As the sun sets on the gritty streets of the metropolis, Marie, a 27-year-old transgender woman, shares that she prefers to stay indoors during the day and only ventures outside at night. With a toss of her lengthy red hair, she clarifies that she doesn’t even want to step outside her door in daylight. Marie admits that living alone in the dark can be isolating, but it’s the only way she feels secure after enduring years of abuse.
Marie, requesting that her last name be kept confidential for safety concerns, discloses that the torment began when she was just eight years old. “I used to wake up early to dress in my sister’s garments before school,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to hide my true self anymore.” However, in a country like Senegal where traditional gender roles are strictly enforced, revealing her identity made her a target for assault. After years of harassment, Marie was compelled to drop out of school at the age of thirteen.
In an attempt to correct what her family perceived as an abnormality, Marie’s father enrolled her in a rigorous Quranic school, which only made things worse. “That was when I was first raped,” Marie recalls. “At night, the teachers would come into the dormitories and take me to their room, saying, ‘Since you believe you’re a woman, we’ll teach you how we treat women.'”
Marie would lie in bed afterward, consumed by shame, hoping to be left alone. Fifteen years later, darkness is still Marie’s only sanctuary from a society that remains deeply opposed to LGBT rights. Gay sex is illegal in Senegal, as it is in 33 other African countries, and attacks and arrests of queer individuals are frequent. According to a researcher with Amnesty International in Dakar, “LGBT individuals operate in an extremely hostile environment.
Men are often subject to physical violence, while women face sexual violence. They have no access to justice.” Violence against gay men and trans women has risen since 2008, according to Human Rights Watch. Following a public uproar over an alleged “gay wedding,” gay men “became increasingly susceptible to popular retribution and arbitrary arrests.” When one of the men pictured in the wedding, Madieye Diallo, died of AIDS in 2009, a furious mob exhumed his body and paraded it through the streets before leaving it outside his parents’ home.
Djamil Bangoura, a local LGBT activist and a close friend of Madieye Diallo, recalls the aftermath of Diallo’s death: “We had to bury him in the wilderness,” he says. “That’s when I saw how weak the state is. We are not safeguarded by the law, the justice system, or the police. How can people expect us to keep living like this?”
Sadou Ndiaye, a 32-year-old gay man residing in Dakar, remembers the post-2008 period with discomfort. “It was too difficult for gay people,” he explains. “We couldn’t even leave our homes.” Fearing for his safety, Ndiaye chose to flee to neighboring Mauritania, where the punishment for being gay is death by stoning. However, Ndiaye claims that the anonymity of living in Mauritania was preferable to the constant fear in Senegal, where gay individuals are often targeted by the media. “In Mauritania, nobody knows you, and you don’t have to be afraid,” he tells me. “You can live your gay dream.”
Ndiaye is not the only one who feels this way. According to Bangoura, who recently visited Mauritania, dozens of gay men have sought refuge there, fleeing oppression in Senegal. Nevertheless, Mauritania remains a hostile environment for LGBT individuals. “When the police stop you, you don’t even have the right to explain yourself,” says Ndiaye. However, unlike in Senegal, Ndiaye explains that rampant corruption in Mauritania implies that one can usually bribe their way out of trouble. “If you pay, they’ll let you go free,” he remarks. “Money is the only thing that matters over there.”
Despite this, Ndiaye had had enough after a year of frequent arrests. In 2010, he decided to return to Senegal. “Things were much calmer than they were in 2008,” he remarks. But the tranquility didn’t last.
In 2013, during his visit to Senegal, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the issue of LGBT rights with President Macky Sall. However, Sall was unyielding in his response. Shortly thereafter, a lesbian activist, who goes by the pseudonym Adja*, and runs a women’s rights organization in Dakar, was imprisoned as part of a nationwide crackdown. In the following February, the police apprehended four men who were attempting to “clean their neighborhood” by tracking down and assaulting gay men.
Adja comments, “Obama came to Senegal and demanded that the law be changed. I would have told him that it’s all well and good, but what power do I have to effect that change?”
Such anti-LGBTQ movements are increasingly common across sub-Saharan Africa. As Western countries have made progress in advancing LGBTQ rights, and in some cases actively advocated for similar advancements in Africa, countries like Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria have moved in the opposite direction. These countries are cracking down on LGBTQ activism and passing more stringent laws to suppress the LGBTQ community.
Bamar Guèye, the executive director of Jamra, a conservative religious organization in Senegal, which focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention, often speaks out against homosexuality. Guèye suggests that the efforts made by Obama and others to influence Senegal on LGBTQ rights have backfired because “global society is being turned upside down. Just because something happens in their countries, they want to impose it on other places. But no one has the right to dictate to others. It’s the winds of excessive liberty.”
The anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Senegal continued in 2015 when Ndiaye, a gay man from Dakar, was arrested along with 10 others for supposedly engaging in “homosexual acts” at a party. He was imprisoned for six months, and although he was eventually released on appeal, the incident has left him traumatized. As a result, he is considering returning to Mauritania.
According to Patuel from Amnesty International, the arrests in 2015 “created panic in the community, and people don’t think they can stay here.”
However, life in Mauritania is also dangerous, especially for the 22 percent of Senegalese gay and bisexual men who live with HIV. Accessing medication in Mauritania is nearly impossible due to limited healthcare resources and the heavy stigma surrounding the disease.
Bangoura, who visited his friends and colleagues across the border, notes that “their health is getting worse every day, and they’re dying in the desert.”
While there have been government efforts in Senegal to address HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) with support from international aid groups, initiatives can only go so far while the government continues to arrest LGBTQ individuals. A study of HIV healthcare in Senegal from 2011 notes that “service providers suspended HIV prevention work with MSM out of fear for their own safety” due to the “pervasive fear and hiding among MSM as a result of the December 2008 arrests and publicity.”
Accessing healthcare is even more challenging for trans women. Marie, a trans woman in Dakar, fled from the Quranic school and went to Saint-Louis, a city in northern Senegal. However, her cousin took her in and forced her into sex work soon after. Marie felt helpless and understood the risks of engaging in sex work. She notes that “you don’t know these people, and you don’t know if they’ll infect you.”
Sadly, not long after leaving Saint-Louis, Marie received a positive HIV diagnosis. She was not surprised but faced discrimination while seeking treatment due to her appearance. She reveals that when she goes to get her medicine, they always make her wait until last, even if she was the first to arrive. However, without the medication, she could die.
After returning from Mauritania, Ndiaye has been helping people, including Marie, to access HIV treatment. He has been organizing free testing events for the LGBT community. Ndiaye also has a boyfriend now and loves him dearly. However, Ndiaye wants to convince his partner to return with him to Mauritania. In Senegal, love is lived in the darkness, and they can only see each other in the evenings. “It’s always night,” says Ndiaye.
Nevertheless, Adja and other activists believe they have no choice but to stay in Senegal and hope for a brighter future. “I won’t leave,” Adja asserts as dusk falls on Dakar once again. “If we all leave the country, who will continue the fight?”