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For gay African athletes, even rumors can end their careers and cause them great pain

Athletes reported to be gay in Cameroon illustrate the perils for LGBTQ athletes in Africa.

Thierry Essamba saw his career end when it was reported he was gay.
Screen capture from Thompson-Reuters video

For all the progress LGBTQ people have seen in sports in Western countries, despite the still-formidable obstacles, the situation is different in most of Africa, where same-sex relations are often illegal and athletes labeled as gay see their careers ended.

This is illustrated in a powerful Thompson-Reuters report showing how two athletes in Cameroon saw their careers end by reports that they were gay, with one man contemplating suicide after losing his family and friends.

For Thierry Essamba, it all came crashing down as he was preparing to train in track and field for the 2014 Commonwealth Games when an official told the media that Essamba was gay.

“I felt as if my body was being torn apart from the inside,” Essamba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he sat on the bleachers after finishing his daily solitary training in a dilapidated stadium in Yaounde.

“That day I saw all the people in the stadium who used to look up to me with admiration, with respect. Now they regarded me with contempt.”

Reuters notes that in Cameroon, “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” are punishable by up to five years in prison.

Essamba, 38, never says in the story if he is gay. That ultimately is irrelevant since the declaration that he was caused him to be harassed and lose his friends and family; his track dreams over, he now works at a hotel, with his mission to help others in his situation.

“With my experience I would be able to give them all the necessary support, morally, physically. (I want) this discrimination to stop,” he said. “It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on any other human being on the planet.”

The story also profiles a female soccer player kicked off her team when rumors spread that she was in a relationship with a woman. Reuters has some jaw-dropping quotes from a soccer official that sums up the view of LGBTQ people in the country.

Bechem Peter Tanyi, who coaches the Cameroonian women’s football team, summed up the official attitude to homosexuality when he said Stenie’s idol, the openly gay U.S. footballer Megan Rapinoe, could not have had a career in Cameroon.

“We don’t accept lesbians in the Cameroon national female team,” Tanyi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“A girl who is playing football in Cameroon is not supposed to be a lesbian. She is supposed to play as a normal creature of God.”

LGBTQ athletes exist in every sport in every country, yet it’s easy to see why no one will ever come out in much of Africa.