Advertisement gets Gabon talking about taboo gay topics

Anne-Laure Mondesert | March 26, 2004

LIBREVILLE — A poster advertisement for a pair of mobile telephones, picturing two girls and with the slogan "first love", has got people in the west African state of Gabon talking about a big social taboo.

The posters, which are part of a series which went up in Libreville from around Saint Valentine's Day, most of which feature more "classic" couples, have got the pro-government press going.

"Isn't Saint Valentine's Day about people of the opposite sex?" the daily L'Union asked. "Or the managers of the mobile telephone company, aware of a reality under different skies but perhaps kept to ourselves here, want to start up a debate about sexual practices among people of the same sex."

"Would this be a subtle way of encouraging the practice?" enquired the paper.

The Libertis mobile telephone company confirmed it has had many responses, some amused and some shocked, from its clients, but officials stressed that there is no "malicious" intent behind the campaign still on the city walls.

"People have had no problems telling us what they think," one representative of the firm said, asking not to be named. "This goes to show that in Africa, people are still very traditional about some aspects of life."

The advertisement is not the first of its kind. The whole facade of a disused hotel on the road along the seafront has for months been covered by a huge panel showing a young man wearing a coaxing smile ... and a tiara.

"This is avant-garde," commented one Gabonese gay, giving his name as Olivier. "It's daring."

But people in taxis passing in front of the poster have other terms for the picture, which they describe as "effeminate" and "provocative".

Homosexuality is taboo in Gabon, as in many African countries, but it is not considered illegal like it is in Senegal, Kenya, Uganda and in Nigeria, where gays risk the death penalty.

One Gabonese journalist explained that homosexual preferences are often considered to be an illness. He cited the example of a young man sent by his family to Lambarene, 230 kilometres (more than 140 miles) southeast of Libreville, to undergo initiation rites "to strengthen his virility".

The journalist said he "tolerates homosexuality" and has gay friends himself, but is "shocked when it's promoted openly".

"That's sheer hypocrisy, it's still a taboo," Olivier commented. Most gays in Gabon have got married and have children rather than openly profess their sexuality, he said.

People do tolerate gays as long as they are discreet. "But you get attacked if you're provocative, if your behaviour shocks them, if you act like a queen," Olivier said.

Servais, a gay in his 40s, said that attitudes have nevertheless started to change.

"We talk about it more than we used to. I don't hide it. I feel free here", Servais said, adding that all his friends know that he is gay.

But there are no gay associations in Libreville and the places where homosexuals can gather openly are few and far between. – AFP

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