When Josh Scheinert lived in Gambia, he was mostly in the closet.
In 2010, Scheinert spent a year teaching constitutional and international law in the West African country, where a person caught engaging in same-sex sexual activity can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Out as gay there only to a handful of ex-pats, Scheinert returned to Toronto with a keen interest in global LGBTQ rights.
He started writing newspaper op-eds about the topic, closely following developments in Gambia, where anti-gay rhetoric has worsened in recent years, as well as in other African countries.
Scheinert, now a 34-year-old lawyer, soon found, however, that he was “writing the same thing over and over.” The notion he encountered again and again, that societies in the developing world will eventually evolve, as the West has done, to better protect LGBTQ rights, offered him scant comfort.
“There are lives being affected – and ruined – in the meantime,” he said.
He wanted to more powerfully convey the story of what it’s like be gay in a place like Gambia, where he notes the LGBTQ scene is almost entirely underground.
A novel seemed like the best way to go.
Three-and-a-half years later, Scheinert, who had never written fiction, has self-published The Order of Nature, which is about a North American teenager volunteering in Gambia and falling in love with a local man he meets working in a hotel bar.
The novel charts the young men’s relationship and the challenges each faces regarding their familial baggage. The last third of the novel explores the legal fallout that occurs after the men are discovered as a couple and arrested.
Scheinert said it was important that the two protagonists be of different nationalities. “This highlighted the discrepancy of treatment between Andrew, the American, who has some legal protections as a gay man, and Thomas, the Gambian man, who is essentially abandoned, with no one to help him out.”
In addition to legal testimonies and reports from NGOs, Scheinert drew on his first-hand experience of living in Gambia to flesh out the book. “I got a flavour for how the country works.… It’s a small place,… very warm and hospitable.”
He was unwilling, however, to return to Gambia to do research, given the country’s current political climate towards LGBTQ people.
Scheinert, who has since gotten married, said that, over the years he’s met a number of LGBTQ activists from the developing world, places like India, Jamaica and Belize, and that hearing their stories helped him develop complex characters, “to see (the people in the book) as real.”
He hopes The Order of Nature, which is being sold through Amazon and at various local bookstores, will generate awareness for the legal and political situation faced by many LGBTQ people in Gambia and elsewhere.
“Through awareness, you hope empathy develops for how people react to those in their community who are different from them.”
The West carries a certain amount of responsibility for the persecution of LGBTQ people in developing countries, Scheinert said, and so he hopes the book could help motivate people here to “support activists on the ground” in those countries.
While a number of organizations in the developing world are working to challenge the constitutionality of some of these discriminatory laws, there’s still a need for the global community to speak out and provide financial resources.
For example, Scheinert said, international embassies could open themselves up as safe gathering spaces for LGBTQ people in countries where homosexual activity is illegal.
“I’ve travelled to places where being gay wasn’t something I advertised. But every time, I had the luxury of getting to go home after, and that brought comfort and security.… This book is a reminder that for many people in too many places, home doesn’t mean that,” he said.