‘Jammeh used LGBTQ as political scapegoat'

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Gambia’s former President Yahya Jammeh has chosen anti-LGBT vitriol as a political scapegoat, argues a U.S. author who lived in The Gambia as a law professor at the University of The Gambia in 2010-2011. (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; Q for questioning when one is not sure of orientation).

“At that time, Jammeh government was held together by fear and fiat, the economy was crumbling, and discontent was rising in The Gambia. He needed something, a target that he could unify people around. So, he chose a scapegoat, rallying behind purported values and lashed out against LGBTQ peoples,” Josh Scheinert explains in an exclusive interview with The Point.

Gambia’s former President is on record as being one of the African leaders who held homosexuality in contempt and hatred. In September 2013, for example, Jammeh said that homosexuality was “more-deadly than all natural disasters put together”.

In an address to the UN General Assembly, he put homosexuality alongside “greed” and “obsession with world domination” as the three “biggest threats to human existence”. He threatened to chop-off the heads of any LGBT guy he catches practicing it in The Gambia.

“I think a lot about Jammeh was perplexing. It is important, however, to view his words in their proper context. When Jammeh started to be most hateful in his language, it was towards the end of his rule…. There was certainly a measure of anti-LGBTQ prejudice in The Gambia to build on when he did that, but you can’t discount the political expediency of his doing so either,” Scheinert said.

Mr. Scheinert’s book, The Order of Nature, explores the relationship between two young men in The Gambia - one American and one Gambian. During his stint at the UTG, he had misconceptions about what the prevailing attitudes were in The Gambia about homosexuality. So, he wrote the book as a way of contributing to what he calls “an important conversation”.

He said the force with which Jammeh spoke out against homosexuality at the end of his rule is in sharp contrast to how it was dealt with early on. Jammeh’ slinking of homosexuality with Western values and imports into Africa in order to build up his claim to be a guardian of true African or Gambian heritage is also factually incorrect, he argued.

“There’s been some good research showing how homosexuality existed across Africa well before the West, and colonialism, arrived. In fact, colonialism brought homophobia and prejudice, not homosexuality, to Africa. One need to only look at the laws criminalizing homosexual activity - they’re inherited from the British,” he explained.

Josh Scheinert authored a book, The Order of Nature, which explores the relationship between two young men in The Gambia - during his stint at the UTG. In this interview with Journalist Sanna Camara, he speaks about his sexuality, Gambian society’ misconceptions about LGBTQ, President Jammeh and other issues.

Sanna: Are you Gay? Or did you just have gay friends to the point you want to speak for them?

Ans: I am gay.

Sanna: What inspires you to write “The Order of Nature”?

Ans: This has been a story that I’ve long wanted to tell, one that I didn’t think was getting as much attention as it deserved. The human cost of what it’s like to live in deeply homophobic societies with anti-LGBTQ laws is frequently overlooked and engaged with largely in the abstract. One reason I wrote The Order of Nature was to show what it means for real people to have live somewhere like that. 

Sanna: Why would any non-Gambian, from Zambia for example, buy this book?

Ans: The book is set in The Gambia, and draws heavily on Gambia’s reality, but there are two universal aspects that make it a book everyone can pick up and relate to. First, every community has its Thomas - the Gambian character in the book. In numerous places around the world LBGTQ persons find themselves castigated like Thomas. At its core the book is about how a community with deep-rooted prejudice confronts someone like Thomas. Unfortunately that’s not a question limited to The Gambia. The other universal aspect of the book is about love, about how far we’re willing to go, and what risks we’re willing to take for love. That’s something we’ve been telling stories about since storytelling began.

Sanna: What is the storyline for “The Order of Nature?”

Ans: The Order of Nature follows an American volunteer, Andrew, as he arrives in The Gambia to begin a year-long volunteer placement. Andrew is gay, but in the closet and has no plans to explore that aspect of his identity while in The Gambia. However, while visiting one of the local hotels, he meets Thomas, a Gambian man who works at the bar. Thomas is also in the closet, and lives a quiet life with few friends. Over time, Andrew and Thomas develop a friendship, and eventually a romantic relationship. It’s the first relationship for either of them, and the book follows this relationship as each of them grows more comfortable as individuals and a couple. There’s the added layer of trying to navigate the relationship in a country that criminalizes homosexual acts and whose communities are not accepting of it. At first they think they’ve succeeded in finding a path for themselves, but eventually they are discovered. The last part of the book explores what happens then.

Sanna: Having been here (in The Gambia) for a while: do you agree that the society would be “much kind to a rapist than a homosexual”, as someone puts it? Why?

Ans: I haven’t been in The Gambia since 2011, so I can’t comment specifically on what might or might not happen today. What I know is that the level of anti-LGBTQ vitriol got much worse after I left. Still, I would have trouble, and I would hope others would also, if a society chose to be kinder to a rapist, someone who actively and horrifically violates and assaults another person, as compared to an LGBTQ individual whose only harm is having an identity others find themselves incapable of accepting.

Sanna: Do you agree with the position of our (Gambian) society on LGBTQ people?

Ans: I do not. I think basic human dignity must be accorded to each individual.

Sanna: Our former President was openly hostile to gay rights.... that they deserve no right to existence. Do you think that his attitude towards gays is influenced by the society or something else?

Ans: It’s an interesting question, one that I’m not entirely sure of the answer to. I think a lot about Jammeh was perplexing. It is important, however, to view his words in their proper context. When Jammeh started to be most hateful in his language, it was towards the end of his rule. At that time, his government was held together by fear and fiat, the economy was crumbling, and discontent was rising in Gambia. He needed something, a target, that he could unify people around. So he chose a scapegoat, rallying behind purported values and lashed out against LGBTQ peoples. There was certainly a measure of anti-LGBTQ prejudice in The Gambia to build on when he did that, but you can’t discount the political expediency of his doing so either. The force with which he spoke out against homosexuality at the end of his rule is in sharp contrast to how it was dealt with early on. His linking of homosexuality with Western values and imports into Africa in order to build up his claim to be a guardian of true African or Gambian heritage is also factually incorrect. There’s been some good research showing how homosexuality existed across Africa well before the West, and colonialism, arrived. In fact, colonialism brought homophobia and prejudice, not homosexuality, to Africa. One need only look at the laws criminalizing homosexual activity - they’re inherited from the British.

Sanna: Do you think Gambians will ever accept gay rights? Should this country accept them, in your view?

Ans: The first question is one for Gambians to ultimately answer, but on which I’ll make two points. First, the world is filled with societies that accept and embrace groups that were once villified outcasts. There was a time in each of those societies where it would have been unfathomable that such a group would one day be tolerated. But it’s happened all around us. That doesn’t mean it occurs overnight. It does means that some of the most deeply-held prejudices can fade away; socities can learn to be more tolerant. Second, one thing I tried to do in the book is to show the human cost of holding onto one’s prejudice. I want Gambians to read the book and follow Andrew and Thomas’s journey, to feel what they feel, in particular Thomas, and feel the cost of what it means to be an LGBTQ person in The Gambia. Up til now my sense is that Gambians dismiss people like Thomas out of hand. But after reading the book it’s my hope that people will think twice about holding onto these prejudices, and that a conversation can ensue about where as a society Gambia would like to go. Is the country really prepared to keep treating Thomas the way it has been?

This leads to your second question. In my view, I find it troubling that any society, including The Gambia, would be so willing to castigate its own brothers and sisters - especially so in The Gambia where I’ve seen the warmth you’re capable of. Because I don’t think anyone should be cast out just for who they are, it follows that a country, including The Gambia, should accept everyone for who they are. 

Sanna: Do you think it is time for gay people to open up and speak about their sexuality or not? Why?

Ans: First and foremost, people have to be concerned with their safety. From speaking with some people, I’m not entirely sure it would be safe for LGBTQ people to start speaking up in The Gambia. There are, however, numerous examples of LGBTQ communities speaking up throughout the African continent and elsewhere, which is something I obviously support. The flip side is that once people start to realize that their friends are gay, their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, it becomes a different question. After spending a year living in The Gambia and teaching at the university, I’d like to think that at least some of my students might upon learning that I’m gay, have a more nuanced and tolerant view of being gay. So in that sense, if people feel that there’s someone they can trust, who can begin the process of creating ripples of tolerance and acceptance, I think that’s a constructive way to move forward.

Sanna: Just before I take leave of you, let me know this: For how long have you been gay, or did you discover your sexuality when you met ‘your love’ here in Banjul?

Ans: Based on your questions, I just want to clarify a few things: the book is fiction and is not autobiographical - I did not have a relationship with anyone in The Gambia and the relationship between Andrew and Thomas is not based on my experience. The only thing I did hide while in The Gambia was my sexuality - I only confided to being gay to a small number of expats. And to your question about how long I have been gay - I have always been gay.

Sanna: Thank you very much for peaking to us.

Ans: Thank you, Sanna. 

Author: Sanna Camara