(This post originally appeared on the GLAAD Blog.)
In honor of Women’s History Month, GLAAD is profiling women advocates and allies who have contributed to making the world a safer, more equal place for LGBT people.
Alice Nkom is a lawyer and LGBT activist from Cameroon, a country in central Africa where it is illegal to engage in sexual relations with a person of the same gender. Although the law technically states that arrests can only be made when the individuals are caught in the act, many men and women have been arrested on the suspicion of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Since 2003, Alice Nkom has been a vocal opponent of the persecution of gay and lesbian men and women in Cameroon and a defender of those charged under Cameroon’s so-called “anti-homosexuality” laws. However speaking out for equality has increasingly become dangerous in Cameroon.
Although a declaration of human rights is written into Cameroon’s constitution, Nkom has repeatedly seen clients jailed for offenses that cannot be proven. In one instance, a man called the police after catching two men trying to burglarize his home. The robbers claimed that the homeowner was trying to sleep with them; all three men were sentenced to six months in jail. Six months is a minimum sentence for anyone found guilty of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The maximum sentence is five years and Nkom has seen clients withstand attacks and malnutrition while in jail. She has even been threatened with arrest herself for continuing to advocate on behalf of Cameroon’s gay and lesbian population.
Despite threats to her safety, Alice Nkom has continued to pursue equality for gay and lesbian people living in Cameroon. Last fall, All Out, a global organization dedicated to using new media to campaign for LGBT equality, launched a petition on her behalf that has garnered almost 75,000 signatures. In the accompanying letter, Nkom states:
I'm watching police in Cameroon conduct an anti-gay crackdown - over 10 people have been arrested on charges of "homosexuality" in the last months. One of them, Jean-Claude, has been sentenced to 3 years in prison merely for sending a text message to another man. I've heard countless recent stories of homophobic violence throughout the country. I'm 66, and in ten years of defending lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) people in Cameroon, it has never been this bad.
Just over two thirds of Cameroon’s population is Christian, and Catholics make up the largest Christian denomination represented among Cameroonians. Cameroon’s Catholic archbishop has actively contributed to the marginalization of LGBT people in that country. In 2005, he used his Christmas homily to blame gay and lesbian people for the high rates of youth unemployment, claiming that “high-profile Cameroonians […] gave jobs to those who favoured same-sex activities.” Another Cameroonian lawyer went on television with a Bible, arguing that Nkom should be put to death for “encouraging homosexuality.”
But Nkom continues her work, saying “when you are doing something that is right, you just do it and take care … Someone has to do this.”