By Stephanie Horton and Cary Alan Johnson
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently expressed in an interview opposition to LGBT rights — specifically decriminalization — and was vague about support for increased criminal penalties for LGBT people, a shockwave was felt around the world. LGBT Liberians everywhere and all who have great respect for Sirleaf — a former political prisoner herself — were appalled and saddened. Such a narrow and discriminatory view from a revered and world-honored leader is unfathomable.
Currently, under Liberian penal law, “voluntary sodomy” is a first-degree misdemeanor. While African nations such as the Republic of South Africa, Mauritius, and Mozambique have either repealed or read down similar, outdated, colonial sodomy laws, some in Liberia would move backward and increase criminalization and penalties.
Liberia’s Representative Clarence K. Massaquoi (Lofa) and Senator Jewel Taylor (Bong), distracting from the nations’ urgent post-war reconstruction problems, have each submitted bills to further criminalize sexual orientation and make same-sex relationships a crime punishable by imprisonment. These two anti-human-rights bills, introduced in February 2012, would amend the existing penal code and domestic relations laws to specifically prohibit same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. Under this “anti-gay-marriage” guise, the bills also call for surveillance, public trials, background checks, and lengthy jail terms for LGBT people and LGBT rights activists.
Gay marriage is not the focus of Liberian LGBT activist efforts. Safety, security, respect, and dignity for all Liberians, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, is the goal.
The sharp increase in public bigotry and violence targeting LGBT Liberians is alarming. As discrimination is being institutionalized, with government officials and print and social media taking dangerous, homophobic positions, Sirleaf’s remarks add fuel to an already blazing fire. Religious leaders, too, are using their influence to demonize and marginalize LGBT Liberians as being un-African, un-Liberian, and ungodly.
How can we make Liberia a safer, more inclusive society for all Liberians? With the unexpected rise of criminalization, hate speech and hate crimes, there is a pressing need for all who believe in basic human rights to unite in a single voice and address these issues.
Liberia is a signatory to a number of world treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to privacy and freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Liberia must stand by her commitment to these principles and protect all Liberians from human rights violations.
Liberia has a unique history as a haven for oppressed people. This history deserves to be honored, and Liberia’s international commitments to uphold human rights sustained. We must not sit in silence as some would divide and disrupt Liberia’s attempts to rebuild a nation where every Liberian feels safe, secure, and able to contribute toward building a forward-thinking Liberia.
The Coalition of LGBT Liberians and Allies and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission calls on every friend, every supporter, every Liberian at home and abroad to stand with us to stem the growing hatred and ensure that Liberia is safe for all. Appeal to the Liberian government to work in favor of laws that strengthen and protect human rights instead of laws that sanction the mistreatment of minorities. Appeal to Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to remember her commitment to international law, her experience as a formerly imprisoned freedom fighter, and that all Liberians are her children. Call on President Sirleaf, whom so many supported, to return the support with a renewed message of reconciliation, inclusivity, and rights for all Liberians.