A gay boy chasing love in West Africa—considering my reputation as a foul-mouthed drag queen, my friends didn’t think it was a good idea. But in early February, I did it anyway. I took time off from my nightmare job, packed lash curlers and a Summer’s Eve douche, and went to see a boy in Dakar. I wanted to forget what I’d heard about the recent anti-gay violence in Senegal, Cameroon, and Nigeria; I wanted to start living my damn life. But even as I boarded my plane, I still wondered: Would a homo like me—one who wears a hint of makeup even when she’s out of drag—be safe on “the most homophobic continent” on earth?
It’s a question I hadn’t considered until last September, when I first met Seydou.* I was on my way to oggle boys on the beach in Dakar, Senegal’s capitol, when he started walking alongside me, the way men do when they want to sweet talk. Before you get excited, let me say that this man was no prince. Built like a grasshopper, he was so plain that I forgot his face every time I looked away. But Dakar was an overwhelming, lonely city, and I’m the kind of girl who eats whatever’s on her plate—so I gave Seydou a chance. And that was that. A week later we were on an eight-hour bus ride toward Mali to meet the parents.
In the next few months, I found myself caught up in a drama that was much bigger than my love life. Seydou was asking me to come back and make plans, but West Africa was condemning all things gay. Senegal’s President Macky Sall had already publicly defended the country’s laws against homosexual acts during a visit from President Obama last June. In January 2014, Nigeria’s president signed a ban on same-sex relationships, sparking a wave of arrests. Days before my departure, a group of suspected homosexuals was attacked in Rufisque, just outside of Seydou’s hometown. And these were just a few of the many stories that I took in with my morning coffee every day.
Every long distance relationship feels absurd—but this one was starting to feel dangerous. Loved ones began expressing their concerns. “What if he starts feeling guilty and kills you?” my hairstylist suggested. My friend Mark interrupted our Tumblr smut email chain with an article about Senegalese men sentenced to six months in prison for engaging in “unnatural acts.” And, with a hint of glee, my coworkers chatted with me about the latest African Sun Times: “AFRICA REJECTS HOMOSEXUALITY,” the cover said. All caps like that.
But that headline didn’t match the Africa—or at least the small part of it—where I had fallen for Seydou.
During my own experience in Senegal, I never felt afraid to act queer. Sure, the hotel guard called me “Madame,” but he said it with a sly smile—and he had beautiful biceps, so I didn’t mind. Meanwhile, the lines between gay and straight were wonderfully blurry. Straight men snuggled openly! Seydou’s hetero friends applied lotion to each other’s backs, napped in each other’s laps, and slept in puppy piles at night. Once they got comfortable with me, they started holding my hand when we walked together. “Danga bax,” they said, “You are good.” In Dakar, I saw heterosexual men enjoy a luxury that few New York gays ever experience: male-on-male tenderness.
Reflecting on those experiences, I stopped focusing on West Africa’s reputation as a bastion of homophobia and began to think about my own county. After all, the United States can still be a hostile place for love between men, and for queer life in general. Despite our President’s advocacy for gay rights abroad, thirty-three states still forbid gay marriage. Anti-gay violence is hardly rare. Right here in New York City last May, a gay man was gunned down in the West Village after being subjected to homophobic slurs. By August, 68 anti-gay incidents were reported, a steep increase from the total of 54 in 2012. As a drag queen, I was particularly affected when a transgendered woman was beaten to death in my neighborhood that same month. I tried to shrug it off and continued wearing heels on my way to work. But I started taking cabs instead of the train. Incidentally, the cabs that made me feel most welcome were Harlem’s gypsy cabs—cabs driven by West African men.
Just before my departure to Dakar, I tried to calm my nerves by badgering Mamadou, a friend who grew up gay in Senegal. I caught up with him on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, where he was playing with his nieces in a pink button-down. “Yeah, gay life is big in Dakar,” he said, “You just have to know where to look.” I started to press for more, but noticed his nervous, side-long glances. Maybe he didn’t want to discuss gay stuff in front of his family. Or maybe he didn’t want to be seen with a gay boy in Harlem. I had to let the topic go. Walking away, I realized that there was only one person who could ease my fears. If I wanted to see him, I’d have to fly 4,000 miles from home and accept the risks.
I’m writing this on my return flight to New York. I wish I could tell you that I’ve become an expert on gay life in West Africa, but the truth is that I’m more confused. While I was away, a gay rights activist was arrested in Cameroon, a mob beat more than a dozen gay men with clubs and whips in Nigeria, and I was often reminded to watch my back at night—but in my personal interactions, I was treated with acceptance across the board. In fact, my only unpleasant experience was explaining the condition of American gays to Seydou: He understood the United States as a place where gays could expect safety on the streets, and where gay marriage was enthusiastically accepted.
Now, as Seydou waits for his passport to arrive in the mail, I can’t help but wonder: Will a homo like him be safe in West Harlem?
*The names in this essay have been changed.