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Liberian LGBT Rights Under Spotlight


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On tomorrow's program, we'll talk with a woman who's vying to lead one of the world's most important financial institutions. Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has put forward her name to become the next chief of the World Bank. She'll tell us why and why she feels she should prevail over the U.S.-nominated candidate. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

But now, we want to talk about a cultural conflict that's causing much concern in Africa. In recent months, we focused on efforts by some lawmakers in Uganda to impose harsh criminal sanctions on homosexual conduct. Now, that effort has spread to Liberia. Same-sex encounters there are already illegal, punishable by up to a year in jail, but some lawmakers have introduced new measures that would target gays with much tougher punishments.

Of equal concern to LGBT rights supporters, anti-LGBT rhetoric is escalating outside of government. For example, a group calling itself the Movement Against Gays in Liberia, or MOGAL, has been distributing a hit list of people who support gay rights, stating that these people, quote, "should not be given space to get a gulp of air," unquote.

We wanted to find out more about the situation, so we recently spoke to Tamasin Ford. She's a freelance reporter for the BBC and Britain's newspaper, The Guardian. We reached her earlier in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

Tamasin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TAMASIN FORD: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: What are these new laws and what sparked their introduction?

FORD: Well, the gay rights debate began getting this sort of unprecedented attention in the newspapers and radio stations here after the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, announced in December that America's foreign aid budget would promote the protection of gay rights.

Now, it prompted speculation that funds would be tied to countries' rights records and prompted these two new laws, one of them being a bill which would take the current legislation much further.

Now, these new bills - one would amend the penal code to make a person guilty of second degree felony if he or she, quote, "seduces, encourages, promotes another person of the same gender to engage in sexual activities, or purposefully engage in acts that arouses or tend to arouse another person of the same gender to have sexual intercourse." So it's quite unclear with that language, but that carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

The second bill is put forward by Jewel Howard Taylor, who's a senator here in Liberia and Charles Taylor's ex-wife. Now, that would make gay marriage a first degree crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

MARTIN: What sparked this, in your view? Is it seen there as a sort of a statement of national autonomy, that, you know, outsiders can't tell us what to do? Or is this something that's been brewing internally for other reasons?

FORD: Well, the gay debate here in Liberia - there wasn't really one, to be honest, until Hillary Clinton made these remarks and, unfortunately, they were misreported in the media here, claiming that America wants Liberia to introduce same-sex marriage or else it will stop giving aid to the country, which obviously is not true. But then it sparked this huge debate involving the West telling Liberia what to do, how homosexuality is a Western thing, it's un-African, it's not traditional.

MARTIN: We're talking about a debate over LGBT rights in Liberia with freelance journalist Tamasin Ford. New legislation has been introduced there that would toughen penalties against same-sex encounters. We're talking about what's motivating that.

You recently interviewed Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for The Guardian and you asked her about this. Let's just hear a clip.


FORD: In essence, homosexuality for two gay men, under the books, is illegal in Liberia.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We've got certain traditional values in our society that we'd like to preserve.

FORD: So you're saying you wouldn't decriminalize that current law?

SIRLEAF: I've just said to you, we're going to maintain our traditional values.

MARTIN: What does that mean, exactly?

FORD: Well, it's hard to speculate on what President Sirleaf actually meant by saying traditional values, but the editorials in the newspapers here really point to this issue of homosexuality being un-African and un-Christian and that it has no place in society here, where, of course, it has always existed. It was simply underground.

And now, people are aware of the gay rights debate and of homosexuality and in the last six months since Hillary Clinton's remarks there has been unprecedented attention on the issue in Liberia, but also attacks on gay people. There have been a few riots involving a man promoting gay rights on a radio station. It's suddenly receiving this attention that it never really has before in Liberia.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you just briefly before we let you go, Tamasin, to give us a sense of what the outlook for the legislation may be. It's not unheard of, you know, in this country and in other countries for people to introduce legislation to make a point publicly to garner, say, media attention without really intending to push this forward. And I just wondered whether this legislation is moving forward, or is it mainly meant to kind of make a statement at this point about national sovereignty about being unwilling to be influenced by, you know, leaders from other countries and so forth? What is your sense of it?

FORD: Two things, really, I would say. The president herself in the interview that I did with her said she would not sign these two bills that are currently waiting in the House and the Senate, which is obviously very good news for Liberia. It has been praised by Human Rights Watch.

But then, again, she also said she wouldn't change the current anti-gay law. But I think the problem now in Liberia is the gay rights debate is just getting more momentum by the week and we can see that from the fliers by the group you mentioned earlier, the movement against gays in Liberia. Their motto is: Kicking gays out of Liberia. They have a list of names on their flier that I have right in front of me who they say - we have agreed to go after these people using all means in life.

Now, it signals a dangerous time for gay people in Liberia and I think something needs to be done. The president's been very clear on the fact that she won't sign these two new bills. But also, the gay rights debate is still snowballing. So it feels like there needs to be some sort of action, possibly involving the reconciliation process that is going on in Liberia before it really spirals out of control.

MARTIN: Tamasin Ford is a freelance journalist based in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. She reports for The Guardian newspaper, the British newspaper, and the BBC.

Tamasin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FORD: Thank you. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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