The Obama Administration's Bold but Risky Plan to Make Africa Gay-Friendly

Published: March 7, 2012

MONROVIA, Liberia — After their private ceremony in the Liberian capital, a newly married gay couple traveled with a small group of friends to a strip of shore known locally as Miami Beach. It was a Sunday in late January, a time of year when the sky is often thick with haze, but the private beach was crowded anyway. The group, mostly young gay men, had just started in on their Club Beer, chicken, and Pringles when another beachgoer walked directly into one of the newlyweds. He refused to apologize to "a bunch of fags" and an argument broke out, but it was defused when the beach’s owner threatened to kick them all out if the commotion continued. The man walked off and no one in the wedding party thought much of it.

When they left around 6 pm, the group found a mob of some 20 people waiting for them. The mob threw stones and empty bottles, and the besieged wedding party threw them back. When it was over, only one of them had more than minor injuries: a member of the group had passed out after an asthma attack and had to be carried away. But the altercation, and the violent homophobia that sparked it, highlight the rising tensions surrounding gay rights in Liberia — tensions that have only become more visible since the announcement of a new U.S. policy intended to counter them.

Last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, proclaiming that "gay rights are human rights" and announcing the U.S.’s first government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas (the speech coincided with a memorandum issued by President Obama). She vowed "to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights" but was light on specifics. Within days, newspapers in Liberia — one of America’s closest allies in the region — were condemning the policy in particular and homosexuality in general. Sub-Saharan Africa is marked by widespread homophobia as well as chronic dependence on foreign aid, in particular from the U.S., and the idea that those two issues might now be linked seemed to upset a lot of people here.

On January 19, three days after Clinton attended the second-term inauguration ceremony of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Sirleaf’s press secretary announced that she would veto any legislation allowing gays to wed or legalizing homosexuality. In February, a Liberian lawmaker introduced legislation that would ban gay marriage. The bill, an amendment to existing legislation banning incestuous marriages and polygamy, would make gay marriage a first-degree felony, with prison sentences of up to ten years. Later in the month, another legislator introduced a bill that would make "same-sex sexual practices" a second-degree felony, carrying up to five years in prison. The bill would also make it a crime to "purposefully engage in acts that arouses or tend to arouse another person of the same gender (male/female) to have sexual intercourse." Both pieces of legislation are currently being reviewed in committee.

Liberia’s backlash was remarkable not just because the country’s government makes it a point to disagree with the U.S. as rarely as possible, but because it brought unprecedented local attention to the issue of gay rights. Like most sub-Saharan African countries, Liberia has a law restricting homosexual activity: voluntary sodomy is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. However, the most recent State Department Human Rights Report notes that "no convictions under the law occurred in recent years," and that, in 2010, there were "no reported instances of violence based on sexual orientation." Members of Liberia’s LGBT community say that, for the most part, they had previously been able to live in peace — unaccepted, sure, but underground and unmolested. The recent backlash against this new U.S. initiative, however, has manifested as a backlash against Liberian gays, leading some in the community to wonder if the American plan to help them could actually leave them worse off.

"At first, people were so free with everything, but now people are holding back on their dress code," a 26-year-old Liberian gay man explains. "Say there’s five people, and everybody wants to go out. Someone will decide that we can’t go together, because there’s a huge possibility that one of us among the group is well known to be a gay. Everybody will carry their own burden. Because some people walk in a feminine way, some people dress in a feminine way. So we say, ‘Oh, we can’t go together, we’ll spread out.’"

These fears are not unique to Liberia. In Uganda, the home of a widely condemned 2009 bill calling for the execution of some homosexuals, an adviser to President Yoweri Museveni responded to Clinton’s remarks, "I don’t like her tone, at all. … Homosexuality here is taboo, it’s something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of." In early February, the author of the 2009 anti-gay bill reintroduced it (though he said provisions for the death penalty would be dropped).

Some countries, though, seem more receptive to revisiting their gay rights policies. Malawi, which Obama had earlier criticized for jailing two men who married in 2010, announced two days after Clinton’s speech that it would review a ban on homosexuality "in view of the sentiments from the general public." A few months before Clinton’s speech, Kenya’s chief justice had declared, "gay rights are human rights."

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