In Cameroon, sexual acts between people of the same gender are punishable with up to five years in prison

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated December 08, 2015 12:05 PM
Shaun Kadlec

Two years ago, Cedric Tchante fled his home in Douala, Cameroon, under the cover of night. Between the torture and murder of a dear friend and the death threats against him that had expanded to his mother, it had become clear the then 28-year-old needed to get out fast and in secret.

Tchante had been working as a peer counselor educator and HIV prevention education coordinator at Cameroon’s first center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – a dangerous job in a country where homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“It’s normal to kill somebody for being gay or lesbian in Cameroon and you will have no problem with the police of the courts,” Tchante, now 30, tells PEOPLE. “It’s really difficult to be an activist because you know you are going to be persecuted. But when you see all the problems that the LGBT community has you have to help because somebody needs to do it.”

According to Amnesty International, Cameroon is one of 38 African nations where homosexuality is illegal. In the Central African nation, homosexuality is widely stigmatized and citizens are often arrested, charged and sentenced without a single piece of evidence.

Born This Way is a documentary that tells the story of Tchante and three other young, gay Cameroonians forced to hide in a country that refuses to accept them. The young people are in danger everywhere except at Alternatives Cameroun, the LGBT center where Tchante worked.

“It’s one of the only spaces in Cameroon where gay and lesbian people can come together and feel safe,” filmmaker Shaun Kadlec, 37, tells PEOPLE. “I was really struck not just by the difficulties and challenges that they faced, but also the joy and passion that went into their advocacy work and sense of community they created.”

The center, which officially operates as an HIV/AIDS clinic, offers healthcare services, counseling, legal aid and vocational training. But as Tchante explains, all of those were secondary to the most pressing need in the LGBT community – hope.

“Our first [priority] was to make people happy because all of the people we received were really sad and the only thing they wanted to do was die and not have that pain anymore,” he says. “We wanted to give them some hope and a place to share and talk.”

The threat of jail – or death – was a constant in Tchante’s life, but when the death threats began to spread to his family and a dear friend was found murdered, the activist sought asylum in San Francisco, California.

“I was a little bit afraid to come to the U.S. because my English is not perfect and I didn’t know anybody except Shaun,” Tchante recalls. “The only ideas I had about this place were from TV shows and coming here and being alone most of the time was really, really difficult.”

But when Tchante discovered the vibrant LGBT community in San Francisco, he knew he was far from alone.

“My first Pride parade is one of the best memories I’m going to keep for all my life,” he says. “To see a million people in the streets and a mix of gay, lesbian, trans, queer and heterosexual together and happy and having fun – I don’t have a word to describe that feeling.”

Today, Tchante stays connected to Alternatives Cameroun by providing help via email and counseling sessions via skype. This support is more necessary than ever, as the political situation has grown worse.

“Now, they’re trying to make the law more [strict] with 15 or 13 years as punishment [for being homosexual],” he says. “With the next presidential election coming, all the politicians are blaming the LGBT situation.”

Still, he holds out for a future with more openly gay and lesbian Cameroonians who can change the hearts and minds of the people around them.

“The small hope is for the new generation,” he says, “that the youngest boy or girl in Cameroon can have a new idea if they have friends who are gay or lesbian – they’ll be less homophobic and more open.”

The broadcast premiere of Born This Way kicks off December’s LINK VOICES documentary series, Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. PT on KCET in Southern California and at 9 p.m. ET/PT nationally on Link TV (DirecTV Channel 375 and Dish Network Channel 9410).