ABIDJAN, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Relaxing on the terrace of a gay bar in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan, a group of men embraced and laughed as people walked past without even glancing their way.
Inside the bar, a young man caressed his companion’s chin in the corner, while a transgender woman greeted everyone before strutting and shaking to the music under the strobe lights.
“Some of the guys who come here don’t feel comfortable displaying their sexuality outside of these walls,” 34-year-old Michel, the owner of Sass Bar, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Abidjan.
“Others are just fine being themselves in their neighbourhoods,” he added, his voice barely eclipsing the music.
The bar is one of many gay venues in Abidjan, a relatively tolerant city for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in a region where homosexuality is mostly illegal, and sexual minorities face persecution, discrimination and violence.
Ivory Coast is one of a minority of African countries - around 20 of the 54 nations on the continent - which do not explicitly criminalise homosexuality or same-sex acts.
Yet the recent jailing of two gay men for three months - under a public indecency law that carries a harsher prison sentence for “an indecent or unnatural act with a person of the same sex” - has sent shivers through the LGBTI community.
Yann, 31, and Abdoul, 19, were arrested in the southwestern city of San Pedro in October after rumours spread about the nature of their relationship, leading Abdoul’s uncle to file a police complaint as he believed Yann was abusing his nephew.
Rights activists say Ministry of Justice officials are considering changing the public indecency law so that it no longer singles out homosexual acts or relations.
However much more needs to be done to change Ivorians’ attitudes - with some still suspicious of or hostile toward sexual minorities, campaigners say.
While Yann and Abdoul were released from prison in January many freedoms still elude the men, who are now openly a couple.
“When you look or a job, they ask for your police record ... and mine is already tainted,” said Yann, who worked as a security guard before his arrest.
Home to gay bars, gay rights groups, and even an annual cross-dressing beauty pageant, Abidjan is considered a refuge for LGBTI people, both within the country and across the region.
For Yann and Abdoul, who plan to move there soon, the city offers their best hope of having a normal life as a gay couple.
“At least it (Abidjan) is a big city,” Abdoul said. “They don’t consider [being gay] a big deal there.”
Despite its tolerant reputation, sexual minorities and even LGBTI organisations in Abidjan are prey to abuse, harassment and violence, with little legal protection, several activists said.
In 2014, a mob of nearly 200 people ransacked and looted the headquarters of Alternative Cote d‘Ivoire (ACI) - a prominent gay rights group in Abidjan - after days of anti-gay protests.
Last year, several gay men were abused, beaten, and forced to flee their homes after the U.S. embassy in Abidjan posted a photo of them at an event for victims of a nightclub shooting in Florida and identified them as members of the “LGBTI community”.
“Most people are reluctant to publicly display their sexuality exactly because of the difficulties associated with the daily lives of persons,” said Alexis Ouattara, president of the civil society group Lesbian Life Association.
Such abuse and violence may be stoked by sensationalist and demeaning media coverage, an ACI official said, citing the example of a newspaper misrepresenting a gay rights group as promoting homosexuality, and using photos of LGBTI activists.
To counter this, the ACI runs a programme to raise awareness among Ivorian journalists about the lives of LGBTI people.
The goal is to ensure journalists understand that the LGBTI community suffers widespread discrimination, said the ACI activist, who fearing for his safety, did not wish to be named.
“When they (the media) understand this, there will be a certain tolerance,” he added.
A justice ministry official in the department in charge of legislation declined to comment on the proposed change to Ivory Coast’s penal code.
But approval of the legal revision from government bodies could take several months, said observers including Wodjo Fini Traore, vice president of National Human Rights Commission of Ivory Coast, an independent body established by the state.
While the change would come too late to help the two jailed men, activists say it will strip law enforcement and justice officials of a tool of discrimination that can ruin lives.
“Everyone agrees that the situation (surrounding the law) has been marked by multiple cases of human rights violations, specifically on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Traore.
Even if and when the law is revised, there still remains the much more ingrained challenge of improving Ivorian attitudes toward LGBTI people in a conservative society, Traore said.
“The behaviour of the population is still what it is,” he said. More education is needed for the public to accept open displays of affection by same-sex couples, Traore added.
For Yann and Abdoul - marked as criminals and shunned by their community at home - acceptance is a major concern as they consider how to rebuild their lives in Abidjan.
"We have one foot in prison, and one foot in freedom," Yann said. (Reporting by Sean Lyngaas, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)