He emerged as the group’s de facto leader almost immediately after they were taken into custody.
It was May 2005, and Marc Lambert Lamba and 10 other men had been arrested in a Sunday evening raid on the Victoire, a gay-friendly bar in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon.
The Central African country has criminalized same-sex sexual acts since the 1970s, yet for many years officials had rarely enforced the law. The Victoire raid was a complete surprise. It marked a turning point for a society that had previously allowed sexual minorities to go about their lives unbothered, provided they stayed in the shadows.
In the weeks and months that followed, Lambert and the others endured a host of abuses. They were paraded before television cameras and denounced as members of a “homosexual gang.” They were held for nearly a year without trial in Yaounde’s notorious Kondengui prison, where they were denied proper food and faced routine violence from other inmates. Seven of them were convicted and sentenced to 10 months in prison (the other four were acquitted or had their cases thrown out). And when they were all finally released in mid-2006, they were largely left to their own devices as they sought to rebuild their lives and reputations.
Through it all, Lambert advocated on their behalf, taking countless meetings with lawyers and representatives of human rights organizations who turned the men’s case into a global cause. “He expressed himself the best and could make people understand,” one activist told me several years ago, while I was researching a book on the history of Cameroon’s LGBT rights movement. “The others didn’t have a great education, so Lambert became like a spokesman for them.”
Even more remarkable, though, is what Lambert chose to do once he and the others were freed. Eschewing opportunities to seek asylum abroad, he devoted himself to improving conditions for sexual minorities in his home country. This entailed coming to the aid of those who, like himself, were persecuted under the country’s anti-gay law. He also worked tirelessly to persuade all manner of people—landlords, doctors, religious leaders, politicians, not to mention his own relatives—that sexual minorities were full citizens of Cameroon and deserved to be treated accordingly.
Lambert’s devotion to this project was so total that, when the news came that he had died unexpectedly of a stroke on August 4 at the age of 44, the remembrances proffered on Facebook and in private conversations scarcely mentioned his incarceration. Instead, they highlighted the many subsequent victories he scored as an activist.
In this way, Lambert’s life was a testament to the significant gains African LGBT rights activists have made in the face of what, for many people, would be insurmountable obstacles. At several points, it also threw into sharp relief the disconnect between these activists’ interests and the interests of Western governments and organizations ostensibly intervening on their behalf.
Lambert’s career as an activist began five years before the Victoire raid, when he founded Cameroon’s first LGBT rights organization, the Association for Gays and Lesbians and Supporters, or AGALES. Unlike the advocacy groups of today, AGALES had no funding and little by way of programming. Its main achievement, according to Lambert and other members, was to bring people together, whether at the Victoire or at other spots in Yaounde that had been identified as relatively safe.
After his release in 2006, Lambert took positions with two LGBT rights organizations based in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city: Alternatives-Cameroun and the Association for the Defense of the Rights of Homosexuals. Lambert acted as the groups’ Yaounde representative, monitoring arrests and informing lawyers of sexual minorities in need of representation. It was draining work, the pace of which seemed only to accelerate as the years went on. In 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that Cameroon was prosecuting more people under its antigay legislation than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa.
The urgency of Lambert’s efforts increased significantly with the spread of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men, or MSM. For years, President Paul Biya’s government dragged its feet on including MSM as a priority group in its national action plan to combat the epidemic. In the meantime, fear of the virus combined with general homophobia meant that those who tested positive were often abandoned.
More often than not, when Lambert heard about such patients, he would welcome them into his family’s home. The compassion he showed goes a long way toward explaining the respect his parents and siblings afforded him, whatever their reservations might have been about his sexual orientation. “One time, a young man came here, HIV-positive, very thin, dying practically,” his brother Jules told me. “But Lambert welcomed him, took care of him. He protected him to the point where this man regained weight, he became a friend of the family, he did a lot of things to help out around here. We call that love. That’s one of the things that positively marked me and changed my way of seeing.”
It was precisely this unflagging commitment to the downtrodden that fueled Lambert’s frustration with international activists. Over the years, he took to summing this up by saying: “Human rights feeds on horror.” What he meant was that, in his experience, support from outsiders was woefully inconsistent. Though groups like Amnesty International and All Out loved to mobilize around high-profile cases, the resources they provided had a funny way of evaporating once the opportunity to score political points had passed. This not only made it difficult to sustain momentum in lobbying the Cameroonian government. It also sometimes put individual lives at risk.
Lambert experienced this phenomenon firsthand many times, most memorably with the case of Roger Mbede, a man who was arrested in 2011 for texting “I’ve fallen in love with you” to a male government official. At the height of global interest in the case, Roger was receiving hundreds of letters of support a day, most of them from well-meaning Westerners. After he was released, however, he found that all the attention made staying in Cameroon untenable: He faced threats to his life, and he couldn’t access the medical care he desperately needed. Yet the same international groups that had spent months speaking out about Roger’s ordeal failed to apply sufficient pressure to ensure he’d be granted asylum. Lambert did what he could to help, but Roger, who was HIV-positive and had been in poor health for years, ended up dying at his home outside Yaounde. He was just 34.
Toward the end of Lambert’s life, much of the day-to-day work of promoting LGBT rights in Cameroon had been taken over by a new, younger crop of activists who differed from Lambert in both style and emphasis. These differences reflected how the landscape they were operating in had changed. Whereas Lambert and other sexual minorities his age had to scream to get the world’s attention, his younger peers know they have it now; few people in Cameroon would make the argument today that Cameroonian sexual minorities don’t exist. They are now trying to use that attention most effectively—which sometimes comes off as trying to behave as politely as possible for fear that what little influence they’ve been able to marshal could vanish at any time.
“The fight led by Lambert and the others who came up with him has been necessary. It’s them who have permitted us to open people’s eyes,” activist Brice Evina told me in 2015. “But we have a different approach. We are trying to help the government understand the situation we are in, to understand that we are not extraterrestrials, to understand that we are all one, all the same, and that it’s nothing but a sexuality. That’s the difference between us and the past generation. The past generation was more confrontational.”
These tensions aside, the Cameroonian LGBT rights movement remained the most important thing in Lambert’s world. His friends worried that, because of his high-profile identification with an issue that remains controversial, he would never be able to find true peace in Cameroon. They pushed him to consider taking advantage of his contacts within the global activist movement to relocate to Europe or the United States.
Lambert knew this wouldn’t be too hard for him to arrange. But unlike many of his fellow activists, he never dreamed of seeking refuge elsewhere. In the years since the raid at the Victoire, he had invested too much, both personally and professionally, to pack up and leave.
“There is a lot of work to do here,” he once told me. “I helped nearly all of the associations that are in Cameroon to strengthen themselves. I want to be there when we are able to shout the first cry of joy that we are free. I want to be there, to build something until the end.”