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Friday, April 8, 2011

From Cameroon to Seattle: One Man’s Harrowing Struggle to Be Free

Gaston Dissake, fourth from left, with his Cameroonian teammates.
Gaston Dissake, fourth from left, with his 
Cameroonian teammates.
By Shaun Knittel -

Gaston Dissake has never known life without soccer.

For as long as he can remember, the soccer field is where the 29-year-old found freedom. This freedom, however, stopped whenever he left the field in his native Cameroon. After years of police beatings; attacks from former teammates and threats on his life, Gaston fled his African homeland and sought asylum in the United States. He eventually made his way to Seattle.

Gaston’s story is one of a man who risked everything so he could be free to be himself. He is ready to embrace a gay community about which he only read or saw on television. Above all, however, Gaston desperately wants to return to the game he loves so much.

From Cameroon with love
Association soccer dominates Cameroon’s male culture. Amateur clubs abound, organized along ethnic lines or under corporate sponsors. The Cameroon national football team has been one of the most successful in the world since its strong showing in the 1990 World Cup. Within that world, Gaston Dissake was a star.

Gaston and I talked over coffee at a Capitol Hill café on a rainy afternoon. He is polite and soft-spoken, and-despite his limited knowledge of the English language-communicates well. He has a great smile and his face lights up when he talks about his favorite sport.

"I was a well-known soccer player and coach in my country," he told EDGE. "I’ve played many other sports; tennis, basketball, but soccer has always been my life."

Gaston tells me that he became a free agent after many years of professional play and minor-league coaching. He traveled throughout the African continent, Eastern Europe and Asia to play for teams that needed a player for tournaments.

A trip to Hong Kong changes everything
His life changed forever in 2003.

Gaston and his teammates were in Hong Kong when he had sex with another man for the first time. A practicing Christian and closeted gay man; Gaston not only "passed for straight," but he still considered himself a heterosexual. Still, he said he knew deep down inside that he would have to come out.

When he returned to Cameroon, he began a relationship with fellow Cameroonian Jonathan. Gaston eventually mustered up the courage to tell his mother about his relationship with his new lover. He even introduced Jonathan to her, but the meeting was not a pleasant one.

"My mother was not happy with the news and she didn’t want to believe I was gay," he recalled. "She blamed Jonathan for making me gay and said the young man had possessed him. She demanded I see a priest and prayed for the ’evil spirit’ to leave me."

His teammates didn’t take the news any better. "They became so outraged that they beat me," said Gaston. "They accused me of deceiving them. They would go to my mother house and threaten her."

Cameroonian law punishes those found guilty of same-sex sexual acts with five years imprisonment and a 20,000 to 200,000 francs fine. More severe sentences are likely when one of the offenders is under 21. Like in many African countries, Cameroonian society is conservative. Homosexual sex acts are frowned upon and LGBTs face discrimination, violence and even death.

Police arrested Gaston six times in the years after he came out. "Each time I suffered sever beatings on the bottoms of my feet plus humiliation and insults in every possible manner," he said, noting people on the street often abused him once he left jail.

Gaston’s father passed away last year. He knew that something had to change in order for him to survive and be able to take care of his mother. Gaston tried one last "ex-gay" exorcism to prove to her that he could not change his sexual orientation. He and Jonathan then emigrated from Cameroon to Colombia and then to Panama in search of asylum.

In search of a home
"I chose Panama because when I did my research on the Internet, I found the country to be very welcoming to immigrants from Cameroon," explained Gaston. "But 30 days before Jonathan and I arrived, the process had changed."

When the two men arrived in the Central American country, Panamanian authorities detained them. Gaston and Jonathan solemnly waited 14 months to hear the outcome of their case. And during that time, Gaston said he suffered discrimination at the hands of the Salvation Army.

"Once the case managers figured out we were gay, the Salvation Army no longer helped us," he said. "They were very bad to us. I think it is because of them that our plea for asylum got denied."

Down and out and quickly running out of options, Gaston used his savings for the couple to travel-paying bribes along the way-from Panama for Mexico.

Mexican authorities detained Gaston and Jonathan once they reached Mexico City. "The Mexican government asked us if we wanted asylum in Mexico," said Gaston. "I declined. I told them, ’No. I have to reach America.’ But Jonathan, fearful of the drug cartels and the uncertain journey to the U.S. border, told me he would not come with me."

Jonathan remains in Mexico City to this day.

"He was afraid to try to come to the U.S., but I am brave and so I came," he said.

Without family; Jonathan and any friends, Gaston eventually made his way to Tijuana. "At least," he thought. "I’ve made it."

Granted asylum, at last
No longer afraid, Gaston bravely walked up to the customs office at the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing and asked the clerk for asylum in the United States.

Once again; he was taken into custody, only this time, something was different. Gaston knew his life was about to change for the better. It seemed that luck was on his side for the first time in years. "I said to myself, ’OK, I have reached the country of Liberty’ and thing as going to get better," he said.

Authorities eventually transferred Gaston to the Northwest Detention Center, a facility for undocumented immigrants in Tacoma, Wash., that can hold up 760 inmates facing immigration charges and possible deportation.

Attorney Matt Sullivan took on Gaston’s asylum case pro bono. Gaston won his claim for asylum in February. Seattle Frontrunner members Ron Hochnadel and his partner, Mike Gaeta, opened up their home to Gaston.

"Even though he suffered all this persecution, Gaston has managed to remain a kind and thoughtful person, who doesn’t seem to harbor much ill will towards anyone," said Sullivan. "He wants nothing more than to rebuild his life as a soccer coach and agent."

Gaston is now ready to put his life back together. "I want to find employment and I am taking English classes at Seattle Central Community College," he said. "I am new to Seattle, but I think it is a very nice city. I’ve met some good people and made friends easily."

Gaston doesn’t play much soccer these days. In fact, he’s just trying to get by and send money home to help take care of his mother. Gaston said that he misses Jonathan from time to time and has found it hard to integrate into the local scene because he finds it difficult to live as an out gay man after suffering so much violence in Cameroon. He is willing to try. And after speaking with Gaston, one cannot help but feel that he will persevere.

Ron and Mike are helping Gaston with his resume-he speaks French, Spanish and English. Seattle’s Rain City Soccer has donated money to help Gaston buy much needed clothing and a pair of soccer shoes. Gaston also began to receive a monthly stipend from the International Refugee Committee this month.

He is moving into a small apartment of his own this month. Those interested in donating furniture, a computer, kitchenware and other items to Gaston can contact Ron Hochnadel at

"I want to make Seattle my home," said Gaston. "This is where I want to stay."
Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News. 

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