Liberia: Trans Woman, Gay Man Battle Family Neglect and Violence

Reporter speaking with Renelle

.... “Some of my siblings grew angry about my sexuality and decided to throw me out of the house immediately after my mother passed away,” says Renelle, who is currently seeking refuge at a friend’s home in Monrovia.

Throughout her stay in her parents’ house in Kakata, Margibi County, Renelle Bartee, 23, endured excruciating circumstances due to her gender identity. 

Renelle, a trans woman whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she often bore the brunt of scorn and abuse from her family members. 

“Some of my siblings grew angry about my sexuality and decided to throw me out of the house immediately after my mother passed away,” says Renelle, who is currently seeking refuge at a friend’s home in Monrovia.

“They say I am a man who behaves like a complete woman. My siblings even accused me of being the cause of our mother’s death. They said it was due to my attitude of acting like a woman that worried my mother and caused her to die.”

Her mother’s death, she reveals, further exacerbated her woes, as family members became determined to punish her. Following her mother’s burial, she was summoned to a meeting that involved the Liberia National Police, traditional leaders, and other family members to inquire about the reason behind her sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“They took me to the traditional bush to punish me, but I managed to escape,” she narrated. 

“Since then, my brothers, my father, and his family said I should never return home, otherwise they will kill me. Currently, I am staying on the street and sometimes sleeping with my play mom [an elderly female considered as a mother figure] whose husband is putting fire on her back to stop me from coming over to their house.”

The experiences at the hands of her family, she said, have caused her to be depressed. “Since I was forced to leave my parents’ house, sometimes I can just sit and be talking by myself. I can’t go back to Kakata easily because my family keeps threatening me. I fear for my life and I see myself living like an outcast. All these [things] keep playing on my mind and draining me deeply.”

LGBTQI+ persons in Liberia continue 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 May of this year, Dominic Bropleh (name changed to protect his identity) accused FHI360 of outing his health status when the organization plastered his face on flyers across the country as an HIV+ individual.

In May 2021, members of a community watch team allegedly beat three men whom they suspected of being gay 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 November 2019, partygoers were stoned and beaten while attending an event hosted at a drop-in center run by Population Services International (PSI), over suspicions that they were attending a gay event. Similarly, in September 2018, invitees at another PSI event in Sinkor were attacked and severely brutalized. 

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. 

However, identifying as being gay is not illegal in Liberia. But it could spur violent attacks against any person who does so. In May 2020, fashion model Tarus Cole fled the country after facing serious backlash, in response to remarks he made during an online video, in which he stated that ‘99% of Liberian men are gay’.

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.  

“[B]eing 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, however, when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in an interview with the Guardian, defended the current law that 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.

Sadly, Renelle’s ordeal is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what Liberia’s LGBT community experiences regularly. 

Albert Jones, 29, is a resident of the suburbs of Monrovia. In the days following the October 11th presidential and legislative elections, he says he was attacked by community dwellers over his sexuality. 

A wound on Albert Jones resulting from an attack by community dwellers

“Some boys in my community normally throw words in my face saying I am gay, and I used to ignore them,” said Jones, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

“To my surprise, there came a day in October-–I think it was October 15—after the election when my friends came to visit and the boys in the community started [harassing us]. Immediately when my friends responded, the boys began to throw rocks at us in the house. A few friends and I got hurt in the process.”

He said the interaction placed him at odds with his family, who has always been suspicious of his sexual orientation. 

“After the incident, my family got to know that I am gay, and they immediately forced me out of their house saying that they can never allow me to live my gay life in their house and they don’t want their house to be burned by community boys.”

Facing a bleak outlook, Jones says he has nowhere to turn in a nation that is yet to come to terms with the fact that sexuality is innate. 

“For now, the situation I am going through is like life and death because many nights when I go to bed, I hardly sleep. Sometimes I think of killing myself to avoid all the stigma, discrimination, intense hate, and rejection I am experiencing now. I cry every night praying to be straight like others. If only my family can understand who I am, I will be happy in this life. I am pleading with anyone to help me talk to my family on my behalf. The bond I have for them is very strong and them rejecting me is causing serious depression for me.”

Lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth have greater vulnerability to a wide range of health, mental health, and social problems such as eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, school difficulties, forced sex, homelessness, violence, and suicide, according to a report from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“[B]eing a young person who is a sexual minority can still be difficult in a society largely oriented towards heterosexuality,” the report stated. “Sexual minority youth can experience difficulties in multiple contexts. In families, for example, some LGBTQ youth have described their relationships with parents as distant or strained due to their sexual orientation, fear of victimization from family members, and a lack of acceptance from socially conservative parents.”

In Liberia, as in other places across the continent, many families are not welcoming to their gender non-conforming queer relatives. This often leaves them at the mercy of a homophobic society emboldened by laws that frown on homosexuality. 

John Kotomo (name changed to protect his identity), 34, says he has a brother who identifies as gay. Kotomo admitted to inflicting bodily harm on him to coerce his younger sibling to alter his sexual preference.  

“My whole life,” he says, “I have hated people who are engaged in such but never thought someone very close to me could be doing that. When we first got to know that he is gay, we all got angry and thought he was possessed with an evil spirit.”

“My parents are religious people and they will never harbor a gay child in their house once the person refuses to change. My brother refused to change his gay behaviors so our parents had no option but to force him out of the house because he was spoiling our family name and it was bringing shame and embarrassment to our family.”

While Kotomo’s story – of a family shunning their own son, due to his sexual orientation – may not be uncommon in Liberia, not all families feel the same way. As another mother, aged 46, explains, she has come to terms with and accepted her son identifying as a trans woman. 

“[At first,] I thought he was being influenced by some friends, so I stopped him from going out and seized his phone,” said Florence (which is not her real name). “I didn’t tell his father because I was afraid he might be beaten up, and my husband could put him out. So, I kept it to myself and began to advise him to desist from such behaviors. I used to cry and pray every night to change him.”

Florence said: “I didn’t neglect or violate my son due to him being gay. Besides, I didn’t tell anyone my son is gay because I feared he might be treated differently by some family members. My husband is very harsh and he hates such things so I never told him. Initially, my husband used to beat our son for acting like a girl. When I got to know my son is gay, I decided not to tell my husband because he will treat the boy so badly from the rest of our children.”

Despite the country being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – both of which protect the human rights of all persons, without discrimination – much remains to be seen on the protection of those rights as enshrined. 

Minister of Justice, Frank Musah Dean, during the launch of the UN SOGIE report in December 2020, said the Government of President George Weah placed a premium on the respect and protection of human rights as the country’s constitution guarantees protection for the rights of all. 

However, the government is yet to prosecute Cheeseman Cole, an ex-soldier who reportedly brutalized 27 men for being gay, and who has been linked to the disappearance of Dominic Renner and Winston Toe in 2020. 

According to the Liberia Equality Network (LEN), a civil society and human rights organization, legal frameworks to protect the LGBTQ+ community in Liberia have evolved (albeit rather slowly), but there are still gaps in comprehensive protection. 

“Discrimination and harassment continue,” explained a LEN spokesperson, “and many LGBTQ+ people don't have the same legal rights as heterosexual individuals, which needs to change.”

The LEN spokesperson said education and awareness can play a key role in preventing the violence and neglect that have befallen Renelle Bartee and Albert Jones. 

“By promoting understanding and tolerance through schools, media, and community programs, we can reduce prejudice and create a more accepting society. It's essential to engage in open conversations and challenge stereotypes to foster a more inclusive environment.”

Until the day that such an environment can be achieved, however, many LGBT individuals will continue to face severe stigma and discrimination, not just from their communities, but also from within their own families – as the stories of Renelle Bartee and Albert Jones have shown. 

For Renelle and Albert, the immediate future appears full of challenges. They say that, for now, their hopes hinge on receiving a Rapid Response Fund for emergency purposes from LIPRIDE. 

“I reached out to a friend who linked me to one human rights advocate from LEGAL, who then helped me to apply for LIPRIDE’s emergency fund,” said Renelle. “Since then, I am still looking up to them to see how they can help me in any way to address my current situation.”

This story was produced with support from the USAID Media Activity and Internews in collaboration with journalRAGE. 

Editor’s note: The author’s name has been changed to protect his identity.