In the West African nation of Cameroon, as in over 70 other countries around the world, same-sex intimacy is illegal. Since it is literally illegal to be gay, to be ‘out’ is to be an obvious target of persecution. Indeed, said N’kom through her translator, “men have been arrested and imprisoned for hairstyle and for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream. These crimes of fashion proved the men were feminine and thus gay and therefore worthy of incarceration. Perception is everything.”
In addition to state violence, gay people in Cameroon are also subject to state-sanctioned violence. One of Cameroon’s leading LGBT activists, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed on July 15, 2013. The crime was never solved, or even seriously investigated. Police didn’t preserve the crime scene, only questioned other gay activists, and dropped the case without explanation.
How, then, are LGBT people to advocate for their rights (civil, human, or otherwise) if they cannot even identify themselves?
Meet Alice Nkom. As a straight woman, N’kom is mostly safe from legal prosecution (though not from acts of violence, of course) and can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Born in 1945, N’kom has been a lawyer since 1969. She was the first woman to become a lawyer in Cameroon, and had a long career as a civil rights attorney. Her clients have included victims of police violence and women’s rights activists targeted by the state.
In the last decade, she has become famous for defending people accused (and sometimes convicted) of homosexuality—including, for example, Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, who spent three years in jail on the basis of text messages sent to another man.
Needless to say, this does not enamor herself to the powers that be in Cameroon. She has been threatened with disbarment, imprisonment, and worse. N’kom was almost arrested in 2011. It is likely the case that attention and outrage from overseas saved her from this fate.