On Friday, 13 January 2012, a University of Liberia gay rights student activist and his supporters were stoned by other students on the University of Liberia campus. Among countless other acts of violence against gays, this was one of the most recent based solely on an individual’s sexual orientation and claim to full citizenship.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “gay rights are human rights” speech before the United Nation’s human rights group in Geneva on 6 December 2011 is what seems to have ignited this bitter and sometimes sadistic public debate in Liberia. The impression that the US will use foreign aid to promote gay and lesbian rights has unleashed a vicious torrent of homophobia. Thundering from their pulpits, some Christian ministers have equated homosexuality with immorality. Lawmakers allegedly have aggressively been threatened on the streets for so much as whispering about gay rights.
At the weekly press briefing on Thursday, 19 January 2012, Presidential Press Secretary Jerolinmek Piah told journalists that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would veto any legislation associated with gay rights or same sex marriage. A headline that day in a leading online Liberian newspaper reads: *“No Gay Right”: Ellen Vows to Veto Any Would-Be Legislation; Government Says. *
President Sirleaf won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and should know that the oppression and exclusion of any group is anathema to Alfred Nobel’s vision of an equalitarian society. If President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is to truly cut her cloth to the measurement of a King or Mahatma, now is the time for her to take that turn at this crossroads.
The urgency for Liberian lesbians and gays is a liberation movement for equal rights, not special treatment. We should not forget that Liberia has always been in the forefront of liberation movements on the continent.
During the apartheid era, anti-racist South African activists found refuge in Liberia. Successive Liberian governments provided financial and legal support for anti-colonial movements including South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) at a time when western governments called Mandela a terrorist. Now with the ANC in power, South Africa’s constitution secures gays rights for her citizens, including same-sex marriage, while Liberians are still stuck in their adoption and internalization of a vitriolic conservative, right-wing hypocritical sixteenth century interpretation of Christianity that projects a monolithic view of sexual identity, denying human diversity and human complexity. The irony here is, the majority of Liberians are not Christians (nor for that matter Moslem)!
It is ludicrous to say, like a prominent lawyer did recently, echoing and amplified on the listservs, that homosexuality was brought to Africa by Westerners. Non-colonized Africans (who still exist removed from this debate!) are known for rejecting fixed binaries and absolutes of good vs. evil, black vs. white, normal vs. abnormal, crooked vs. straight. Cultural and academic historians have documented fluid gender identities/sexualities in pre-colonial Africa, as well as the differences between African and European notions of normative and normal.
Dagara author Malidoma Somé from Burkina Faso (an initiated Zoe with a PhD from the Sorbonne) writes about the absence of any word in his culture that describes gays in the Western sense: “The reason why I’m saying there are no such people is because the gay person is very well integrated into the community, with the functions that delete this whole sexual differentiation of him or her.” Here we see an African belief system that dynamically embraces difference as an inviolable mystery in human nature. “[G]ender,” Somé says, “has very little to do with anatomy [. . .] So to then limit gay people to simple sexual orientation is really the worst harm that can be done to a person. That all he or she is is a sexual person” (http://www.menweb.org/somegay.htm).
Historians reveals that homophobia in Africa spread with Christian, colonial, and imperialist expansion. The Western notion of sexual normativity during this period coincided with the rape and objectification of the African female body (breeder, Venus Hottentot) and the subjugation and desecration of the African male body (lynching, castration). The same jeremiad biblical interpretation used to enslave Africans and demonize African cultures and spirituality (the curse of Ham), is the same rhetoric used today to subordinate and bludgeon people of diverse sexual backgrounds and “transgressive” sexualities.
Men courting men and marriages between women in Africa were documented in writing and corroborated by oral accounts as early as 1591. Vivid pictorial narratives of same-sex couplings appear in the legendary San rock paintings in Zimbabwe dating back more than 30,000 years. And up until today, certain West African peoples consider homoerotic behavior between boys before marriage perfectly normal and natural (http://www.bidstrup.com/phobiahistory.htm). It’s absurd to believe homosexuality existed everywhere else on earth since antiquity but Africa!
Our ignorance of our own histories and cultures fuels our continued exploitation and the ways we turn upon each other with class privilege, bullets, machetes, razor tongues, using even the penis as a weapon to punish, maim and wound. Shouldn’t the statistics on heterosexual rape instead be the subject of a national debate? How is it that we have normalized rape perpetrated by men—merely shrugging at the rapes of female babies and little girls by rabid pedophiles—only venting outrage against a man who freely chooses to love and copulate with another man, or a woman whose choice it is to make love to a woman? How do same-sex relationships between non-violent consenting partners compare to the violent sex crime of rape?
Hillary Clinton’s gay human rights speech last December came on the eve of the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted on 10 December 1948 by the UN General Assembly. That Declaration followed what is called World War II, though Africans, under colonial rule, were not included in the definition of universal enshrined in those rights, and arguably still aren’t, nor were Africans involved in that war between the world’s military powers except to save their skins when used by the colonizers as human shields on the frontlines.
That savage war was fought by eight countries, not the whole world: Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and China, six of them today permanent members of the UN Security Council, and still the world’s biggest arms dealers. How
is it that we have normalized wars perpetrated by “the global powers,” wars in which millions of Africans have been and are still being slaughtered, displaced, plunged into poverty, starvation, extreme suffering, and all our outrage is spent against peaceful homosexuals? What about the economic war in Liberia – privatization, land grabbing, corruption scandals, predatory NGOs, multinational monopolies, joblessness? No fury?
It is past time for us to treat each other with tenderness, dignity, gentleness and kindness. For far too long gay and lesbian Liberians have been subjected with impunity to scorn, malice, taunting, ridicule, violence. The physical, psychological, emotional persecution must end! So too must we not allow the fear of being called gay to arrest us from speaking out in the name of oppressed humanity against this inhumane injustice! To further victimize traumatized people already living hand to mouth whose only solace is love, to deny them even that, is heartless!
Because of course we know that elite Liberian gays and lesbians live far removed from raw emotions spit in their faces.
Let President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf know that homosexuality is normal and natural for people who are born homosexual or bisexual and does not equal immorality. Tell the Government of Liberia to End Discrimination Against Gay and Lesbian Liberians and Legalize Equality for ALL Liberians!