Thrown out of the house by his parents when they found out he was gay, Ezechiel Koffi didn’t give up.
“My parents said I shamed them and that I lived the life of a sinner,” the young man from Côte d’Ivoire said. What hurt him the most were his mother’s insults, saying he had no respect for their religious values. He begged them to understand that he was their son and that they should accept him as he was.
Mr Koffi, 24 years old at the time, stayed for a while at Alternative, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people nongovernmental organization in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where he had started volunteering three years earlier. He kept going to classes, although admits that at times he went on an empty stomach. Psychologically he felt beaten. “It was hard, but I couldn’t hide anymore,” he said.
With the help of his older sister, his parents let him move back home after six months. Although he now had a steady roof over his head and regular meals, Alternative became his second home. He has been dedicated to it ever since. Now an HIV educator and community health worker, he proudly showed his certificates on his mobile phone.
Alternative’s project coordinator, Philippe Njaboué, describes Mr Koffi’s tireless energy. “You can call him at whatever time, day or night, he always lends a hand and he often goes out of his way to include people who have been shunned.” When asked about being a substitute family for many LGBTI people, Mr Koffi gave a hesitant smile.
The many discussion groups and support groups have helped, he said, allowing him to share his experience and help others. The once shy boy has emancipated himself. He also no longer shies away from revealing his HIV status. “It’s been 10 years now that I have been living with HIV,” he said.
Looking back, he explained, in the beginning he couldn’t always negotiate the use of a condom. He now makes a point of telling everyone that HIV is a reality. “Use condoms, there is help, you are not alone,” he exclaimed.
He described feeling fully alive among the city’s tight-knit LGBTI crowd. “I am at ease, I can express myself and it’s fulfilling,” he said. His brow furrowed, however, when he mentioned the constant discrimination he and his peers lived with. On top of the taunting and the finger pointing, Mr Koffi said social media was rampant with homophobic comments.
“We deserve the same rights as everyone else and that’s what keeps me motivated,” Mr Koffi said.
Mr Njaboué remarked that society, religion and the state all play a big part in keeping homosexuality taboo in Côte d’Ivoire. “A recent speech by Alternative’s director was tagged by a website as “The king of the homosexuals speaks”, which led to countless death threats,” he said.
Noting that this case was one of many, he believes the situation can only change if the government tackles human rights.
“Most of the population doesn’t know their rights or the law, including a lot people in charge of state security,” Mr Njaboué said. “Not only does the government need to educate people, it should also condemn unlawful behaviour,” he added.
For Mr Koffi, his visibility puts him at risk, he said, but he forges ahead. “I want to live in a world where there is no discrimination based on one’s race, one’s religion or one’s sexuality.”