Junior is a young Senegalese man who lives with a secret about who he is. He’s kept it from his family and even his childhood friends because he’s afraid of not only rejection, but persecution, and even imprisonment.
The secret is that Junior is gay.
In this episode, Dakar-based journalist Marta Moreiras explores what it means to be gay in Senegal, where homosexual men here are targeted with the slur “Góor-jigéen” – a pejorative term which literally means “men-women” in the Wolof language, and is used to belittle their masculinity.
Is it true that the Góor-jigéen were once widely accepted and respected? Are there Senegalese who still remember this? In the next episode, we will investigate the origin of homophobia in Senegal. Make sure you listen to our next episode, which will be published on Thursday, January 7th.
Cry Like a Boy is an original Euronews series and podcast that explores how the pressure to be ‘a man’ can harm families and entire societies. Stay with us as we travel across the African continent to meet men who are defying centuries-old gender stereotypes, and redefining their roles as men.
Original reporting and editing by Marta Moreiras in Dakar, Senegal; Naira Davlashyan, Marta Rodríguez Martínez and Lillo Montalto Monella in Lyon, and Lory Martinez in Paris, France; Clizia Sala in London, United Kingdom. Production Design by Studio Ochenta. Theme music by Gabriel Dalmasso. Music curation for this episode is by Natalia Oelsner. Graphic Design by Alexis Caddeo & Alois Bombardier.
Music: Sahad Sarr is the author of the compositions, Sahad and the Nataal Patchwork the performer and Patchworld Production the producer.
The Cry Like a Boy podcast is hosted in English by Danielle Olavario, and in French by Arwa Barkallah. Our editor in chief is Yasir Khan.
Editorial and production assistance from Ignatius Annor, Nial O’Reilly, Matthew Holroyd and Sylvain Dutang.
RANSCRIPT | THE GÓOR-JIGÉEN IN SENEGAL: THE SECRET – EPISODE 5
Danielle Olavario: This is the campus of a university in Dakar. What we are hearing is the hunt for a homosexual. A horde of angry students elbows their way into the hall of one of the faculties trying to capture a man accused of being gay. Violently shouting: “no to homosexuality”.
It’s 2016 and the video was shared on social media and picked up by the local TV channel Senenews.
In Senegal, and around the world, homosexuality is associated with feminine traits.
This puts pressure on young men to play a role, to try to be the “better, stronger man.”
The kind that could never be accused of being gay.
Welcome to Cry Like a Boy. I am Danielle Olavario and we’re in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, in West Africa.
Cry Like a Boy is an original Euronews series and podcast that explores how the pressure to be ‘a man’ can hurt families and societies. Stay with us as we travel across the African continent to meet men who defy centuries-old stereotypes.
Junior:My name is Junior. I’m twenty-five years old and I’m still studying. I’m still doing my studies in communication, from which I’m trying to graduate in December, in communication and marketing.
Danielle Olavario: Junior is very polite, kind, and a bit shy and reserved. We meet in a cafeteria in Mermoz, a neighborhood on the west coast of the city. We are early so there aren’t many people around us.
His appearance is very ordinary as if in that normality he wanted to go unnoticed, to hide.
He is smiling as he explains what he does, but he hesitates when pronouncing his name.
Because it’s not his real name.
It is a name he has chosen to protect himself because he is about to tell us something he cannot talk about openly in Senegal.
A story that is even a secret for his own family.
Junior:Nobody, nobody knows it and I don’t dare to tell it. Why don’t I dare not tell them? Because If I do it, then it will create more problems, a total rejection. And even if I become someone, they will reject me.
Danielle Olavario: Junior is gay. In Senegal, gay men are called “góor-jigéen”, a pejorative term used to belittle their masculinity. He has known he is gay since he was a teenager. But it took him a long time to come to terms with that part of what he is.
Junior:I was with a friend and we were playing… I was living in a working-class neighbourhood. So we used to play among us, boys. That day we ended up watching a film and that film was especially exciting compared to others.
Danielle Olavario: That night he went home and thought about it, and that’s when he knew.
Junior:I was shocked that day. I couldn’t stop crying, because I thought there was something abnormal, something that had just been revealed. I couldn’t accept it. So I couldn’t stop asking myself questions, but I was also angry at my friend. I didn’t talk to him for almost two months.
Danielle Olavario: Junior keeps his voice down and looks around to make sure the rest of the people in the cafeteria can’t hear his story
He doesn’t want anyone to call him a ‘góor-jigéen’.
Senegalese professor of Pan African Studies at Kent State University, Babacar Mbaye, explains the origins of this term in Wolof, a language spoken and understood by 90% of the population in Senegal.
Babacar Mbaye:If we just focus on the term ‘góor-jigéen’, it is composed of two words ‘góor’, which means a man or men in general, and ‘jigéen’, which means a woman or women in general. So góor-jigéen means a man, a human being, that has two identities, two characteristics, two forms of behaviour, two forms of self-representations that combine masculinity and femininity.
Danielle Olavario: So men do everything they can to avoid this label. In Senegal, masculinity is performative. For example, if we look at the tradition of Senegalese wrestling.
The wrestlers are almost naked. They wear traditional loincloths called “nguimb”. They also wear a number of amulets around their bare chests to protect them from bad luck.
Rituals are an important part of the competition. And so is manliness.
In the arena and under the gaze of the attentive audience, these men fight to prove who is the better, stronger man.
Strength. Blood. Sweat and Tears: That’s a warrior’s masculinity.
The kind that can seduce and conquer women.
So for young men like Junior, being true to his own kind of masculinity is all about hiding.
Junior:A man shouldn’t dress like a woman, but also a man shouldn’t go out with girls as friends and so on, but as girlfriends. There are more taboos than letting go.
Danielle Olavario: In Senegal, if you are openly gay, you can not only be insulted, rejected, and ostracised, but also hunted, beaten, and even arrested and imprisoned.
You are not only considered as less of a man but a criminal.
That’s why most, like Junior, choose to stay inside the closet or to leave the country.
Why do men around the world feel the need to prove this masculinity? And why does masculinity have to be so performative?
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr:There is a kind of performativity which means that virility only exists if it is shown. It’s a kind of redundancy, but which makes all the complexity and sometimes the ridicule of having to play at being a man.
Danielle Olavario: That’s Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. His book ‘Des Purs Hommes’ (‘Pure Men’ in English) explores a big taboo in Senegalese society: being gay.
And as Junior tells us, in Senegal, being a man is to be physically strong, not to cry, to fight till the end, not to show vulnerability, and to have a sense of honor.
But above all else, it means to be the opposite of a woman. To suppress the feminine side.
Junior:According to the Senegalese culture there are several labels that give a man, for example, a man should not wear his hair anyhow. A man should not dress just anyhow. A man should not cry. A man should not talk like a woman.
Danielle Olavario: In this western African country, it has been forbidden to be gay since 1966.
Junior:Being gay is very difficult because you tend to hide, to change your behaviour, because people are much more radical and they are much meaner to us, even mistreat them. I can even say that they beat us up sometimes and they torture us. And how long will this go on? How long will it go on? It has to stop.
Danielle Olavario: Lucas Ramón Mendos from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) explains how more than half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa have legislation prohibiting or repressing homosexuality.
Lucas Ramón Mendos:So what we see in Africa still is something that Europe got completely rid of in 2014. A majority of countries, especially those who were British colonies during the British Empire, still keep what they call sodomy or buggery laws that actually impose punishments on people who engage in consensual same sex sexual acts.
Danielle Olavario: And the ban is not only on paper in Senegal. Arrests occur periodically and gay Senegalese get imprisoned. Only this year, 25 Senegalese men got arrested. They were caught “red-handed” while celebrating a gay marriage. They could be sentenced to up to 2 years in prison.
Junior:How long will they live in the family? Some of us are forced to leave the country. Some of us are not in good spirits. They tend to commit suicide or even to live another life of homelessness.
Danielle Olavario: Junior is not alone in his hiding. This happens all around the world. In at least 70 countries, gay relationships are still criminalised. This exposes millions of people around the globe to be harassed, arrested, fined, or even jailed.
According to a recent survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, six out of 10 Europeans are still afraid to hold a same-sex partner’s hand in public.
Today, all over the world, it is still difficult to come out of the closet.
You must come out. Come out to your parents. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbours. Come out to your fellow workers! Once and for all, let’s break down the myths and destroy the lies and distortions.
– Elton John: I’m… a homosexual. A poofter…a fairy…a queen…Well, say something!
– Sheila: Oh, for God’s sake, I knew that!
– Boy: Am I a faggot?
– Juan: No. You’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let anybody call you a faggot.
Danielle Olavario: They don’t do it for some of the same reasons that prevent Junior from coming out the closet: they are afraid of being mocked, rejected, or even attacked.
During the pandemic, the situation has become more and more difficult in Senegal. A series of rumours spread on social networks blaming the gay community for spreading the new coronavirus.
Here’s Professor Mendos again:
Lucas Ramón Mendos:Unfortunately, what we have seen, both in state authorities and in other Islamic non-governmental organisations, doesn’t seem to help at all. There has been a lot of scapegoating and reports saying that these organs of the LGBT organisations were operating under the ground, and then they were plotting against the government. So a lot of scapegoating going on, which feeds into the hostility that already exists on the ground.
Danielle Olavario: And this isn’t the first time. The same happened in the past with the HIV pandemic. Politicians across the country use them as a political tool as well.
A few months ago, Senegal’s President Macky Sall confirmed that the decriminalization of homosexuality is not among his short-term plans.
President Macky Sall:The laws of our country are based on standards that are a compendium of our values of culture and civilization.
Danielle Olavario: But is the condemnation and rejection of homosexuality actually part of traditional Senegalese culture?
Junior:Góor-jigéen before meant something different, because they were men who dressed like women and talked like women according to the research I’ve done.
Danielle Olavario: In the next episode of Cry Like a Boy we will discuss the history of the góor-jigéen. Is it true that there was a time when the góor-jigéen were not persecuted in Senegal?
To find out we will travel not to another country, but rather, back in time. To when Dakar was once described as “the gay city” of Western Africa. And even before, when the concepts of “man” and “woman” had not yet come into contact with European culture.
This was Cry Like a Boy. In the next episode, we will look at Senegal’s colonial past to track down the roots of homophobia. If you’re new to the series, check out our story on the Abatangamuco in Burundi, a group of former violent husbands who decided to change and inspired a whole country. And visit our website for more original content, videos, and opinion pieces. I, Danielle Olavario, will see you on our next journey.