Liberian anger over gay rights call

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Archie Ponpon
Image caption,
Archie Ponpon says he has faced a difficult time since founding Modegal

The creation of a group to campaign for gay rights in Liberia has led to a fierce backlash - a house rented by a mother of a campaigner has been burnt down and even the president - last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner - has waded in to say she will never support laws recognising homosexual rights.

Archie Ponpon and Abraham Kamara set up the Movement for the Defence of Gays and Lesbians in Liberia (Modegal) in January to defend the rights of homosexuals in Liberia which, like many countries across Africa, is socially conservative and outlaws homosexual acts.

The move became the talk of the town, dominating discussions on radio talk shows, street corner teashops and university campuses in the capital, Monrovia, especially their call for same-sex marriages to be recognised.

Leading Pentecostal leaders and other religious figures came out in condemnation of any attempts to liberalise anti-gay laws.

Even a priest officiating at a marriage at St Anthony's Catholic Church in the Gardnersville township of Monrovia commented on the debate.

"Man-to-man marriage will not hold," he said during the wedding service last month.

The congregation went wild in applause as he went on to refer to "the nonsense that we keep hearing on the radios".

And in a reference to overseas aid, which some Western leaders have linked to recognising gay rights, he added: "They can take their money; we will live; we have vast natural resources."

The two Modegal campaigners have been mobbed at least twice, causing them to seek safety at one point at the police headquarters.

When they attempted to hold a talk on gay rights at the campus of the University of Liberia a few weeks ago, they were chased away by angry students.

"They are silly," a sociology student said.

"Is it everything that is good for the West is good for us here? Nonsense," she shouted.

'In hiding'

Last month, the home of Mr Ponpon's mother was set alight - during the height of their campaign.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was one of three people to win last year's Nobel Peace Prize

He suspects it was an arson attack by people who do not support his stance.

"Since this incident, my mother has been in hiding," he says.

When the two activists tried to get their organisation officially registered by the government, Mr Ponpon says their "article of incorporation was denied".

"We wrote to the president complaining, but she has not responded," he says.

Such were the tensions over the topic that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated for a second six-year term in January, came out to assure people that she would never sign a bill granting same-sex marriages or gay rights.

"The president is clear on this matter - she will not sign such a bill," Norris Tweh, a Liberian government spokesman, told the BBC.

Then the former first lady, Jewel Taylor, whose husband Charles Taylor is on trial for war crimes at an UN-backed court sitting in The Hague, entered the fray.

Now a senator for the opposition, she has launched a bid to toughen anti-gay laws.

Homosexual acts at the moment are punishable by one year in jail under the country's sodomy laws; she is proposing making it a felony for same-sex couples to be in a relationship, which would carry a 10-year sentence.

"Some media are reporting that I said anyone found guilty of involvement in same sex should face the death penalty, I did not say so, I am calling for a law that will make it a first degree felony," she told the BBC.

"We are only strengthening the existing law," she said.

'Daughter expelled'

A Senate Judicial Committee has been scrutinising her bill, after which parliamentarians are expected to consider it.

However, some say the bill may never make it onto the statute book, as it has been with the committee for more than three weeks - a long time by Liberian standards.

Senator Abel Massaley says it may not go further as there are already "laws on the book against same-sex relationships, it is a deviant act".

Amid the controversy, a book about a gay Liberian man who died of Aids in the US at the age of 32 has become a bestseller in Monrovia, with all 150 copies delivered to the city selling out.

The memoir, Konkai: Living Between Two Worlds, by his sister Mardia Stone, reveals how his family dealt with his sexual orientation and illness.

"Some of us are still uncomfortable with Aids and our brother's homosexuality, even now, almost two decade after his death," Ms Stone told the BBC

The stigma he felt is something Modegal wants to fight against.

"What we are simply saying is that those who want to practice same-sex relationship should not be molested," Mr Ponpon says.

He admits the last few months have "not been easy".

He is worried about his mother and says even his church, the Abundance Life Ministries, situated in Liberia's largest residential slum of West Point in Monrovia "has asked me to stay away".

For Mr Kamara's family it has also been a difficult time - he says his daughter has been expelled from school "because she bears my last name".

But showing me around the debris of the seaside house where his mother once lived, Mr Ponpon said they would not give up.

"We will not relent; people will come to the realisation that in this day and age, individuals should be free to practice what they wish," he said.

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