Gboko Stewart, email@example.com
Monrovia– Liberians have voted to elect a new set of leaders who would oversee the country’s affairs for the next six and nine years, respectively.
For the underground LGBT community, access to justice, healthcare, protection, respect of basic human rights continue to be issues that those seeking elected offices are ducking.
Abigail Mulbah, 22, is a footballer who identifies as a lesbian. She says she is mostly concerned about her ‘gay brothers’ who are continuously at risk of being harmed.
“Our brothers out there–I am concerned about them because people in the communities and the Zogos are regularly misbehaving on them,” says Abigail, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “For me, it’s difficult for anyone to know I’m a lesbian.”
“People see us, they can say and do anything to us; and when you carry [a] complaint, nothing will come out of it. It’s like somebody is selling drugs for you, and they misuse the money—where will you carry the complaint for something to come out of it? No where.”
She is worried that during the last three months of canvassing by political parties and independent candidates, the LGBTQ+ community has been left out. Her greatest desire, she says, is for the queer community to be given a voice.
“I wish that anybody who wins will be able to talk for us. They need to protect us. They need to make us get a voice. I wish that anybody who wins will talk for the community. Talk for us so our brothers will be free to walk on the streets.”
Momo Sheriff, 40, works as a social worker at a local human rights organization. Identifying as a bisexual male, the right to life, education, access to justice, health care and open identification are perched atop his concerns as he casts his ballot.
“When it comes to the community, we are in our shells. The Police don’t take your issues seriously. We are tired of being looked down upon—when you go to the hospital , you are stigmatized.”
Sheriff says he is becoming weary of the discrimination he faces daily. “People don’t wanna accept us. We are at risk in our own country.”
LGBTQI+ persons continued to record instances of assaults, stigmatization, discrimination, harassment, and hate speech by community members. The 2022 US State Department report on the country continues to highlight instances of assault, discrimination and abuse against the LGBT community.
In May of this year, Dominic Bropleh (name changed to protect his identity) accused FHI360 of outing his health status when the organization plastered his face on flyers across the country as an HIV+ individual.
In May 2021, members of a community watch team beat three men on suspicion they were gays in the Gobachop community of Paynesville. According to two of the survivors, the community watch team members threatened and assaulted them, rendering one of their friends unconscious.
In June 2021, Nuchie Michael, a teenager and a student at the St. Matthew United Methodist School in New Kru Town was expelled for cross-dressing.
In 2020, Cheeseman Cole, a disgraced ex-soldier from the Armed Forces of Liberia was arrested for reportedly brutalizing 27 men suspected of being gay. In November 2019, partygoers were stoned and beaten over suspicions they were attending a gay wedding at an event hosted by Population Services International (PSI).
In September 2018, invitees at a PSI event in Sinkor were attacked and severely brutalized. The LGBT community faces worse discrimination as they are often blamed by religious leaders for spreading deadly diseases in the country.
Identifying as gay is not illegal in Liberia. But it could spur violent attacks against a person that does so. In May 2020, fashion model Tarus Cole fled the country over remarks that ‘99% of Liberian men are gay.’
Liberian law criminalizes same-sex sexual acts. Articles 14.74, 14.79, and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider “voluntary sodomy” as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment.
Liberia’s gay community saw a glimmer of hope that they might make progress in achieving rights in 2012 when Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, announced that “gay rights are human rights” and aid would be tied to how countries treat sexual minorities.
“…being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Secretary Clinton said.
That hope was soon dampened when President Sirleaf, in an interview with the Guardian, defended the current law which criminalizes homosexuality.
Then, Jewel Howard Taylor, former first lady, Senator, and current Vice-President, introduced a bill to make homosexuality a first-degree felony.
That bill did not pass.
Sirleaf later backpedaled on her earlier remarks in an interview alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson, saying, incorrectly, that no law criminalizes homosexuality in Liberia.
ANC, UP Frowns on LGBTQ
LGBTQ+ rights continue to be a thorny and sticky issue during political season in Liberia. A candidate accused of being gay or siding with the LGBTQ+ community could likely suffer a massive loss at the ballot box.
This was evident in 2014 when Robert Sirleaf, son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then a senatorial candidate of Montserrado, unsuccessfully fended off rumors of his sexual preference, leading to his massive defeat to President George Weah in the midterm elections.
Recently, the standard bearer of the Alternative National Congress (ANC), Alex B. Cummings, has found himself in a similar boat a la Mr. Sirleaf over gay rights due to an interview the former Coca-Cola executive reportedly held with a deceased journalist, saying “it’s a lifestyle I struggle with.”
His critics have parroted that interview to suggest that Cummings’ sexual preference is men despite being a family man with grandchildren. But the former Coca-Cola and Pillsbury executive, according to the Daily Observer, has rubbished the allegations, terming it as nonsense.
The government of President Weah, which is up for re-election, continues to be reticent on the protection of the basic human rights of the LGBTQ+ community. The spokesperson of the ruling CDC, Kanio Bai Gbala, could not be reached for a comment.
The former ruling Unity Party, main challenger to President Weah’s governing CDC, has recently argued that accepting gay rights disrespects Liberia’s “cultural sensitivity.”
Like Momo Sheriff and Abigail Johnson, Sekou Kromah says equality remains on the uppermost part of his mind for the elections.
“We don’t want any discrimination. We want them to focus more on human rights because we are tired of being seen differently in our communities,” says Kromah whose name has also been changed to protect his identity.
Kromah, 22, mentioned that he is disappointed that the majority of those wishing to be elected did not court the LGBTQ+ community to showcase and explain about their various platforms.
Had he not attended a training recently, Kromah said he would have had no idea there were also pro LGBQ+ sympathizers in the race.
The training, organized by the Liberia Equality Network, was supported by Jhpiego to provide civic education to members of minority groups.
According to the Executive Director of LEN, who did not wish to be named, the organization invited two legislative political aspirants to share their platforms.
“It’s important for marginalized groups to take part in elections, and not to be left out. We invited them to show how their platforms benefit the community.” The event, he said, drew about 50 participants, including Amarak Kromah who were elated.
“Basically, members of the community were ostracized and bullied during the registration period. We encourage people to vote peo[le who will not support discriminatory laws, but will get rid of laws that target the community.
Cookies Brown (name changed to protect her identity), 39, is a trans woman that sells socks on Bushrod Island. While peace is the aftermath of the election she hopes for, she prays the country gets a leader that respects her rights and freedom to sashay.
“I didn’t hear the politicians saying anything. I felt bad. But what to do? We can’t say anything—the discrimination too much.” Cookies reveals that she is a subject of constant harassment in the street.
“Someone jumped on me to fight because I’m a trans woman. Anyone that wins, let them give us freedom—everyone has the right to live and love. No respect in our community. We are suffering.”
This article was funded in part through a grant from Internews. The funder has no say in its content.