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Liberia: Being Tolerant Is African, Too!

in LIBERIA, 17/04/2012

This week, homophobic rhetoric in Liberia once again reared its ugly head when a flier publicizing a "hit list" of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals was distributed in Monrovia. It appears that "kicking gays out of Liberia" as the flier said, is the latest pre-occupation in a country that has survived almost 20 years of violent internal conflict that claimed many lives and devastated the economy. One would think there would be more pressing concerns in Liberia.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female elected head of state, has brought new life to Liberia, and her fighting determination to bring peace and stability has justly won her many accolades. In particular, she is greatly appreciated for her unapologetic devotion to improving the status of women in her country, which earned her the Nobel Peace Prize last year with two other women leaders.

President Sirleaf, who recently won re-election, has a great deal of political capital, so it is disappointing that she has been equivocal on the question of the rights of sexual minorities - sometimes praising what is characterized as Liberians' "traditional values" and at other times resisting attempts to further criminalize same-sex behavior. This waffling is unfortunate, as the people whose names appeared on the "hit list" have suffered a punitive and invasive violation of their constitutional rights to privacy and dignity. Sexual minorities in Africa - who are African, too - suffer greatly in many countries, and it would be a pity to see Liberia follow the lead of those countries rather than to show more courageous leadership on questions of tolerance and inclusion.

In Africa, 38 countries criminalize same-sex conduct. LGBT people run the risk of lengthy prison sentences for expressing their sexuality. Sudan, Mauritania and northern Nigeria even impose the death penalty. Despite variations in enforcement, what many African countries have in common is the criminalization of private acts between consenting adults whose sexuality and gender identity they consider "abnormal."

Faced with this hatred and intolerance, many LGBT people are condemned to a life of secrecy, constantly fearing exposure and blackmail. Young women are forced into marriage to save their family reputation. Youth drop out of school as a result of bullying at the hands of both students and teachers. Men who have sex with men have limited access to health care and are vulnerable to HIV infection. In many instances of abuse and discrimination, no redress is available, and the abusers go unpunished.

For too long, a narrow interpretation of "African tradition and culture" has been used to exclude minorities, women, and children and to deny them their basic rights. Regrettably, President Sirleaf joins a number of African leaders who say that homosexuality is "un-African" and against "traditional moral values, custom, and religion."

Is it African, though, to deny and violate people's rights? Is it African for people to live in fear, their very existence silenced and criminalized?

Although President Sirleaf reassuringly declared that she would not sign any new repressive legislation on same-sex conduct - "We like ourselves just the way we are," she said - she also refused to discuss decriminalization.

It is not enough for the Liberian leadership to ignore hatred and threats of violence. We know all too well from events in Uganda, where a gay activist was recently killed, that the authorities need to act against those fueling discrimination against the LGBT community. President Sirleaf should not hide behind "culture and tradition;" she should stand up against discrimination in all its forms.

In his remarks to the summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity "has been ignored or even sanctioned by many states for far too long. This has prompted some governments to treat people as second-class citizens, or even criminals. Confronting this discrimination is a challenge. But we must live up to the ideals of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]." Secretary-General Ban proposes meeting this challenge through dialogue, engagement and collaboration.

He's right. The issue of homophobia goes beyond legislation. It is a social issue that will take time and patience and education to overcome. To mitigate exclusion and violence against all minorities, the Liberian government should undertake public education campaigns to inculcate respect for human rights and strengthen social tolerance and acceptance. As with electing Africa's first female president, Liberians have an opportunity to show leadership on this question. They should demonstrate pride and tolerance, rather than the closed-mindedness that too many other African nations promote.

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