ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST — On a recent Saturday night, a group of young men mingled outside what looked like an ordinary warehouse in Abidjan’s southern industrial zone.
Inside, a DJ improvised a set list made up mostly of club tracks, including Rihanna and Chris Brown from America, and Chidinma and Iyanya from Nigeria. The crowd danced in front of an oversize mirror bordered with red Christmas lights, sipping beer and sparkling wine.
It was one of the last nights Ivory Coast’s most prominent gay bar was open for business. It closed its doors this past weekend after an eight-year run as the main attraction of the city's gay scene, one of the most permissive in conservative West Africa. The bar was both a symbol of Ivory Coast's live-and-let-live approach to LGBT rights, as well as an occasional flashpoint highlighting latent homophobia among the general population.
The bar opened in 2005, and for most of the past eight years, was the only place in the city where gay men, lesbians and transgender women all gathered together. It was an anomaly in West Africa, where homosexuality is widely banned.
Such laws were often inherited from colonial powers, but they still have significant support in the region. For example, lawmakers in Nigeria and Liberia are currently reviewing legislation that would make their anti-gay laws even tougher.
Ivory Coast has no laws on homosexuality, and the bar was allowed to operate with few problems. But the owners of the building announced earlier this year that it was being repurposed, meaning all tenants had to leave. The bar was set to close at the end of March.
A regular named Charles said he did not know what the city’s gay community would do once it closed. “We’re a family, and everyone can do what they want when they’re here. But we don’t have very many places to enjoy ourselves. You cannot have fun everywhere. If you go to a straight bar and act like we do here, they’ll throw you out.”
The bar was not always a safe haven. Claver Toure, head of the LGBT advocacy NGO Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, recalled a period of several months in 2011 when the bar was targeted by the security forces for extortion, one of the more common threats facing Abidjan’s gay community.
This occurred after the country’s 2010-11 post-election conflict, when a new army began patrolling the streets.
“The soldiers would come into the bar with their guns and round up all the effeminate-looking men," Toure said. "They would put them on a truck and threaten to take them away unless the owner gave them money. The owner agreed to pay. What else could she do? And this went on for months until we raised the issue with the government and diplomats.”
Military officials declined to comment on the accusations, which were documented in a report presented last year before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The problem stopped more than a year ago, according to Toure.
There are a handful of other establishments that welcome gay people, as well as a bar that caters exclusively to lesbians, but Toure said the loss of the main bar would be felt among many members of the LGBT community, especially more marginalized groups like transgender women.
“It was effectively the only place where transgender women could go," he said. "It’s true that in Abidjan there are certain bars that are mixed, especially if people act discreetly. But to avoid all homophobia, and all acts of aggression both physical and verbal, we’d prefer to go to our own bar.”
The owners of the bar, who did not want to be named or have the bar identified for security reasons, said they are looking into opening a new space later this year, though no concrete plans have been made.