‘I Have to Be Open’

Posted June 22, 2018 9:23 p.m. EDT

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — In this country’s Portuguese-derived Creole language, there is no distinction between gender pronouns. Men and women are referred to in the masculine Portuguese “he,” which is considered gender neutral. But those semantics hardly encompass the vast array of identities represented here.

Take, for instance, the members of the Big Mama Fountain, a tightknit group of friends for whom gender and sexuality are fluid concepts.

That these people, who identify primarily as gay men and trans women, express themselves openly is an anomaly in the region; Guinea-Bissau’s closest neighbors — Senegal, Gambia and Guinea — have laws that criminalize homosexuality or same-sex acts. And while it is legal to be gay in Guinea-Bissau, acceptance is a continuing battle.

Leondro is the de facto godmother of the Big Mamas. She is also referred to as Bissau’s Boy George, likely because she often wears thick black eyeliner. At 47, Leondro is the oldest member of the group and the first person many of them can remember coming out publicly. Her visibility, she says, is a means of social activism.

“I have to be open about being gay,” Leondro said. “If I am not, how will I help others?”

Her authentic approach to everyday life has empowered others in her community to live honestly, and people in Bissau, the capital of the country, have become increasingly tolerant of the local LGBTQ community. It’s a small victory in a country where rape cases are not prosecuted and there are no laws to protect against sexual harassment, which is widespread.

Leondro’s maternal presence is most crucial to the younger Big Mamas, like Ivan. At 23, she can’t remember a time when Leondro wasn’t around to support her. Ivan started dating boys as a teenager and her behavior occasionally led to beatings at home. “Sometimes people don’t want to be open about being gay and Leondro says no matter who you are, just be yourself,” she said. Ivan’s family has come around to accepting her gender, but that doesn’t mean she does not face discrimination elsewhere. “Recently I went to a nightclub, and while we were dancing a girl was insulting me because I was gay, and we got into a fight,” Ivan said. “Eventually we ended up at a police station.” A phone call from Leondro reminded her that she had nothing to be ashamed of.

“People used to throw stones and bottles, but it’s getting better now,” Leondro said. “They are getting used to us and also we got used to the abuse. The more people were swearing at us, the more we felt comfortable because we felt used to it.”

In Bissau, palm trees dot streets that are lined with faded pink and orange colonial-era houses. During Carnival, in February, some of those streets shut down so revelers can walk easily together, strutting through the city in colorful attire: wigs, bright plastic glasses and face paint. The costumed participants would fit right in at a Pride parade.

But for the Big Mamas every day is an occasion to express themselves through clothing and they do so without restraint.

The relative acceptance of LGBTQ people in Guinea-Bissau stands in stark contrast to the strict laws and social conventions in other West African countries and across the continent. More than half of the countries in Africa outlaw homosexuality and it is punishable by death in some areas, according to Amnesty International. Leondro told a story that took place last year. She was on her way to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when she had a layover in nearby Togo. The airport’s immigration police there asked her if she was a man or a woman. “I told them that it was up to them to take a look and see for themselves,” she said, laughing.

But while she jokes about it at first, the encounter stoked fear in her. Because of a flight delay, she ended up having to stay in Togo for two days. “I didn’t leave my hotel room for those entire two days,” she said, her face serious. She was too scared. In Togo, same-sex activity is a crime, punishable by imprisonment and a fine.

In Senegal, which borders Guinea-Bissau to the north, homophobia is so rampant that there was public outcry a few years ago. A popular Senegalese singer, Wally Seck, appeared in a 2015 music video holding what appeared to be a woman’s handbag.

Writers in local media denounced his fashion statement as promoting homosexuality, though Seck insisted that he was not gay. Eventually, Seck destroyed the handbag with scissors onstage at a concert, a public demonstration that underscored the widespread homophobia in his nation.

Seck was unable to exercise his “right to expression through choice of clothing,” said François Patuel, a West Africa researcher with Amnesty International, in a phone interview. There is a real threat of physical violence in Senegal, he said, citing a case from 2016 in which a student at the university “was beaten up because other students thought he was gay.”

Guinea, which borders Guinea-Bissau to the south and east, also criminalizes same-sex acts. And in Gambia, to the north, a law enacted in 2014 allows life sentences in prison for LGBTQ people.

Some people from Senegal and Gambia have fled to Guinea-Bissau for safety, or to live more openly, said Mamadu Aliú Djalo, the national director of ENDA Health, an organization that helps vulnerable populations gain access to information about health care.

“Before, it was not as visible,” Djalo said of the LGBTQ community in West Africa. “Now they are gathering their courage to be open and say, ‘Here I am. I am gay.'”

Leondro said: “People laugh at us. They don’t take us seriously. You have to be brave, you have to fight.”