Persecuted in Senegal, Finding Refuge in New York
Pape Mbaye gets a lot of attention. Even in jaded New York, people watch the way he walks (his style defines the word sashay) and scrutinize his outfits, which on a recent afternoon featured white, low-slung capris, a black purse, eyeliner and diamond-studded jewelry.
And he likes it.
"I'm fabulous," he said. "I feel good."
Mr. Mbaye, 24, is an entertainer from Dakar, Senegal, known there for his dancing, singing and storytelling. But while his flamboyance may be celebrated in New York, he attracted the wrong kind of attention in West Africa this year, nearly costing him his life.
In February, a Senegalese magazine published photographs of what was reported to be an underground gay marriage and said that Mr. Mbaye, who appeared in the photos and is gay himself, had organized the event. In the ensuing six months, Mr. Mbaye said, he was harassed by the police, attacked by armed mobs, driven from his home, maligned in the national media and forced to live on the run across West Africa.
In July, the United States government gave him refugee status, one of the rare instances when such protection has been granted to a foreigner facing persecution based on sexual orientation. A month later, Mr. Mbaye arrived in New York, eventually moving into a small furnished room in the Bronx that rents for $150 per week. It has a bed, air-conditioner, television, cat and pink walls,.
"There's security, there's independence, there's peace," he said of his new country.
But even as he has begun looking for work, with the help of a few Senegalese immigrants he knows from Dakar, Mr. Mbaye is largely avoiding the mainstream Senegalese community, fearing that the same prejudices that drove him out of Africa may dog him here.
One recent evening, while visiting close family friends from Dakar who live in Harlem, he recalled a shopping trip to 116th Street, where many Senegalese work and live. There, he said, he was harassed by a Senegalese man on the sidewalk who ridiculed Mr. Mbaye's outfit and threatened him.
"He said, 'If you were in Senegal, I would kill you,' " Mr. Mbaye said, gesturing enthusiastically with his arms, his voice rising. "I have my freedom now, and that man wanted to take it."
The United States does not track how often it grants refuge to people fleeing anti-gay persecution. But Christopher Nugent, an immigration lawyer with Holland & Knight, a Washington law firm where he is a senior pro bono counsel specializing in refugee and asylum cases, said that in the past decade he has only heard of a handful.
The government also does not track the number of persecuted gay men and lesbians who are granted asylum, but experts in the field say the number is higher than those granted refugee status. (Asylum is granted to people already in the United States, while people outside the country must seek refugee status.)
Mr. Mbaye's case was exceptional because his fame made his situation particularly perilous, said Mr. Nugent, who represented Mr. Mbaye in his petition. "He was vilified in the Senegalese media as being the face of the sinful homosexual, and he had scars to show," he said.
For the past few years, anti-gay hysteria has been sweeping across swaths of Africa, fueled by sensationalist media reports of open homosexuality among public figures and sustained by deep and abiding taboos that have made even the most hateful speech about gays not just acceptable but almost required. Gay men and women have recently been arrested in Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana, among other countries.
"In most countries there is poverty and instability, and usually homosexuality is used as a way of shifting the attention from the actual problem to this thing that is not really the problem but can distract the public," said Joel Nana, who is from Cameroon and who works for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Pape Mbaye (pronounced POP mm-BYE) had been living the Senegalese version of the high life for some time. He had worked principally as a griot, a singer and storyteller invited to weddings, birthday parties and other events to perform traditional songs, dance and tell stories.
By West African standards, it earned him a good living. He had performed at parties for wealthy and famous Senegalese, had two cars and a driver, an overflowing wardrobe and an apartment in a fashionable neighborhood decked out with rococo gold-leaf-encrusted furniture.
Mr. Mbaye, who said he had known he was gay from a young age, never made much of an effort to hide his sexuality, often wearing makeup and jewelry in public.
Though Senegal passed an anti-sodomy law in 1965 that forbids "an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex," homosexuality has traditionally been quietly tolerated in Senegal, particularly among the creative class of musicians and artists that is so central to Senegalese culture.
But the publication of the gay wedding photos on Feb. 1 dovetailed with a recent surge in anti-gay sentiment, a trend partly fueled by some conservative Islamic leaders, launching Mr. Mbaye on his harrowing odyssey.
On the morning after the article's publication, Mr. Mbaye and several gay friends were arrested by the police, who held them for four days. During his detention, Mr. Mbaye said, he was questioned about his participation in the marriage ceremony, which he asserted was a party, not a wedding. Under diplomatic pressure from the Netherlands and Denmark, the Senegalese authorities released Mr. Mbaye and his friends.
The singer said police officials told him and his friends that they should go into hiding. "The police cannot guarantee your security because the entire society will be out to get you," a police official said, according to testimony that Mr. Mbaye would later give to Human Rights Watch.
While he was in detention, his apartment was looted and anti-gay graffiti was scrawled on the wall of the building, he said. He and several gay friends fled to Ziguinchor in south Senegal, but in mid-February, a mob wielding broken bottles, forks and other weapons stormed the house and beat them, Mr. Mbaye said.
Mr. Mbaye spent the next several weeks moving from one safe house to another before fleeing to Gambia on May 11. Several days later, President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia vowed to behead all homosexuals in his country. Mr. Mbaye immediately returned to Dakar.
But he was discovered and chased by a crowd, as local newspapers and radio stations reported his return. He sought sanctuary at the offices of Raddho, a human rights organization based in Dakar, which put him in the care of Human Rights Watch.
"I am like a hunted animal," Mr. Mbaye said during an interview while he hid out in a Dakar hotel.
Human Rights Watch helped Mr. Mbaye assemble his refugee application and get to Ghana, where he sought help from the American Embassy in Accra, the country's capital.
While in Ghana, Mr. Mbaye said, he was attacked again, this time by knife-wielding Senegalese expatriates who had discovered he was there. The assault, which left him with wounds, likely accelerated the review process for his application, Mr. Nugent said. (Confidentiality regulations forbid United States immigration officials from discussing the case.)
Mr. Mbaye received his refugee status on July 31, and he arrived at Kennedy Airport on Aug. 18 carrying several suitcases and a Chanel handbag. A few weeks later, he received his Social Security card and work authorization permit. He hopes to resume his entertainment career, though he acknowledges that until he improves his English, he will have to perform in French and Wolof, an African language. He also dreams of getting a modeling contract.
In the meantime, he said, he will do just about anything.
"I would like a job in a restaurant or a hotel or a club or in perfume or in makeup," he said. "But no bricklaying."
Mr. Nugent has been posting notices on Internet mailing lists serving the gay community in search of sponsors to help Mr. Mbaye find work, including in gay nightclubs.
Mr. Mbaye seems undaunted by the challenges facing him. At his friends' home in Harlem, he celebrated his newfound freedom.
"I want to live with the gays!" he said as his hosts laughed. "Pape Mbaye is American!"
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