In a March 19 video, former British prime minister turned shadowy philanthropist Tony Blair and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize–winner, sit awkwardly at a table while being grilled about anti-sodomy laws in Liberia.
Asked by Guardian reporter Tamasin Ford if she’d sign a bill decriminalizing homosexual acts, Sirleaf replies, “No, we like ourselves just the way we are.
“We have certain traditional values in our society that we’d like to preserve,” she continues.
Until this interview Sirleaf’s views on gay rights were not widely known. Considered a progressive by the international community, she had largely been silent on gay issues.
The video came as a shock to Stephanie Horton. A Liberian living in the United States, Horton, the founder of Seabreeze, a journal of Liberian writing, didn’t really consider herself an activist until recently.
But this year, as the anti-gay rhetoric in Liberia became more heated, Horton decided to take a stand. Using the international attention generated by Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Peace Prize win, Horton decided to write an open letter to Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian woman who shared the prize with Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman.
Before winning the Nobel and becoming a YouTube sensation for the lively wit she displayed during a taping of The Daily Show, Gbowee was best known in the West as the star of Abigail Disney’s harrowing documentary about the Liberian women’s movement’s attempts to stop the civil war there.
In her letter, Horton challenges Gbowee, who has taken no public stance on gay issues, to use her celebrity as a leader on human rights to stand up for the gay community in Liberia. The most passed-around portion of Horton’s letter, posted on dozens of blogs about Africa and gay rights, cites this passage:
“LGBT Liberians live in fear, disempowered and daily imperiled. The war for them has not ended. Their lives are defined by danger and violence, persecution, hate speech and threats, discrimination and harassment. They are stigmatized, publicly rejected and almost completely abandoned by government. Their vulnerability affects all areas of their lives from every quarter — church, school, employers, landlords, media, street mobs, rapists, predators, political actors, opinion leaders, family.”
In Horton’s memory, pre-war Monrovia was not a dangerous place to be gay. As long as you were “private” about your sexuality it was largely tolerated. Among the capital city’s Christian elite, gays “were known for throwing the best parties.” In the hinterland, depending on one’s traditional practices, there was a level of acceptance for both homosexuality and gender switching. Zoes, the traditional priests who led secret societies, according to Horton, were not homophobic. Even the iconic images of the Liberian war, rebel soldiers fighting in wigs and women’s dresses, was “all part of the culture.”
“But going through war,” says Horton, “things happen in the mind.”
Being gay in Liberia is illegal: “voluntary sodomy” is punishable by up to a year in jail. However, the US State Department’s annual Human Rights Report found no instances of the law being used in recent years and no reported instances of violence against gays.
But in recent months the issue is everywhere: in newspapers, on campuses and debated on many of Liberia’s raucous call-in radio talk shows. In early April, the anti-gay group Movement Against Gays in Liberia (MOGAL) distributed leaflets with a “hit list” of supporters of gay rights in the West African country.
Meanwhile, legislators have introduced two new bills that would make homosexual acts punishable by jail time or worse. One bill, known as the “Kill the Gays Bill,” was drafted by Senator Jewel Taylor, wife of former dictator Charles Taylor, and calls for a minimum of 10 years in jail and a maximum of the death sentence for engaging in homosexual acts.
The catalyst for recent events was Hillary Clinton’s now famous speech in Geneva to mark the UN’s Human Rights Day in which she declared gay rights to be human rights and outlined steps she was taking as secretary of state to use US foreign policy to promote the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities.
Horton was so moved by the speech she cried, but at the same time it gave her an uneasy feeling. “America has beautiful rhetoric,” she says, “and I think her commitment is genuine. But I can’t take any Western politician seriously. It’s all political. We know in Africa that they have arbitrary application standards. It’s hard to miss when you’re on the receiving end.”
And indeed, many Liberians took the speech as an admission that the US was meddling in internal politics: pushing a pro-West, pro-homosexual, “colonial” agenda. Last October, British Prime Minister David Cameron provoked a similar backlash when he said he’d cut British aid budgets to countries that persecute homosexuals.
It is commonly argued that homosexuality is at odds with “traditional” African culture. Leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have called homosexuality a Western invention. There are many country-specific cases that dispel this myth, the least of which is that many countries, more than 30 in sub-Saharan Africa, continue to enforce laws created by colonial regimes outlawing homosexuality and “sodomy” — laws that have since been abandoned in the European countries that created them.
When Sirleaf says, “We like ourselves just the way we are,” it’s a signal to constituents that she will not rock the boat. On the other hand, there’s no indication she will support a law that condemns gays to death.
Liberia is not the first African country to engage in this debate. Horton blames politicized Christianity, which she believes unites recent legal attacks on gays in countries as diverse as Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria and Liberia, countries on opposite sides of the continent but connected, Horton believes, by “a new virulently homophobic religion.” It’s a kind of Christianity pushed by adherents in the West that is finding fertile ground in places with quickly growing church populations and corrupt lawmakers.
Horton is not alone in this belief. In Massachusetts, where non-citizens can sue Americans for violations of international law, the human rights organization Sexual Minorities Uganda is suing American pastor Scott Lively, accusing the evangelist of “helping spread propaganda and violence” against gays in Uganda for his alleged role in helping draft that country’s harsh anti-gay law.
Both the UK and the United States have now said they will consider a country’s treatment of sexual minorities when allocating aid. But what about Canada?
According to a spokesperson in the office of Bev Oda, minister for international cooperation, “Canada takes human rights, including the persecution of LGTBQ individuals, into consideration when determining the most effective distribution of aid.”
When asked what that means in specific cases, the spokesperson says, “I can’t speculate on hypothetical developments, but I assure you, Minister Oda will continue to consider the human rights situation, including the rights of LGBTQ individuals, when distributing Canadian aid.”
Meanwhile, Horton doesn’t know if Gbowee personally read her letter, but her sources in Liberia tell her it was widely read there. Though it has received plenty of attention both internationally and in Liberia, Horton has yet to hear any official response.