Liberia: Gay Man Accuses FHI360 of Outing HIV+ Status

... “They put the flyers out without letting me see the message. They told the whole of Liberia I have HIV. When I saw it, I called Cytirus [Cytirus Kerbay] from FHI to let her know that I was not ok with the message because it was going to put me in trouble with my family. She said she was going to get back to me because she was out of town. But she never did so," said Bropleh.

When Dominic Bropleh (name changed to protect his identity), voluntarily signed off on a consent form in September 2022 for his picture to be used by FHI 360 to do awareness on preventive messages on HIV/AIDS, he said he had no idea the global organization would be sloppy to land him in a precarious situation. 

Bropleh, 32, a contractor of LEGAL Association who identifies as gay, has accused FHI360 of deliberately outing his health status as a person living with HIV—a situation that has placed him at odds with the community he resides in as well as his family.

“Last year in September, they said they wanted to use my picture on the SBCC [Social Behavioral Change Campaign] campaign,” said Bropleh. “I signed the consent form and went to the studio on Sekou Toure Avenue to take the photo. After that, they said they were going to get back to me on the message to make sure I am ok with it.”

He said the organization gave him US$10 as transportation fare since it was a voluntary one.  journalRAGE has not been able to obtain a copy of the consent form. 

Speaking to journalRAGE via mobile, he mentioned that the organization did not get back to him to agree on the messaging, thereby landing him in hot water. 

“They put the flyers out without letting me see the message. They told the whole of Liberia I have HIV. When I saw it, I called Cytirus [Cytirus Kerbay] from FHI to let her know that I was not ok with the message because it was going to put me in trouble with my family. She said she was going to get back to me because she was out of town. But she never did so.”

Cytirus Kerbay is Technical Advisor at FHI360.  A week following his call with FHI360's Technical Advisor, Bropleh said he brought up the issue with the project coordinator at LEGAL to intervene as the human rights organization is one of the implementing partners for FHI under the United States Government’s PEPFAR initiative. 

Bropleh is seen in the flyer hugging another female also presumed to be HIV+ with inscription printed above his head: "I AM ON TREATMENT, AND I TAKE MY MEDICATION ON EVERYDAY AND ON TIME. 10 YEARS NOW I AM HEALTHY AND ON TIME."

“I took it up to Joe, LEGAL's project coordinator. He said he was going to get to FHI and get back to me, but I did not hear from him.”

The situation, he said, began to get worrisome, making him reach out to other organizations working on human rights and HIV/AIDS issues in the Liberia. 

“I contacted SAIL (Stop Aids in Liberia), LibNet+, and LIPRIDE and they said they were going to contact FHI and get back to me on the issue, but they never did. It seems like everybody was just ignoring me,” he said tearily. 

“My family was already having problems with me being gay - my brother poisoned me once upon a time. I was afraid that they were going to see it and put me out of the house.”

A month later, Bropleh’s worst nightmare became a reality. 

“My cousin saw the photo at the Clara Town clinic, snapped it, and showed it to my family members. They asked me to leave the family's house - they said I got the virus because I refused to move my hands in the gay business.”

Much to his chagrin, he said FHI360 further distributed the flyers across Montserrado during the 2022 celebration of World Aids Day on December 1.

“When I went to the World AIDS Day parade, I could feel some people looking at me differently. Why did they have to do this to me? Is it because I am gay? I saw Cytirus when she got back from out of town, and she was always acting busy and in a rush so I couldn’t talk to her.”

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 and abuse against the LGBT community. 

In 2018, a newspaper in Liberia erroneously blamed the LGBT community for being the driving force behind the spread of HIV in the country. In 2014, another newspaper misrepresented the facts from a health survey report, claiming that gays were topping the charts in HIV contraction. 

In May 2021, members of a community watch team allegedly beat three men on suspicion they were gays in the Gobachop community of Paynesville. According to two of the survivors, the community watch members threatened the three men and assaulted them, rendering one of the men 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. FHI360 is a global organization that has a presence spread in 60 countries across the world with a reported revenue totaling over US$800 million

In Liberia, the organization implements the U.S. President’s Emergency Plans for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

FHI’s activities and work plans in Liberia are supervised and approved by USAID, according to sources. The aid agency is noted for having strict policies on privacy, confidentiality, and stigmatization. 

USAID-Liberia could not be reached for comment. In a 2011 blog post published on the agency’s website, Robert Clay, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator, then Director of the Office of HIV/AIDS stated, “Stigma and discrimination based on HIV status are wrong, and the U.S. government does not condone stigmatization or discrimination of HIV-positive persons.”

“USAID takes stigma and discrimination seriously, and we work with our partner countries to make sure the effect of this type of thinking is understood.”

Stop Aids in Liberia (SAIL) and Liberia Network of People Living with and Affected by HIV (LibNet+), implementing partners for FHI, did not respond to journalRAGE’s email for comments. 

The Coordinator of the Liberia Initiative for the Promotion of Rights Pride and Diversity (LIPRIDE), when contacted, acknowledged being abreast of the matter.

“[Bropleh] reached out to me and as the Coordinator of LIPRIDE, I decided to inquire from FHI-360,” stated Maxwell Monboe, Coordinator of LiPRIDE in an emailed statement to journalRAGE. “When I did, I found out that there was a conversation and even a consent form signed between [Bropleh] and Fhi-360 about what the photo was going to be used for. I asked him and he confirmed that indeed he signed a consent form with fhi-360.”

FHI Investigates

 FHI, when contacted, in an email to journalRAGE from its headquarters in Washington DC, USA stated that they are concerned over Bropleh’s claims and have launched an internal investigation into the matter. 

“Our procedures require that people who are photographed for our projects understand how their images may be used when they agree to participate,” the organization stated. 

Pressed by journalRAGE over the procedures employed by its Liberian office on the usage of Bropleh’s photo that is causing discomfort, the organization did not reply. 

Health Ministry Distances Itself from Flyer

The Ministry of Health, the statutory body responsible for the approval of health-related awareness for public consumption, says the flyer done by FHI for its Social and Behavioral Change Campaign did not meet its approval. 

“The flyer in question does not meet the approval of the National Health Promotion Division,” stated Chester Smith, Director of Health Promotion at the Ministry of Health. “More so, FHI360 and our Division have not partnered within the last six months of any message development for HIV/AIDS messages among key population figures."

Said Smith: “Furthermore, each message produced or printed with the approval of the National Health Promotion Division carries the Health Life logo which was approved in 2015 by the Ministry of Health and its partners. Additionally, messages approved by the MoH address prevention, services, treatment, and behavioral change.”

Smith said he believes the flyer was a violation of Bropleh’s rights to privacy. 

Sections 18.23, 18.24, 18.25, and 18.26 of the amended Public Health Law of the revised Liberia Code of Laws call for a fine of L$10,000, revocation or suspension of license or operating permit of license for individuals or organizations violating the confidentiality of persons or individuals living with HIV. 

But an FHI spokesperson, rebutting Smith’s claims, said the organization “worked with the Ministry of Health, National Health Promotion Division, and the National AIDS Control Program to have these materials developed and approved as of May 2022.”

Said FHI: “The flyer bears the Healthy Life logo in the top right corner. Participants in the materials creation workshop contributed to decisions about how their images would be used before agreeing to participate.”

Cont’d FHI: “Through our procedures, we strive to ensure the people we are photographing understand how their photos and stories will be used and where they will be disseminated. When someone who has given us their consent changes their mind, we do not use their photo or, if it is already in the public domain, we do what we can to address that. We sincerely regret that we did not act more quickly to do so in this case.

“We are in the process of investigating the circumstances of this particular case, so at this time cannot share more information. What I can tell you is that we have asked our local partner to stop distributing the fliers with Mr.[Bropleh’s] image.”

Smith could not be reached for a response to FHI’s claims as his phones were switched off.

LEGAL Acknowledges 

Joe Wellington Thomas, project coordinator of LEGAL confirmed in an email to journalRAGE that Bropleh raised the matter with him to seek redress at FHI.

“Yes we engaged FHI on it, and in their Regular Coordination meetings but emphasis was placed on the fact that all volunteers signed the consent forms and knew that the photos we were taking was going to be published but reviewing of the messages On those pictures was not done by volunteers that took the picture or the EDs of the various Organizations. 

He revealed that LEGAL engaged FHI's Technical Advisor, Cytirus Kerbay, on the matter, and "she is yet to get back with feedback on [Bropleh's] case."

As missteps unravel, Dominic believes he would not be in this situation had he been consulted to give a nod of approval on the wrong messaging that outed his health status that he has kept private well over a decade. 

"They have made me depressed--my family put me out. I have to now be stopping with friends. Sometimes I feel like killing myself so it can go away." 

This article was funded in part through a grant from the US State Department. The funder has no say in its content.