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World Focuses on Liberia in Struggle for Gay Rights in Africa

The world is watching Liberia closely to see how recently re-elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will respond to the attack on two gay rights activists this past month. The January 16, 2012 attack came a month after President Sirleaf won a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent campaign for women’s rights and the Obama administration announced its efforts to support gay rights globally.[1]
Leroy Archie Ponpon and Abraham K. Kamara, leaders of Movement for the Defense of Lesbian and Gay Rights in Liberia had traveled to the University of Liberia in order to recruit members and add more signatories to their Gay Rights Bill, which would legalize homosexuality in Liberia. The two men were met with hostility from a group of university students and consequently fled for safety for fear of escalated violence.[2] Only days after the attack, Sirleaf was inaugurated for her second term as Liberia’s president.[3]
Liberia is one of many countries in Africa where homosexuality is illegal; Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, and Botswana also have enacted laws that deem homosexuality illegal.[4] Gaymen and lesbians in Liberia must conduct their same-sex relationships in secret due to legal and social consequences. In Liberia, voluntary sodomy is considered a first-degree misdemeanor. According to a study by a Liberian human rights organization, gay men and lesbians fear being “arrested, prosecuted, ostracized, ex-communicated and ridiculed by their non-gay friends, families and society at large.” The same study stated that this discriminatory attitude toward gay men and lesbians is believed to stem from Christian and traditional cultural beliefs.[5]
Conflicting with the beliefs of many African countries, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have declared a new effort to promote gay rights on an international level. During her speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in December 2011, Secretary Clinton declared human rights and gay rights as “one and the same.”[6] The Obama administration issued a landmark set of instructions to U.S. departments requiring them to take gay rights into consideration in matters of foreign policy. Secretary Clinton also announced a new program that will provide $3 billion to gay rights organizations worldwide. While it is possible that foreign aid could be withheld from countries that do not support this initiative, the Obama administration has denied it would do so.[7]
On the other hand, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has asserted that his government would restrict some aid from countries that do not recognize gay rights and would seek other means to assist those in need in those countries.[8]
Officially, President Sirleaf has not commented on gay rights or discrimination in Liberia. But she also has not outwardly condemned the Obama administration’s new policy, as other African leaders have done. However, there was no mention of gay rights in Liberia between Sirleaf and Clinton during Clinton’s visit to the country in January.[9]
As a prominent human rights activist and president, Sirleaf may be called on to protect activists like Ponpon and Kamara who are fighting for equality of an oppressed group. Supporters of gay rights in Liberia assert, “It is urgent that those of us truly committed to a new political imagination act now to ensure that the human rights debate currently taking shape in Liberia respects the rights of all citizens regardless of sexual orientation.”[10] It is uncertain how President Sirleaf or the Obama administration will follow through with the gay rights struggle in Liberia, as both parties are aware of the possible political repercussions of any action taken.

[1] “Noble Peace Prize Awarded in Oslo,” BBC News, 10 December 2011, accessed 29 January 2012 <>; Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper, “U.S. to Aid Gay Rights Abroad, Obama and Clinton Say,” New York Times, 6 December 2011, accessed 29 January 2012, <>.

[2] “Gay Rights Activists Assaulted in Liberia for Campaign,” West Africa Democracy Radio, 13 January 2012, accessed 29 January 2012, <>.

[3] Robbie Corey-Boulet, “In Liberia, Rhetoric but No Action on U.S. Gay Rights Initiative,” World Politics Review, 19 January 2012, accessed 29 January 2004, <>.

[4] “Gay Rights: Africa, the New Frontier,” BBC News, 7 December 2011, accessed 29 January 2012, <>.

[5] U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Liberia: Information on the Treatment of Homosexuals, Persons with Mental Illness, Liberians of American Descent, and Criminal Deportees in Liberia (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2001), 28 August 2001, accessed 9 February 2012, <>, 1.

[6] Myers and Cooper, “U.S. to Aid Gay Rights Abroad, Obama and Clinton Say.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Gay Rights: Africa, the New Frontier.”

[9] Corey-Boulet, “In Liberia, Rhetoric but No Action on U.S. Gay Rights Initiative.”

[10] Stephanie C. Horton, “Liberia: Illegal and Invisible—Sexuality, Identity, and LGBT Rights in Liberia,” All Africa, 31 January 2012, accessed 7 February 2012, <>.