“No one should be denied of their fundamental human rights because of their sexuality.”
Alagie Jammeh, a 26-year-old student from Gambia, was not thinking of the immediate or long-term consequences when he posted the above 14 words to his Facebook page in September 2014. Alagie simply wanted to show solidarity with the friend who helped him change his views on homosexuality. Alagie succeeded, but with his support came a new wave of backlash, starting with his friends and family in Gambia, a small West African nation. In the midst of the firestorm he was told that the government had caught wind of his controversial post and that he should expect to lose his presidential scholarship immediately.
Alagie may have offended all of his friends and family with this highly contested statement, but perhaps no Gambian felt greater disgust than Yahya Jammeh – Alagie’s distant uncle, staunch anti-gay crusader, and president of Gambia.
Today Alagie is a proud supporter of LGBTI rights worldwide, but he shared his uncle’s anti-LGBTI views before he came to the United States as an international student at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 2011. “When I was in the Gambia I had never met an openly gay person… all I had was the story of how terrible and inhumane or not natural they are,” said Alagie, reflecting on popular stories told in Gambian society.
Alagie’s new friend, whom he frequently refers to as his brother, challenged his views on a regular basis by questioning the notions that Alagie would share. “How do you know gay people are terrible? Do you know I am gay?”
Alagie could not believe that his friend-turned-brother was gay. “I was like, ‘You cannot be gay, you are the most amazing person I have met!’ So I begin to question everything that I’ve been taught in the Gambia… then I kind of felt disgusted with myself – why do I do that? Why do I paint the whole community as bad or terrible when I don’t even know them?” he said.
Alagie began to reflect on his own position on campus. “I began to consider myself this minority, this black guy living in the community that is predominately white, and like how would I feel if a white guy or a white professor said you are not allowed to take this class because of the color of your skin, because you are from Africa?”
In 2014, Alagie’s gay friend invited him to attend the LGBTI pride parade in San Francisco. Alagie agreed, but when the day arrived he found himself preoccupied with schoolwork and decided that he should stay in Santa Barbara to complete some papers. But soon Alagie felt guilty for not sticking to his word. He decided that he needed to publicly show his support for the gay community at large, and took to his Facebook page, posting: “No one should be denied of their fundamental human rights because of their sexuality.”
With a few keystrokes and the click of a button, Alagie had created a cultural rift between himself and a majority of Gambians. “I started having calls and having people tell me how terrible I am, or how when I die I’m gonna go to hell.”
Alagie could not understand why this one statement of support had provoked so much hate from abroad. Fear and regret consumed him and he deleted the post from his Facebook page. But it was too late – the Gambian government was already well aware of what Alagie had done.
President Yahya Jammeh is well known for his zero-tolerance policy concerning the human rights and well being of LGBTI people. So when Alagie candidly went against the word of the president, “it shows to them that I betrayed [the president], I betrayed that whole family, I betrayed the government,” he said.
That statement conflicted with the whole aim of his scholarship. “The reason [the government] sent me to America to go to school is because they wanted me to learn something new in order to help the development of the Gambia. So this is me learning how to be tolerant, how to be accepting of other people for who they are. If you send me to college in America, you cannot choose what you want me to type.”
While the government could not control Alagie’s actions from abroad, they could control his education and quality of life, both of which rapidly deteriorated. The government requested that Alagie return to Gambia immediately. Alagie contacted an acquaintance at the intelligence office in Banjul to try and discover the president’s exact motives and plans. Alagie’s contact told him that “they wanted you to come back to Gambia to explain yourself, to apologize… and then the president might even put you in jail, and if you’re not lucky you might be gone forever.”
Alagie refused to comply. The government eventually stopped trying to persuade Alagie to return and severed all forms of communication with him.
After living and sleeping in his car for six months, Alagie began to feel suicidal and came close to taking his own life, hoping that “everyone will forget about this whole thing.” He eventually approached staff at UCSB’s Office of International Students and Scholars. The staff immediately connected him with local food banks and began to work with university administrators on a temporary loan, giving Alagie time to raise money through a GoFundMe page, a platform that university staff members also helped him to engage with. Alagie hopes to raise enough money to complete his education at UCSB. Alagie has also applied for political asylum in the United States.
Working towards a major in global studies, Alagie is looking at ways his advocacy efforts can affect LGBTI rights in Gambia and around the world. Closeted gay Gambians have reached out to Alagie in recent months, detailing their own experiences within Gambia. One man contacted him to say how proud he is of Alagie’s public stance on LGBTI rights. “[This man] is optimistic that things might change … that something might happen.”
The most vital component to Alagie’s activism is currently at work in his home country. “There is something that is happening in Gambia – it’s a conversation. People are looking at my perspective of the story. So even though there is a bad backlash against it, people in Gambia are talking about it.”
President Jammeh shows no signs of ending his propaganda-fueled dictatorship or his homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. Still, Alagie maintains his campaign for a more inclusive Gambian society and culture, both within his small West African nation and among the international diaspora community.
“I’m not going to stop. . . I’m going to continue fighting. I’m going to continue advocating,” he said.
Contributed by Bryan Molk.