I am always saying to my new American friends, "I know it is tough being gay in the US, but be grateful that you can't be put in jail for five years simply because a neighbor told the police you are a homosexual."
I was born in Cameroon in 1985, into a society that believes it is perfectly fine to bully, beat, jail, and kill LGBT people. As you can imagine, coming to realize that one is gay in his teens under these circumstances is terrifying.
I have a wonderful family, but religion is pervasive and a part of everything we do. I learned early on to hate myself and knew that I could never tell my mother and father. I endured the taunting at school. I tried to hold my head high and stood up for myself when I could. I was learning how to be an activist, without even knowing it.
I eventually found work at Alternatives Cameroon, an HIV/AIDS underground activist group. Doing this kind of work in a homophobic society is extremely dangerous. Eventually, local youth found out and my personal experience with assault and beatings began. One night, on my way home, a group of boys surrounded me on the street. They began beating me with clubs and one boy had a knife. I was saved by my ability to take the blows without flinching and by the intervention of a residence guard who miraculously showed up and asked the boys to stop beating me because I was already almost dead.
I dragged myself home and realized that I would have to leave before I was killed. I was also starting to believe that I was, indeed, a terrible person as I turned their insults into truths about my humanity.
Not long after, a fellow gay activist and friend named Eric was burned with hot irons for hours before he finally, mercifully, died. I was terrified. It was then that the boys who had beaten me found my phone number and the death threats started to flow. They called me a dirty homosexual. They said I was a disgrace, a nobody, and that the only way out for me was death. When I got home, I saw that they had written "Dirty faggot we know where you live" on my front door in animal blood. I had more frightening messages on my phone every day and received notes saying that I deserved the same punishment as Eric. Then, they started calling and threatening my family. I knew that this had to stop. I was tired of being treated like an animal.
I took off with what I could carry. The best thing I packed was nothing material. I took a vision of my mother smiling at me and holding me in her arms. I carried images of my friends helping me to have the courage to carry on in life.
It was like navigating an obstacle course as I left my country, harassed by threatening text messages. I had been the subject of a documentary called "Born This Way," and my notoriety was following me.
I knew I had to get to Benin--the Embassy of the US in Cameroon told me that was best. On the way, I stayed in a hotel room for three weeks without leaving for fear of the people chasing me. I got to Benin and hid for another month as I waited for my visa. Benin is also homophobic so it would have been risky to go outside. Thanks to the US embassies in Cameroon and Benin, I eventually got my visa to the US.
My arrival in San Francisco was a mixture of great emotions: joy, relief, sadness and fear of the unknown all amplified by the beauty of the city, its buildings, neighborhoods, and atmosphere. It is a breathtaking place. Through mutual friends, I was introduced to Erik, who offered me his guest bedroom in Sausalito for as long as I wanted. I couldn't believe it. He picked me up from the airport and introduced me to my new American family (his mother Marian and sister Laurie) and some instant friends like Amanda and Jenny. I am still amazed at the hospitality and generosity of these incredible people.
I will never forget the first time I walked through The Castro in San Francisco. I wept as I saw the huge rainbow flag, but more importantly, I saw how happy people were when they were allowed to love another person openly and publicly. They were proud and happy and all I could think was that I wanted my LGBT friends in Cameroon to experience the same thing.
It has been fantastic, but there are a few challenges. The English language is a crazy one! I learned some English in Cameroon, but not enough. Having a thick French accent might sound sexy, but it is an impediment to finding work.
Thankfully, I was introduced to Chris Lim, one of the co-founders of Climb Real Estate. He is a man with a heart of gold and he gave me a job. I started by helping with open houses and am now working in the marketing department. I feel safe and welcomed at Climb, where diversity is celebrated. I hope other people follow Chris' lead and offer jobs to refugees who need a starting point.
The hardest part has been knowing that I might never see my family again. I miss my mother terribly. Luckily, the widespread use of technology across Africa means that I can communicate with them often. Ten years ago, this would not have been possible.
Today, I continue to help my former colleagues in Cameroon. I advise them on important matters and help write reports that aim to assist those still suffering the indignities heaped on them just for being gay.
Despite the sadness that is always present, I plan to live a long and happy life so that I can play a role in changing the environment for LGBT people not only in Cameroon, but anywhere we are persecuted for being born different from others.