Dakar – Every time Abdou’s mother hears of a homophobic attack in the streets of Senegal’s capital Dakar, she locks him in her bedroom.
Abdou – who, like other LGBTQ people AFP interviewed, asked not to be identified by his real name – is used to hiding. He has been concealing his sexuality most of his life.
But lately the 20-year-old has felt even more in danger.
“The situation is becoming more and more serious,” said the soft-spoken unemployed tailor.
“Before they would say you were gay, but they didn’t hit you. Today you are beaten and it’s posted on social media.”
Homosexuality has never been widely accepted in Senegal, a deeply conservative nation. But tensions have risen to new heights in recent months.
In May, Senegalese football star Idrissa Gana Gueye was criticised in France for missing a Paris Saint-Germain match for “personal reasons” in which players wore rainbow jerseys to support LGBTQ rights.
ALSO READ | LGBTQ tolerance billboards spark uproar in Ghana
The reports prompted an outpouring of support for Gueye back home with social media deluged with homophobic memes.
Days later, a mob hurling homophobic slurs beat up an American artist who was in Dakar for an international festival.
Abdou’s nightmare began when a cousin discovered his sexuality and outed him, forcing him to flee from Senegal for months after being banished from his house, sacked from his job and bombarded with threats.
Now he is back and said he is trying to convince his family he has “become” straight.
“I tried several times to say, ‘Tomorrow, I’m not going to be gay anymore, tomorrow I’m going to try to find a girlfriend,’ [but] I can’t.”
Abou cut contact with his gay friends to protect them and spends most of his time in isolation, trawling social media for information about Senegal’s growing anti-gay movement.
“I can’t find the words to describe how much it hurts deep down to be hated,” he said.
He once even tried to kill himself by drinking a poison for cockroaches.
The gay ‘lobby’
Activists say anti-gay rhetoric has been ramped up since a May 2021 demonstration in the capital calling for gay sex – currently punishable by up to five years in prison – to be made a serious crime.
France, the former colonial power, has removed Senegal from its list of safe countries of origin because of the risks gays face there.
Last year the majority of the 1,300 Senegalese asylum applications in France cited persecution over sexual orientation, according to official figures.
But many in Muslim-majority Senegal believe homosexuality is a Western lifestyle being imposed on their society.
“I don’t see how Senegal should change its position to give more space to these homosexuals,” said Abdoulaye Guisse, a 28-year-old student, adding that LGBTQ people should remain “discreet”.
“Socially it is not allowed – religion is so strong in Senegal that it conditions our social practices.”
Powerful Sufi brotherhoods hold considerable social and political clout in Senegal.
ALSO READ | eSwatini court refuses to recognise LGBTQ group
There is also growing anti-French sentiment.
Ababacar Mboup, who runs And Samm Jikko Yi, a group that helped organise last year’s march, accused France of forcing its customs on Senegal when it does not accept Muslim practices such as polygamy within its borders.
He said he wants to stop the gay “lobby” from dominating mainstream Senegalese culture.
“If two homosexuals, holed up in their home, engage in their activities, that does not concern us — but we really want to preserve Senegalese public space,” he said, insisting his organisation is peaceful and does not condone mob violence.
“Holding Gay Pride… that we will not accept.”
Senegal is not the only sub-Saharan state with laws against gay sex – some two dozen others have them as well.
While some nonetheless have small but visible LGBTQ communities, in Senegal – a country known for its hospitality, with a reputation for stability and the rule of law – that is not the case.
‘You just want to leave’
Khalifa, a bisexual, claims groups have been tracking down LGBTQ people and rights groups that help them and publicly denouncing them.
The 34-year-old, who was recently outed to his family and forced into hiding outside Dakar, said some homophobes have his personal information and he is worried they will publish it.
“In Senegal, there is no place for gays,” he said. “When you hear the imams preach you just want to get on a plane and leave immediately.”
Even though he is proud to be Senegalese and a practising Muslim, he hopes to get asylum abroad.
“For me there is only one nationality on Earth and that is Senegalese,” he said.
Married with a child, Khalifa was able to hide his bisexuality most of his life, until being outed by a friend after a falling-out.
“When I walk outside, you can’t tell I’m bisexual – on the contrary, you think it’s a homophobe walking,” he said. “That’s part of the tactics.”
Abdou, on the other hand, was effeminate from a young age and his mother forced him to see a religious leader known as a marabout for “treatments” including midnight “spiritual” baths and conversion therapy.
As he got older, gay men would stop him in the streets and ask for his phone number.
That can be dangerous. LGBTQ people can be lured into meetings where they are attacked.
Dakar has never had gay bars, LGBTQ community members say, but there were previously venues where they would meet and mingle alongside straight people without others knowing.
All that has stopped since the anti-gay march.
“It is riskier today to publicly display one’s LGBTQI identity in Senegal compared to a few years ago,” said Ousmane Diallo, an Amnesty International researcher.
Gay activists claim politicians are jumping on the anti-gay bandwagon to rally support for parliamentary elections Sunday and a presidential vote in 2024.
Father swore he’d shoot son
Mame Mactar Gueye, the leader of the Jamra NGO that has been pushing for harsher punishments for gay sex, argued that tougher laws would in fact be “dissuasive” and protect LGBTQ people from mob violence.
After parliament rejected them in January, Jamra organised a second march in February, and Gueye met President Macky Sall in May.
Gueye said that historically there was a place in Senegalese society for effeminate men or transvestites known as “goor-jigeens” – meaning “man-woman” in Wolof – but that LGBTQ people have gone too far with sacrilegious “provocations” over the last decade.
“They started to be a problem when they organised themselves into associations and started to invade the public space,” he said.
“Many countries have given in,” Gueye said, claiming Gabon had “fallen into the hands of the LGBT lobby” by relaxing laws on gay sex.
ALSO READ | Senegal probing feared homophobic attack by mob
“You Westerners are used to teaching us in your university lecture halls that democracy is the law of the majority, but please, the overwhelming majority of Senegalese don’t want it,” he said.
For Senegalese gays, leaving may seem the best option, but it comes with its own challenges.
Daouda, 32, fled to a neighbouring country in 2016 and sometimes struggles to make ends meet.
“In Senegal living with homosexuality means being in danger from morning to night,” he said.
He misses his family and would like to go home but believes he cannot so long as his father is alive.
“He took out a gun and wanted to shoot me – if there weren’t people in the house right then I would have died,” he said. “He swore that he’d kill me if it’s the last thing he does.”