BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Edimilson Silva wears tight jeans, sparkly jewelry and sometimes lipstick - outfits that in neighboring countries could get him harassed, jailed or even killed.
But in his home in Guinea-Bissau’s capital, Bissau, a city of about 500,000 people in the small, impoverished West African nation, homosexuality is gradually becoming more accepted, he said.
“In the past, it used to be dangerous, but now you can walk out and almost nobody does anything to you,” said Silva, 19.
“I gained the courage to do that because the more you hide, the worse it becomes for you,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Silva is in a group of gay men and trans women called Big Mama Fountain (for short, the “Big Mamas”) at the forefront of Guinea-Bissau’s move toward acceptance. Through their own example, they said they have emboldened others to come out.
Unlike neighboring Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, Guinea-Bissau has no laws against same-sex relations, allowing a foundation for attitudes to change, activists said.
Same-sex relations are criminalized in 33 of 54 African countries, according to a 2017 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
Since then, Angola has shed the “vices against nature” provision in its laws, which was widely interpreted to be a ban on homosexual conduct.
“There is a certain cultural barrier, but the environment has changed a lot since 2010, even 2013,” said Mamadu Aliu Djalo, national director of the health organization ENDA, which provides sexual health services and support to gay men.
“The number of people who are visibly (gay) has risen a lot in the last 10 years,” he said.
Big Mama Fountain is one of several LGBT+ groups that work with ENDA, but it is the most visible, Djalo said.
“It is not easy to go out dressed like that. I think it is the group that dares.”
Big Mama Fountain has risen from about 30 members to over 100 in three years, said Vadinho Da Costa, the group’s leader.
The name came about when the friends were visiting a rural village together. When asked where they could find water, a child said, “Big Mama Fountain”, and they found it hilarious.
“Big Mama Fountain has helped many gays who used to be embarrassed or used to hide,” said Da Costa, 27, who lives with his mother in a typical Bissau neighborhood where power cuts are frequent and the streets are sand.
“We dress up to show those who may be hiding themselves that it is normal,” he said.
On a weekday evening, he and several other members shared a bowl of rice and chicken by the light of their cell phones - the electricity was out.
“Most of my family, I don’t speak to them,” said Edgar, 18, who asked that his name be changed for privacy.
“My aunts and cousins think being gay is a disease.”
He still feels the need to be subtle about his sexuality, he said, although he is not afraid.
The Big Mamas host a meeting every Sunday at someone’s house to share a meal and talk, said Da Costa. Some dress to blend in when they leave their houses, then change their clothes, paint their nails and braid their hair when they arrive, he added.
A highlight is the annual Carnival celebration, when Da Costa and his friends go to parties and walk freely through the streets in wigs and dresses. In past years, they have also held a “Miss Gay” competition.
“Since I joined the group I have become happier and more comfortable,” said Silva, swiping through photos of himself flaunting red lips and long eyelashes on his phone.
Their reality contrasts sharply with the situation in Senegal, to Guinea-Bissau’s north, where gay men take pains not to look feminine to avoid beatings or arrest.
Most of Africa’s anti-gay laws were imposed by European colonial rulers. Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, re-wrote its penal code in 1993 with no provisions against homosexuality, according to an ILGA report.
But it still has a long way to go toward equality.
“I wish there were security for all gays in Guinea-Bissau,” said Silva, whose family accepted him reluctantly.
He and Da Costa both work for a catering company where their coworkers know they are gay and support them, they said.
But gay men still face discrimination by doctors, nurses and police, Silva said.
“Verbal abuse... is daily,” said Djalo of ENDA, adding that physical violence is rare but not unheard of.
Some gay men he knows married women and had children out of social pressure, he added. ENDA is the only organization working with the gay community, and most LGBT+ people in Guinea-Bissau lack access to sexual health information and services, he said.
“There is always a problem with someone who doesn’t like it,” said Edgar, who said he doesn’t socialize much with people in his neighborhood because of this.
But the Big Mamas are optimistic about the way the country is moving.
“It is rare now to see gays hiding,” said Da Costa.
“Now, when someone feels he is gay... he seeks our contact so he can join the group and share the experience with us.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org