This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (RNS) –When George Freeman joined an International Human Rights Day commemoration in 2012 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he thought he was in safe hands. Freeman, founder of Pride Equality, the country’s leading LGBTQ rights advocacy group at the time, had helped plan the event. Shock set in when he was ordered to leave the procession.
The problem arose when his Pride Equality team unveiled banners advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.
“Human rights for all, no matter your sex, gender, color, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” one banner read. “Promote and protect the human rights of minorities in Sierra Leone,” read another.
Despite most of the banners’ broad themes, other activists barred Pride Equality from marching.
“It was so horrible,” Freeman, who has lived in exile in Spain for the last four years, recounts.
The incident illustrates an ironic reality about human rights campaigners in Sierra Leone. Many cherry-pick which rights they defend and which they ignore on the basis of religion, culture, and tradition, leaving LGBTQ communities vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
Sierra Leone’s laws criminalize male same-sex sexual activity. Section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, an Act of U.K. Parliament inherited from the former colonial government, prescribes life imprisonment for offenders. As a result, Sierra Leone’s government refuses to recognize the country’s thriving LGBTQ community.
According to Hassan Koroma, founder and coordinator of Social Workers Sierra Leone, this calculated silence is meant to legitimize institutionalized discrimination against sexual minorities.
“It becomes easy for officials to ignore their plight even in the face of evidence of discrimination, as we have seen for a long time,” Koroma said.
With a population of 7.3 million, Sierra Leone is 78 percent Muslim and 20.9 percent Christian, according to a 2015 estimate from the Pew Research Center.
Sierra Leone’s religious establishment, taking full advantage of the country’s socially conservative society, represents the strongest voice opposing the LGBTQ community, occasionally organizing protests demanding tougher action against sexual minorities.
Due to the tremendous influence religious leaders wield, the political class has always sided with them, even when they do not share their views.
When in 2011 U.K. leaders threatened to withhold aid from governments that ban homosexuality, Sierra Leone responded with protests, and a local Muslim group vowed to force the government to take tougher action against LGBTQ people.
Official hostility towards LGBTQ people permeates even the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL).
This has forced countless LGBTQ people into hiding. Some, like Freeman, have fled the country out of fear for their safety.
In 2012, before Freeman left Sierra Leone, Pride Equality published the first-ever report cataloging discrimination against LGBTQ people in the country, a copy of which was submitted to the HRCSL.
The report documented the experiences of LGBTQ people in four major cities — Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and Makeni — and documented cases of physical assault, including so-called “corrective rape,” and extortion. Perpetrators included both family members and public officials. Arbitrary arrest and detention made police stations no-go-areas for victims, the report found.
With the help of the United Nations Office of the High Commission for
Human Rights, Pride Equality was included in the Human Rights Working Group, the primary coalition of human rights
organizations in Sierra Leone, chaired by HRCSL. This gave Freeman access to important human rights decision-making platforms, even if the decision makers were reluctant to work with his group.
“When the U.N. officials were attending meetings, they would pretend to be nice,” Freeman said. He recalls one incident in 2011 when the head of the HRCSL at the time, the Rev. Moses Kanu, told him to refrain from his “ungodly act,” referring to his advocacy for LGBTQ people. Freeman said that on another occasion, a spokesperson for the HRCSL, Hendry Sheku, made homophobic comments on a live radio discussion program.
“It was disappointing to have a pastor leading the Human Rights Commission and bringing his Church doctrine into it,” Freeman said.
Freeman and two colleagues narrowly escaped death in 2013 when unknown men attacked his vehicle. They were later flown out of the country and subsequently relocated to Spain. That incident was preceded by a publication Freeman thinks might have prompted the attack.
Several days prior, local newspaper The Exclusive published an article extracted from an international magazine in which Freeman told his story. The front-page headline read “I was born gay,” and carried his photo. Freeman began receiving homophobic text messages and calls immediately.
Freeman says he is still bitter with both the Sierra Leone Police and the Human Rights Commission for refusing to respond to threats against him.
Amid violence and discrimination, many LGBTQ people in Sierra Leone “live in the closet,” facing life-threatening infections and physical harm in relative isolation without adequate social and institutional support.
With Pride Equality no longer operating in Sierra Leone following Freeman’s departure, another LGBTQ human rights group has forged its own ties with the Human Rights Commission.
Dignity Association was initially founded in 2002 as the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association (SLGA) under the leadership of the country’s best-known LGBTQ rights activist FannyAnn Eddy. Eddy was murdered at her office in Freetown in 2004. Her case, like most others related to LGBTQ rights violations and crimes in the country, went unresolved.
Eddy’s death and the impunity that followed prompted her successor Hudson Tucker to take a more indirect public health approach to LGBTQ equality, advocating first and foremost for better access to services like healthcare. He also changed the group’s name to deflect public scrutiny.
“LGBTQ issues are frowned upon a lot in this country, so we had to find an entry point to get to the system, and the public health approach was one that nobody could be able to deny,” Tucker said. He blames his fellow human rights campaigners who mix religion with their work for ignoring or opposing the LGBTQ community.
“This is not about sex or getting married. It is about people living in a country, whose lives have been trampled upon for decades upon decades,” Tucker said.
Through a strategic partnership with the Human Rights Defenders Network of Sierra Leone (HRDNSL), Dignity Association has opened a dialogue platform to engage human rights defenders who are reluctant to discuss LGBTQ issues.
The groups are now holding trainings designed to change perceptions towards LGBTQ people and rights violations against them.
Alphonsus Gbanie, HRDNSL’s executive secretary, has noticed three main interpretations of rights for LGBTQ people within the Network’s ranks: those against, those in favor, and those in the middle. He says the dialogue platform’s strategy has been to get everyone speaking in one voice because differences in opinion are dangerous for LGBTQ people.
“What we are doing is to change their perception, that these people have the rights to protection, access to healthcare, etc.,” Gbanie said. “We are not promoting LGBTQ, we are protecting them.”
Gbanie, a former missionary student with a degree in theology, is a vocal rights defender for LGBTQ people. He says this background helps him handle constant taunting from hostile religious colleagues and the larger public.
“I always argue that if we are willing to tolerate each other as followers of the various faiths we have in this country, why can’t we accept others for what they are? Human rights are not divisible. No one is better than the other,” he said.
United Nations Resolution 17/19, passed in 2011, cautions states against systemic violence and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, adopted in 2014, also calls for prevention of violence and other human rights violation against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Sierra Leone is a party to both international human rights instruments, yet LGBTQ people still face discrimination with impunity.
While acknowledging these legally binding resolutions and statements, Ishmael Bayoh, public information officer for Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission, says the country’s laws, which prohibits same-sex sexual activity, supersede all else.
He adds, however, that the Commission has repeatedly called for fair treatment of gender and sexual minorities regardless of these laws.
“We have been noting the growing hostile comments on this issue in the media and by religious communities that have the tendency to incite discrimination and violence against persons with different sexual orientation,” he said.
Gbanie of HRDNSL is hopeful for a breakthrough in the near future. He likens the fight against discrimination of LGBTQ people to efforts to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) and says the world should take lessons from that struggle. Until the early 1990s, no one could openly talk about FGM, but now everyone does, he said.
“It can’t happen overnight…There is a need for constant education and sensitization, especially among rights defenders,” Gbanie said.
Kemo Cham is a journalist based in Sierra Leone.