It is not easy to find gay women in Senegal. Homosexuality is illegal in the country, though several small LGBT rights groups operate there. But because they were founded during the AIDS crisis and considered as actors in keeping down HIV infection rates, they are focused on men. Lesbian women are now starting to fight for recognition, both in the broader culture that rejects them and in the activist world that leaves them out.
There are no openly gay clubs in the capital Dakar and few, if any, places for gay people to spend time together where they feel safe — which is why gay rights groups organize gatherings, like a recent workshop hosted by Sourire de Femme (Woman's Smile), the country’s only lesbian rights group.
At a small hotel a two-hour drive south of Dakar, a group of women recently spent two days together, working and relaxing.
“We do what we want here. We’re free,” says a woman watching a group of others playing pool after lunch. Like all the gay men and women interviewed for this story, she asked to remain anonymous, for her protection. For this story, she'll go by the name Nash.
“We’re really happy to be with each other,” Nash adds about the workshop. “We’d like this to happen every weekend.”
In Senegal, homosexual acts are punishable by up to five years in prison. The country is predominantly Muslim, and imams preach regularly against homosexuality. Attitudes toward gay people are overwhelmingly negative.
So Nash, 27, is cautious. Today she is wearing jeans and a white button-down shirt, and her hair is done in a feminine style, with long braids. But she says she would like to have a different look. If she felt like she had a choice, she would be “dressed like a man all the time: suit and tie, with dreadlocks.”
Nash studied law but has not yet found a job, so she cannot afford to live on her own. She lives at home with her family, who support her financially. Because more than a dozen people live in the house, she has to find somewhere more private in order to see her girlfriend.
“We must plan two or three months in advance to find a place,” Nash says. “Sometimes a friend lends you a room for the day. Sometimes you rent an apartment. But it’s not 100 percent secure.”
Being discovered and kicked out of the house is a major concern for gay people in Senegal, both women and men.
Djamil Bangoura, founder of Prudence, Senegal’s oldest LGBT organization, says he helps someone in this situation nearly every week.
On a recent afternoon, he greeted a young man at his office who needed his help.
“I invited a guy to my house, around 10 p.m.,” the young man explained. Then his brother surprised them and alerted the whole family.
“That’s when my father told me to leave,” the young man said. “I have nowhere to go. I’m sleeping in the street.”
Bangoura says he’ll try to find the man a safe place to stay, even though Prudence is not officially set up to do such a thing. Its mission is to help gay men get tested and treated for HIV.
During the start of the AIDS crisis in Senegal in the early 2000s, public health groups realized that while they were making headway in lowering HIV infection rates (in 2015, the rate was under 1 percent for adults ages 15-49), the rate among gay men remained high. Even today, it is still just under 20 percent.
So they reached out to gay men like Bangoura.
“At the time they needed gay people,” Bangoura says. “They were looking for a snowball effect.”
He got involved and recruited others.
“They got gays to come out of hiding and got them to organize. And they worked with them,” says Ndeye Kebe, the head of the group Sourire de Femme.
But women were not part of the organizations.
“Gay women don’t have as much risk in terms of HIV. So they aren’t taken care of,” Kebe says.
Not only are they ignored by LGBT groups focused on HIV, Kebe says gay women are also left out of Senegal’s women’s movement.
“Some women’s groups known for fighting for rights don’t want to touch homosexuality,” Kebe says. “Heterosexual women don’t want to have anything to do with homosexual women. They don’t want them in their federations or networks.”
And yet, Kebe says that lesbians are fighting for the same rights as heterosexual women. “You can’t be lesbian without being a feminist. We’re not just fighting for lesbian rights. We are fighting for women’s rights. For example, the right for abortion, the right to own land. If a man owns the land, you work on it, but you have no income and no savings. Women don’t have much in the way of savings here in Senegal.”
Not all lesbian women in Senegal see it in these terms, though. Dija, 26, managed to save up enough money to move to the capital on her own a few months ago.
She came because there are more work opportunities, but she also hopes to meet other lesbian women.
“I would like to meet a girl who loves me, with whom I will be comfortable,” Dija says, sitting on the bed in the room she rents from a family.
Over time, she hopes to come out to her family and persuade them to accept her and her sexual orientation. Today, they put a lot of pressure on her to conform.
“‘When are you going to get married?’ ‘You’re not married?’ It’s always the same questions,” Dija says. “In my family, you have to have a husband. For a woman it’s the home, housework, kids, husband. That’s it.”
In Dakar, Dija has connected with an LGBT group, which is made up of mostly men. When she spends time with them, she is often the only woman there, and she ends up in the kitchen preparing lunch.
“I’m used to cooking for my family. So, it doesn’t bother me to do it here,” Dija says.
Kebe, with Sourire de Femme, says it is difficult to break out of traditional ways of thinking, even among the few gay organizations here.
“Maybe it’s our culture, our education, which has put this in our heads, and makes it so the patriarchal system is being reproduced,” Kebe says.
Moving beyond this will not happen overnight. Like gay rights in Senegal, it requires a big shift in perspective — for everyone, she says.
“I think that culture is just culture,” Kebe says. “We need to try to take what is best in the culture and use it. And what there is to perfect, let’s try to perfect it.”
This story was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.