Being a lesbian or gay man is a non-issue. Being harmed because of who we are, is a huge issue,” Lorna Dias, Executive Coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, said more than six years ago.
Dias’ lamentation, which was provoked by the unceasing attacks, harassment, and intimidation members of her community endured daily, is not unique to that East African Country.
Here in Liberia hostility towards members of the Lesbian and Gay Community in Liberia (LGBTQ) continues to persist and the situation has been exacerbated further since the outbreak of COVID-19 and its underlying restrictions. Jennifer Kuwa Henshaw, Executive Director for LEGAL, an advocacy organization that works with minority groups, says the LGBTQ community continues to struggle for equality in a country that largely views them as the antithesis to their culture.
While everyone is dealing with COVID-19 challenges, Ms. Henshaw says there are several ways in which gays and lesbians are being disproportionately affected by this global pandemic—critical among these being the increase in violence against members.
“Members of the gay community have endured a series of violent acts since the outbreak of COVID. Though attacks on them have been a perennial problem, we have seen a surge since the pandemic,” she tells the Daily Observer. “They are being abused and attacked by community dwellers. Some have left their homes and are staying with friends elsewhere due to the constant harassment and intimidation.”
Henshaw makes references to particular cases in West Point and Red Light, where residents violated some of her colleagues after breaking into the homes.
“Community dwellers broke into their homes, beat them up, and took away their belongings,” she says.
Members told the Daily Observer that they continue to be harassed and discriminated against due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. While some have experienced slurs or offensive comments, others say they or an LGBTQ friend or family member have been threatened, sexually harassed, or experienced violence.
For Lionel, not his real name, his issue is how pervasive experiences of violence and harassment by members of the gay community are. Serena Senna, not her real name, says she and a colleague were beaten in the Red-Light area by residents, the majority of whom were young men when the colleague came to spend some time with her during the lockdown period when the virus was raging.
“We were sitting in front of our apartment during the late evening hours when they came yelling and shoving us while asking about what we were doing together at such a time. They said we should have been with our boyfriends rather than being together,” Senna narrates.
It took a few courageous men to rescue her and her colleague from the hands of their attackers. But that was after they had sustained some minor wounds.
“We have been through a lot. People do not want to see us. You have to be ready every time to be greeted with offensive comments about your sexual choice,” she says.
Like Senna, Evelyn (also not her real name), has been violated on several occasions due to her sexuality. She has encountered many acts of attacks in marketplaces and the streets because of her appearance and her love for the masculine dress code.
“They are always attacking me in the streets because they say I look and act like a man. I can dress like a man. I feel embarrassed most of the time,” Evelyn, who lives in the Sinkor area, tells the Observer. “I have moved twice since the outbreak and this is because of the high level of intimidation. I was living in Jacob Town before moving to the Police Academy community. But I had to move on this side again because of the constant harassment.”
Evelyn says she avoids public places because of the constant stares and harassment. “I hardly go out because of that,” she says.
These constant attacks are having some form of psychological trauma on the victims, Henshaw says. She discloses that some victims have been pleading with her organization to have them relocated to avoid the unexpected.
“We spoke with another organization to help us in the process of relocating them, but they are yet to get back to us to date,” she says.
To ensure the safety and protection of members of the LGBTQ community, LEGAL has trained police officers across the country to respond to cases of violence. But despite the level of advocacy and engagements that the institute has had with some stakeholders to ensure the safety of members, Henshaw fears that cases of violence against members of the LGBTQ community continue to rise.
She cites the case of one Cheeseman Cole who was allegedly kidnapped and killed a few months ago.
It is no secret that Liberians are not receptive to homosexual or non-heterosexual behaviors. The vast majority of the population believes homosexuality to be an unnatural and foreign concept. However, no reliable statistics exist for the population of the LGBT community in Liberia, mainly because the social stigma associated with their sexual identities makes them unwilling to identify themselves on public records.
Liberian law also criminalizes consensual same-sex activities. 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.
These bottlenecks continue to fuel widespread discrimination against the Liberian gay community. Cynthia Gonleh, the Executive Director of the Liberia Women Empowerment Network, told Bush Chicken, an online news platform, in an interview a few years ago that life is difficult for members of the LGBTQ community partly because Liberians hold a lot of misconceptions about them.
Gonleh said she once heard a rumor that gay people are incapable of producing children. Another time, she heard women complaining that supermarkets were out of tampons because the gays were now using them too. Or that because of anal prolapse they supposedly encounter from having sex, they cannot sit in chairs regularly and have to tilt their buttocks because of the pain.
“These misconceptions and other prejudices cause members of the LGBT community to face difficulties when performing even the most mundane of tasks,” she said.
As members of the gay communities across Africa, Liberian gays thought progress was being made on their behalf when former Secretary of State of the United States, Hilary Clinton, in 2012 announced that “gay rights are human rights” and that aid to African countries would be tied to how those countries treat sexual minorities.
“Being gay does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Mrs. Clinton said.
But much is yet to be done on the home front to guarantee the rights of the LGBTQ community since those pronouncements were made. President Sirleaf immediately nullified Clinton’s campaign when she, in an interview with the UK-based Guardian Newspaper defended the current law which criminalizes homosexuality.
While serving as Senator for Bong County, current vice president, Jewel Howard Taylor, introduced a bill to make homosexuality a first-degree felony—the bill did not pass.
Exacerbated existing challenges
It is clear that COVID-19 is a great threat to the gay community, given the documented high prevalence of conditions among them, such as HIV and cancer, which are risks of more severe COVID-19 disease and higher mortality. Many of the community members were gravely affected by the lockdown and the prolonged period of social distancing.
These periods potentially exacerbated underlying mental health issues such as substance use and others, says Annie, an influential leader in the community. She notes that members experienced higher rates of social isolation than other groups, and are presumed further isolated during the lockdown period as well as months of prescribed physical distancing.
They are not being counted in the tallies of COVID cases and mortality. Historically, the group has been affected disproportionately by lack of income, lack of health insurance, unemployment, and poorer mental and physical health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made those challenges worse.
“The Economic effects of the pandemic have been enormous on LGBTQ people, so it’s not just a viral reality,” Annie says. “It’s a social reality. It’s an economic reality. It’s a psychological reality.”
Henshaw stresses that access to food has been a major issue for their members since the outbreak.
“We have been able to help a few of them, thanks to our partners who assisted us with some funding.”
Distributions were done in Montserrado, Margibi, Grand Bassa, and River Cess Counties. She says it was also challenging to access healthcare service during the lockdown, especially meeting up with appointments. While the media has been highlighting the plights of other minorities amid the pandemic, there has been less coverage of the LGBTQ population, authorities of the community say.
“We know these disparities exist. We know they’re out there, but I’m not reading about it,” says Annie. “There’s an old saying, ‘If you don’t count us, we don’t count.’ So it’s kind of the same thing: if journalists aren’t writing about us, it’s almost like we do not exist."