own. HIVOS, a large development organization in the Netherlands of humanist signature and one of the first to pick up the increasing harassment of gays in Africa, asked me to write a similar article for a collection they were publishing on the issue. This article seems to have turned me into some sort of global expert on gay issues in Cameroon. Since then I constantly receive requests from lawyers from different corners of the world – but mainly UK and USA – to write letters to support the asylum request of their client who claims that he cannot be sent back to Cameroon because (s)he is in danger of being persecuted as gay. That is not too much of a job since by now I have a basic text for an affidavit that, of course, has to be adapted to the case concerned; yet the major part of it can remain the same (mainly stating my research experience in Cameroon and an overview of the events that led to the recent intensification of harassment of gays in Cameroon – in itself a quite hilarious sequence since the starting point seems to have been the Xmas sermon of the archbishop of Yaounde in 2005 denouncing Freemason and Rosecrucian practices among the political elite; in Cameroon franc-macon is a very current codeword for faggot).
The confusing thing in all this is that I never did proper research on gay issues in Cameroon. Of course it was always a forbidden topic and very difficult to research for an expatriate anthropologist (gays are equated with witches; the main niche for transvestites is to become nganga /healer). I worked mainly in the forest area, where same-sex practices are at most very hidden. However, I was more or less pushed by the recent turn of events to follow the sudden cascade of events around the gay issue (a newspaper publishing a list of 50 prominent ‘gays’- with a little photo of each), popular indignation, concerted efforts by the elite to distance themselves from this terrible suspicion, interventions of Cameroon’s cardinal against the faintest possibility that same-sex practices would no longer be forbidden by the law etc.etc. Yet, I can hardly claim any special expertise in this field. One of my former Cameroonian students who is now teaching at the University of Douala is courageous enough to do proper research on police harassment of gays and judicial persecution. I invariably suggest him to the lawyers who write to me, saying that he is far better placed to do a report. But they want as invariably rather a professor of a University in the West. So indirectly my research experience in Cameroon is an asset in all this – it helps to be recognized as an expert by western judicial authorities (and at least as important is the fact that I regularly return to Cameroon). Still, I would never dare to pose as an expert on gay isssues in African contexts vis-à-vis my colleagues, for instance.
What is the conclusion of all this? Maybe that the relation between research and social relevance works the other way round as we would want it. It were not the research topics that I chose that made my work socially relevant in this case, it was rather an unexpected turn of events that made at least my general research experience relevant (in at least some contexts). And of special importance is here, of course, that it concerned a case that many researchers – especially those who still have to make their name in the country concerned – may hesitate to take up.
Peter Geschiere (1941) is professor of African anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He taught anthropology at Leiden, New York, and Witwatersrand; and history at Rotterdam and Kisangani. His recent publications deal with globalization and identity; capitalism and autochthony; and nationhood. Among his latest books are: The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe and The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa.