Rodrigue moved to Harlem four years ago, when he was offered a U.N. fellowship. He moved into the International House near Columbia University and embraced his hopeful new life in New York. Though he was supposed to return to Togo four months later, he never went back.
He is part of a subcommunity of gay West African immigrants — a small fraction of the burgeoning West African population in Harlem, which has led to a stretch of 116th Street being called Little West Africa. Many LGBT West African immigrants fear persecution in their home countries and have sought asylum in the U.S.
“It was a pretty clandestine life,” he recalls. “I had to try to act ‘normal.’ Some people there are out, but it’s very rare. And dangerous.”
Talking about the roots of the homophobia ubiquitous in Togo, Rodrigue turns to the subject of religion. “[My family] thought it was devilish and strange, and they thought I could ‘contaminate’ my cousins. It was so brutal.” He goes on to explain the religious geography of Togo: The southern half of the country is Christian, and the northern half is Muslim. “My family is Christian. I was raised Christian.” While homophobia in West Africa has become a separate phenomenon, he says that it is often born of religion.
In Harlem, Rodrigue discovered what is effectively a microcosm of the complex national dynamic involving conservative Christianity, race and homosexuality. There, black churches grapple with issues of race and sexuality daily. And when young, gay, West African men and women arrive in the U.S., they find a society that may accept their sexuality but often takes issue with the color of their skin.