Is There Gay Life in Benin?

– a Returned Volunteer

Arriving in Africa, I was certain that I would be signing a two year vow of celibacy and a contract for a non-gay existence. I knew that this would be difficult. Although I am not the type of guy who only shops in gay markets and eats in gay restaurants, I do enjoy hanging out with other like minded guys and dabbling in the gay social scene. After a few months of ‘stage’ in Benin, my role as a PCV changed drastically, as my villageois lifestyle as a TEFL volunteer melted away, and I took on an HIV/AIDS prevention project for Beninese youth with a large American NGO in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. With a population of 700,000 people, a large expatriate community, a smattering of foreign restaurants, and a host of activities to keep me busy, I knew that my Peace Corps experience would be very different from that of my fellow PCVs. I also knew that this was my chance, if any, to glimpse a trace of the homosexual community in Benin. I was, after all, the only out gay volunteer, so I had to look elsewhere for my gay brethren.

Photo by  rgrilo on Flickr

Photo by rgrilo on Flickr

Keeping in mind that homosexuality is illegal in Benin and that any involvement with such issues could endanger my place as a volunteer, I set out to find a sign of its existence. Over the course of my first six months at post, I deftly posed non incriminating questions to my colleagues and to the people I met… ‘What is the urban view of homosexuality?’ ‘How does it differ from that of the village view?’ ‘Does HIV/AIDS prevention material address homosexuality?’ ‘What’s the word for homosexuality in Fon?’ ‘Do you know any homosexuals?’ The majority of responses were rather vapid and noncommittal, quick shrugs. For them, homosexuality was such a non-entity in Benin—something that exists in Europe and America but had not ‘infected’ Africa. Some responses indicated beliefs that homosexuality was a gene only found in white people. Although men walked hand in hand down the street, this union was entirely nonsexual; locals were quick to identify this as completely normal, entirely replete of any homosexual undertones. I was not quite so sure. Sometimes I felt that the inquisitive looks that I received while walking down the street from Beninese men were more than a slight curiosity—the particular ‘I know about you’ gleam was in their eye, albeit fleeting and inconclusive. Still, I kept on my path of discovery. Even though I had no hard proof and everyone seemed to deny the existence of homosexuality—no one spoke against it either.
I continued to lie about my so-called ‘girlfriend’ in France—never mind the fact that she was a he; it helped to explain why I was not married or even interested in the plethora of available women. I kept telling myself that there must be a gay community in Cotonou—convincing myself that any city of relative size was sure to have an active homosexual presence, no matter how hidden. At the same time, I must admit, I was beginning to lose faith in finding any evidence, and I began to resolve myself to the belief that whatever community there was would continue to evade me. Then, when I least expected it, I found it. Or rather, I found a trace of it, with promises that there were more. While at a housewarming party for a fellow American, I met a Beninese guy and his, ‘shhh’ boyfriend. I was elated. Finally, a glimpse. Unfortunately, that was all that was to be provided to me. I learned that their secret was so hidden, that not even their closest friends knew. They both maintained a separate public life and only indulged in the presence of each other behind closed and locked doors. How sad…my initial reaction made me feel pity for their situation. But, in this society, where such behavior is not ‘common’ and completely unacceptable and worthy of imprisonment or even death (not legal death, but traditional villageois ‘death by burning’)…at least their highly secretive life affords them some amount of existence as the gay men they are. They can be with each other in private and lie to others in public. I imagined other private love affairs scattered throughout the city and country: so much for Africans being immune to the gay gene.

To this day, not two months after this initial contact, I have yet to have any gay friends. The couple that I met remains elusive to me, and though I have heard that others exist and even socialize together, I have yet to be privy to such information. A non-gay friend mentioned hearing about a gay bar—though with no name and no address, I was rather SOL in finding this rare jewel. From time to time, my questions yield answers, though not always positive responses. For example, I learned that one expatriate was put in jail and had to flee the country due to rumors that he practiced homosexual sex; I will have to remain careful, especially in light of recent events in Cameroon. I will continue to wait, and I will continue to observe. I have learned that life in Benin is full of mystery and surprises…so I shall remain patient and see what materializes. So much in life happens when you least expect it, and often the answer is closer than we think. Who knows, maybe my neighbors are gay?

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