How the US Shapes Queer Activism in Liberia

How the US Shapes Queer Activism in Liberia

How the US Shapes Queer Activism in Liberia

Outsiders have both helped and harmed Liberia’s LGBT community.


Monrovia, Liberia

As the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, dozens of queer Liberians and their friends and family gathered on a stretch of beach outside Monrovia, the West African nation’s capital. It was a Sunday night in November 2016, and they had been invited to an event marking Transgender Day of Remembrance.

The program, though, looked to the future as much as it reflected on the past. In addition to honoring transgender Liberians who had died in the previous 12 months, activists planned to introduce candidates for the Miss Trans Diva pageant, one of the local LGBT community’s most important, and high-spirited, annual parties.

After a moment of silence, the up-tempo beat of Beyoncé’s 2013 hit “Grown Woman” pulsed through the speakers, and the pageant’s seven contestants began their first passes down a red carpet spread over the wooden stage. Over the next few hours, each woman modeled three outfits—casual wear, evening wear, and “traditional” wear, meaning bright Liberian lappa prints—as the crowd danced and drank Club Beer, the more exuberant among them jokingly shouting marriage proposals. When it was over, a panel of judges selected the evening’s “winner,” presenting her with a pink-and-blue cake.

The security guards hired for the event left soon after that, but most of the partygoers lingered long past midnight. At around 4 am, the winner walked out, cake in hand, with her mother and boyfriend. The pageant had already attracted attention from nearby residents. As soon as those residents saw the cake, they started crying out that the event was, in fact, a gay wedding. Armed with knives, machetes, and sticks, a group of them chased the winner and her entourage back onto the beach, then began threatening to attack everyone there. As the crowd huddled inside a private-event space set back from the shoreline, the would-be assailants tried to force their way in, rattling the locked doors and windows.

The situation was defused only after a Liberian activist managed to place a call to a commander for the Liberia National Police. Officers soon arrived at the scene, where they were met with hostility from the residents. “When the police came,” one witness recalled, “the community even jumped on the police, started fighting the police, saying, ‘Oh, you guys are promoting this thing in Liberia. It will not hold. This is not America.’”

The officers took statements and invited residents to file complaints if they had seen anything illegal. But they also admonished them not to threaten members of the LGBT community. By midmorning, they had managed to disperse the crowd, escorting everyone to safety.

The residents’ warning that “this is not America” underscored a chief misconception animating antigay sentiment in Liberia and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa: that the United States and other Western democracies are introducing behaviors, identities, and rights that are inherently foreign to the continent. This idea is, of course, baseless. As in other African countries, Liberian sexual minorities, whether open or not, activists or not, have formed part of the fabric of their society since long before LGBT liberation came into fashion in the United States or anywhere else.

At the same time, the incident on the beach hinted at the various ways the experiences of LGBT Liberians have been shaped, for good and for ill, by outsiders, notably Americans. On the positive side, collaborations with these outsiders, including at conferences held abroad, were critical to the formation of a network of local activists catering specifically to transgender Liberians. These conferences have also helped Liberian activists sharpen tools necessary to navigate dicey security situations—in this case, the ability to cultivate contacts with law-enforcement officials who can come to their aid when they’re threatened with physical violence.

On the other hand, the policies and rhetoric of the past two US administrations have, at various times, rendered LGBT life in Liberia more hazardous than it would otherwise be. For example, the decision, taken in 2011, by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly champion the human rights of sexual minorities overseas sparked an unprecedented homophobic and transphobic backlash in Liberia, shades of which can still be seen in the reaction to events like the Miss Trans Diva pageant.

More recently, Liberian activists’ work has been undermined by indications that the Trump administration is turning away from the Obama-era policy, primarily by proposing budget cuts that would hobble the programmatic support that Liberian activists receive. This renewed sense of precariousness has strengthened the view among LGBT activists—not just in Liberia but across the region—that as their movement continues to grow and evolve, they must find ways to stand on their own.

The birth of modern-day LGBT activism in Liberia took place two decades before Obama was elected, with the founding in 1998 of Stop AIDS in Liberia, or SAIL, a group that, as its name suggests, focuses on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. For years, the group, and the mostly male population it served, operated with little difficulty.

That changed after the Obama administration released a memorandum in 2011 directing “all agencies engaged abroad” to promote the human rights of LGBT people. In a speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton became the public face of the policy, declaring, “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

The unique positioning of the United States in the national consciousness of Liberia—a country founded by freed American slaves—ensured that the policy would be heavily scrutinized and that the outcry would be especially acute. Sure enough, in the weeks that followed, the Liberian press devoted ample space to reactions that were overheated and dangerously misinformed. Though US officials insisted otherwise, many Liberians assumed the policy would result in aid cuts for countries where the rights of LGBT people were being violated. Additionally, a remarkable number of Liberian journalists seemed to think Washington was demanding that Liberia adopt same-sex marriage. On the streets, this translated into an uptick in anti-LGBT violence, with some LGBT-community members’ being targeted by angry mobs.

Under Liberian law, “voluntary sodomy” is a misdemeanor fetching prison sentences of up to one year, though this provision is rarely invoked by police and the courts. As the anti-LGBT backlash gathered momentum, several Liberian elected officials decided in 2012 that the existing law was insufficient. In the House of Representatives, Clarence Massaquoi introduced a bill that would have classified “same-sex sexual practices” as a second-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. In the Senate, Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, pushed to make same-sex marriage a first-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years behind bars.

Amid this mounting hostility, LGBT Liberians were silenced, left out of media accounts questioning their status as full citizens of the country. Few allies, foreign or domestic, came to their defense. This isolation was on prominent display in March 2012, when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fresh from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed to defend the anti-sodomy law in an interview with The Guardian. Sitting next to former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was in town to promote the work of his Africa Governance Initiative in Liberia and who refused to answer any questions on LGBT rights himself, Sirleaf said, “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we’d like to preserve.”

Four months after that interview was published, the Senate approved Jewel Howard Taylor’s bill criminalizing same-sex marriage, but that was as far as either piece of antigay legislation advanced. Eventually, in the press and among the political class, the debate over LGBT rights died down, and Liberian LGBT activists mounted a quiet counteroffensive.

Their leaders quickly learned how to take advantage of the support foreign embassies were now willing to provide. American diplomats, in particular, proved to be a consistent source of low-profile encouragement, offering to send representatives to court cases involving community members who ran into trouble with the police; to make embassy facilities available for the groups’ activities; and to raise the concerns of LGBT Liberians with government officials.

With Washington now in its corner, SAIL experienced dramatic growth. At the time of Clinton’s speech, the organization had just seven members, and was operating out of a cramped office in downtown Monrovia that offered little security. But within just a few years, it had moved into a much larger building in Monrovia’s Mamba Point neighborhood, right next to the ocean, and its staff had quadrupled to 28. Whereas previously the funds SAIL received were earmarked almost exclusively for HIV/AIDS programming, about half a dozen groups, most of which were based in the United States, began financing SAIL’s work on both public health and human rights. This backing allowed SAIL to be more inclusive, serving lesbian and bisexual women and transgender Liberians.

But despite SAIL’s newfound influence, and despite its attempts to reach beyond the men it had traditionally served, Kay, a transgender woman whose name has been changed for her safety, couldn’t shake the feeling that her specific interests were still being sidelined, and that transgender Liberians remained marginalized even within a community of marginalized people. It was this feeling that prompted her, in 2014, to found the Transgender Network of Liberia, the group behind the Transgender Day of Remembrance event.

All her life, Kay had an aversion to the male identity she was given at birth. Well before she became aware of her sexual attraction to men, she knew that she was female, even if no one around her could see it. “People used to recognize me as, ‘Oh, you sissy boy,’ like a fag,” she told me. “But I knew who I was. I knew that I was different.”

In 2003, when Kay was 13, her family, angered by what they perceived as Kay’s stubborn unwillingness to conform, kicked her out of the house. She spent the next six years supporting herself as a sex worker on the streets of Monrovia, which was just beginning to recover from 14 years of civil conflict. When she wasn’t spending the night with clients, she slept on the beach or in unfinished or abandoned buildings.

As she approached 20, Kay decided that she needed to finish her education, which had been cut short when she became homeless. “I’m a very optimistic person,” she said. “I had to do everything to make life possible.” She also began making inroads in Liberia’s community of sexual minorities, eventually connecting with the leaders of SAIL. It was 2010, and many activists seemed to be engaging with issues related to gender identity for the first time.

Though Kay was not yet referring to herself as transgender, she found that her story had a certain currency she hadn’t expected, especially with foreigners. By dint of some savvy networking, she managed to transform herself into what Liberian activists call—sometimes with respect, sometimes with jealousy and disdain—a “travel diva”: a regular on the global LGBT-rights conference circuit. On panels and over dinners in hotels in foreign capitals, she was often asked to describe for American and European donors the challenges faced by Liberian sexual minorities, and how well-meaning outsiders might help.

The transfer of knowledge went both ways. While attending meetings and pursuing internships in places like London, Johannesburg, and Bangkok, Kay, who first educated herself on transgender issues online, met and befriended transgender activists from other countries, learning in the process what the word means and how it is generally lived. Though wary of the identity in the beginning, having first encountered it while reading an article about a transgender woman who was murdered in Los Angeles, she ultimately concluded that she fully identified with it, and that it answered outstanding questions about who she was. Since then, she has been working toward building a transgender community in her own country.

Part of Kay’s mission with TNOL is to create a space where people can have conversations about gender, but it’s not an easy task. In a country where any kind of gender nonconformity carries a high risk of violence and police harassment, to present as a gender other than the gender everyone understands you to be is often unthinkable. Many of Liberia’s trans women therefore present as male much of the time, with the primary exceptions being TNOL meetings and private parties. As the Transgender Day of Remembrance event underscored, even those brief respites from social restrictions can come with dangers.

It is precisely because the United States has been so central to the evolution of Liberia’s LGBT movement that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 alarmed Liberian activists, who feared an immediate drop in material and moral support. In the days after the results were announced, as he processed the news of Trump’s victory, Elliot, SAIL’s chief program officer, said he worried first about cuts for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to which the United States is the biggest contributor. But he was also deeply troubled by reports that the new administration was deleting LGBT-related content from government websites. And he watched with concern as the White House let Pride Month come and go unacknowledged in 2017 and again in 2018, and as Trump called for a ban on transgender people serving in the military.

Many Liberians, Elliot said, view such measures as signs that LGBT rights are no longer a matter of concern for Washington even at home, much less in Africa, meaning there will no longer be any outside pressure to uphold them. The consequences, in a country that has already demonstrated a willingness to single out its LGBT citizens for abuse, could be stark. “Everything we do in this country,” Elliot said, “is just centered around the United States.”

To some LGBT activists, the situation encapsulates the biggest problem facing LGBT activism, not only in Liberia but across the continent. After all, a movement dependent on outside support is not only exposed to allegations of pushing a foreign agenda. It is also vulnerable to the vagaries of global politics, which can stall progress regardless of what’s happening on the ground. Cyriaque Ako, a seasoned LGBT-rights activist from Ivory Coast who has worked in recent years to build up Liberia’s movement, is not alone when he says it’s essential to cultivate an African donor base to finance the activities of the emerging coterie of African activists.

“I’m very practical in my approach. I very much appreciate foreign donors, and I thank those who have supported our cause,” Ako said. But he emphasized that the movement will only realize its full potential when it becomes self-sustaining. “I think,” he said, “that we need to work toward finding our own champions.”

As Kay strives to build on the gains TNOL has made, lately she has also tried to introduce some balance to her life, including by devoting time and energy to her relationship with a man named Prince, whom she started dating after they met in a nightclub a few years ago.

Over time, Prince became interested in her activism, and also in examining his own sexual orientation. He says that before meeting Kay, he identified as bisexual. These days, he says he’s “attracted to men, 100 percent,” even though Kay identifies as a woman. He says that if Kay were to undergo gender-affirmation surgery, it “wouldn’t change anything” in their relationship, and that he would continue to identify as gay.

Their dynamic is an example of how labels, in their inflexibility, fail to capture the complexity of individual lives. At the end of the day, Prince thinks less about how he identifies than about his specific relationship. This is all the more true now that the two refer to themselves as a married couple, having gone through an ad hoc ceremony in 2016.

The wedding was Prince’s idea, though Kay says she was instantly on board. For the ceremony, dozens of guests gathered at a residential compound. Those in attendance included friends, fellow activists, and some family members. Kay had two of her sisters there. Prince had two of his brothers as well as an uncle, a pastor who officiated.

The crowd sat on plastic chairs facing the altar. Before the ceremony started, Prince stood at the altar by himself, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, a sky-blue vest, and a matching sky-blue bow tie.

Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” came through the speakers as heads turned to watch Kay make her entrance. She wore more or less the same outfit as Prince, though she had on a necktie instead of a bow tie, and she had fashioned a piece of blue fabric into a train that ran behind her.

“I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want,” Beyoncé could be heard singing as Kay walked down the aisle. Then it was time for the couple to exchange vows. “I told him whether in sickness or not, I would always love him,” Kay said. “Whether he’s rich or poor I would always love him, and regardless of if there is a meal on the table or no meal on the table, I’m going to love him, in the rain, in the sun, I’m always going to love him, and I accept to be his wife till death do us part.”

To which Prince responded: “From the day I saw you, I always knew you were my wife. I don’t think I can stop loving you.… I’m proud of who you are and I’m proud of who I am.”

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